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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Any knucklehead can wind up on a bobblehead

May 11, 2012|CHRIS ERSKINE
  • Accurate sculpting of the head and face of a bobblehead is just as difficult as it might seem.
Accurate sculpting of the head and face of a bobblehead is just as difficult… (bobbleheads.com )

Think of bobblehead dolls as a sub-species of the American fan, smaller but more likable and in the long run, probably worth far more.

Like most items these days, they are made in bulk in China, but there is a burgeoning collection of companies that produce personalized dolls as well -- for Father's Day, coaching gifts, graduations and, in extreme cases, to mock the idiot in the next cubicle.

At about $100, these custom-made versions are not cheap, and they require a bit of lead time -- about a month. Point is, anybody can get bobbled these days. It is the 21st century's equivalent to your 15 minutes of fame.

"We did one of a naked guy holding a lobster," says Darby Rosenfeld of Whoopass Enterprises, one of the firms that produces individual bobbleheads. "It's the best because, first of all, it's a naked guy with a lobster. And second, because it was made from an actual photo of a naked guy with a lobster.

"Someone once called from under his desk after just being fired," she says, in recalling oddball orders. "And he ordered an unflattering bobblehead of a co-worker to be mailed anonymously.

"Most people who order bobbleheads are funny people. A guy in San Francisco had 200 bobbleheads made of himself, and gave them to friends and clients."

That guy was Taz Shirota, and if you're surprised that a fitness trainer named Taz would be a little quirky and self-indulgent, wait till you talk with him

"When I opened up the box, it was just the most bizarre thing, dude," Taz says. "To take a 2-D picture and turn it into this 3-D figure? Just amazing."

That's exactly how they do it, dude. You send in a photo, and the company sends proofs of your doll in various stages of production. In the case of Whoopass, it has an artist studio based in Chicago, but as with most companies, production is based overseas.

Though bobbleheads first found major traction about 10 years ago, a company called Bobbleheads.com has traced the collectibles back at least 150 years. In fact, the earliest known reference to similar toys is from the 1842 short story "The Overcoat," by Nikolai Gogol.

"I have two bobblehead dolls in my personal collection that are over 100 years old," says Warren Royal, president of Bobbleheads.com.

But it wasn't till the days of Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente that bobbleheads became a pop culture phenomenon, when models of the two stars were distributed during the Yankee-Pirates 1960 World Series.

"We started selling the smaller version of the bobblehead dolls in the early 1960s," says Dodgers historian Mark Langill. "The material was something like papier mache and plaster, so those early models are hard to find in mint condition."

By the 1970s, the dolls were ceramic -- a Beatles version from that era is one of the priciest collectibles -- and by the 1990s, they were being molded out of plastic.

"The modern craze began around 1999 when the Giants produced a bobblehead honoring Willie Mays," Langill says.

Today, the dolls are produced by first sculpting a figure out of clay, which is then baked. From that, a silicone mold is made, and a liquid poly resin poured inside. They are then painted -- again using a photo to get the colors correct.

"The more you make, the cheaper they are to order," explains Royal, whose company is one of about half a dozen domestic firms that produce the dolls. "Most of the work is in the sculpting."

On a broader scale, the Dodgers started the current stretch of giveaways April 4, 2001, of Tom Lasorda, naturally.

Since then, there have been some 40 other team giveaways -- Lasorda and Manny Ramirez twice.

The next one is Tuesday, with Orel Hershiser on the mound/pedestal. The Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield follows May 29. Beyond those, there are seven other doll giveaways this year, ending with a Vin Scully doll Aug. 30.

It's a growing phenomenon. In 2001, the Dodgers staged three giveaways; last year there were six; this year, there will be 10. On bobblehead nights, attendance jumps to an average of 51,100, the Dodgers' Yvonne Carrasco says.

Worst rendering? My vote goes to the Jonathan Broxton doll, which looks more like Ryan Seacrest than the beefy former Dodger. The Drysdale-Wills release in April also gets low marks from fans for being half the size of the others. The most unexpected Dodgers bobble? Probably Fred McGriff (2003).

Meanwhile, bobbleheads are also now popular for wedding cakes, though Rosenfeld says her company's experiences have been rather ill-fated.

Case in point: The happy couple she crafted for Tiger Woods' cake. As with all bobbles, his head shook when you clunked it.

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chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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