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History on a Small Scale : Dolls of famous people prove to be popular figures when their Tujunga creator puts them on exhibit.

February 26, 1993|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster is a regular contributor to The Times.

Scores of dolls decked in elaborate dress stare out from plastic cases in Adell Woodworth's cramped one-bedroom Tujunga home.

They appear wooden and rather vapid, like most dolls. But backed by their 73-year-old creator, these dolls regularly go on tour, sparking the imaginations of residents at area convalescent homes.

Woodworth began making her menagerie of 108 dolls, each representing a historic figure, 12 years ago.

With no formal art experience, Woodworth launched into the Renaissance period, turning out King Henry VIII's court, complete with his six wives and Cardinal Wolsey dressed in historically accurate costumes. Later came nine composers, including Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt, and eight figures from Howard Chandler's painting of the signing of the U. S. Constitution.

But Woodworth's labor goes far beyond that of a mere doll factory. She can rattle off complete histories of all her characters, a talent that is a hit at the retirement homes she visits twice each week.

Although her pronunciation of historical names is sometimes skewed and tales about King Wenceslas and Queen Sophia are apt to blend into the unabridged history of Martin Luther, her audiences find her charming.

"She's a steady here," said Pamela Small, activities director of Twelve Oaks Lodge in La Crescenta. "I have so much admiration for her beautiful work. She really makes the dolls' histories come alive."

Woodworth also gives her free lectures at the Country Manor Convalescent hospital in Lake View Terrace, Oakview and Care West in Tujunga and Prell Gardens in Van Nuys, among other homes.

Woodworth, who has won numerous blue ribbons at the Los Angeles County Fair for her work, spends 10 hours a week on it. She spreads out her materials across a roll-top desk that doubles as a dining room table and reading stand. Each doll, which begins as a headless Ken or Barbie figure, takes about six weeks to complete. She sculpts new heads from clay or does some quick plastic surgery on the original heads to copy the characters.

Packed with doll-making supplies, Woodworth's tiny wood-paneled rooms are difficult for more than one person to navigate. Meticulous files of each doll's history are kept in one cabinet, flanked by scores of pull-out drawers packed with rhinestones, beads, feathers, lace and glitter.

Snips of history are culled from magazines, historical society publications and from a 1935 encyclopedia the doll-maker purchased for $2. Woodworth's improvised history lessons are peppered with humor, sometimes unintentionally.

"King Henry VIII married his brother's wife, after his brother died, of course," she said, tugging on her snug gray wool skirt. "That was Catherine of Oregon (Aragon). Catherine of Oregon gave birth to, shall I tell you bluntly? Bloody Mary (Mary Tudor).

"Then after 20 years, he suddenly decided he shouldn't be married. Mind you, I couldn't believe this myself, so I had to read it three times."

Woodworth said she is not shy about making mistakes during her talks. "I always tell everyone that if they know more than I do, to just speak up," she said. "I also like to talk about religious liberty. I say that everyone should tolerate everyone else's religion or lack of religion. I demonstrate this by showing them all kinds of dolls--Catholic ones, Protestant ones, Jewish ones--they're all here.

"And over here is my all-purpose Pope. He can double for any Pope I need for a lecture."

Opening a display case, Woodworth brought out King Gustav II of Sweden. She eyed the figure with delight, as if signaling that it held some hidden secret. At first glance, the figure, dressed in black and silver lame and lace, resembled a Ken doll with lots of attitude.

"You can't buy hair this beautiful," said Woodworth, explaining that most doll-supply stores don't stock the mane of blond curls that fell from Gustav's head. "So I scalped a Barbie. I had to, because this is the kind of hair Gustav had. I'm very exact in getting the likeness down.

WHERE TO GO What: Adell Woodworth's historic dolls. Call: (818) 352-4840 for information or to book a lecture, or write P.O. Box 396, Tujunga, 91043.

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