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Blythe doll inventor Allison Katzman, whose creation became a cult collectible, dead at 95

A doll with kaleidoscope eyes, Blythe had slow sales at first but these days can command four-figure prices, is the topic of books and conventions and has celebrity fans.

Allison Katzman with a Blythe doll in a handmade kimono and a Birdie Blue Blythe.
Allison Katzman with a Blythe doll in a handmade kimono and a Birdie Blue Blythe.
Jim Frost / Sun-Times

Allison Katzman designed the Blythe doll to compete with Barbie.

But when her doll rolled out in 1972, Blythe failed to unseat the high princess of plastic and more or less landed on the Island of Misfit Toys.

“She was a good doll,” Mrs. Katzman once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “The world just didn’t know it.”

It does now. Today, her invention has become a cult collectible and the star of Blythe conventions around the world.

Depending on age and rarity, some Blythes command four-figure prices. The doll is the subject of books. Celebrity fans include actress Emma Roberts.

Allison Katzman with two of her Blythe dolls.
Allison Katzman with two of her Blythe dolls.
Provided

A cottage industry of Blythe customizers has sprung up. They can re-sculpt her features, tint her complexion and change her make-up to mold Blythe into dolly versions of a gamine, goth, pixie, siren.

Blythe even starred in a Target ad campaign featuring fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

The doll’s most recognizable feature is its kaleidoscope eyes. They change color and direction with a tug on a string in back of her head.

Toy designer and artist Allison Katzman at work.
Toy designer and artist Allison Katzman at work.
Provided

Mrs. Katzman lived long enough to enjoy Blythe’s newfound fame. In 2006, she was greeted by adoring crowds during a visit to Japan.

“It was unbelievable,” she told the Sun-Times in 2006. “Everybody bowed. They would have their photos taken with me, have me sign things.”

In Tokyo, she judged a contest of customized Blythe dolls and attended a fashion show with models toting Blythe dolls attired in designs by Oscar de la Renta and other famed couturiers.

A pioneering female toy designer who held about 35 patents, Mrs. Katzman, a former Evanston resident, died Feb. 25 in her hometown of Seattle, according to her daughter Abby.

Allison Katzman in 2006 with Blythe dolls she designed.
Allison Katzman in 2006 with Blythe dolls she designed.
Jim Frost / Sun-Times

She came from a line of strong women. Her grandmother traveled west via covered wagon. Her mother Grace Wood left high school to nurse her dying brother as he withered from mustard gas poisoning in World War I.

A single mother and a suffragette, Grace Wood learned to cook and run a restaurant while working at Pike Place Market. When Allison was little, they’d go to the waterfront to pick out produce. Her mother held her hand tight because the docks were rife with marine menaces. There were sailors on leave who wanted to drink, fight and gamble — and plenty of women ready to relieve them of their money. There was even a rumored opium den or two, her daughter said.

Later, Grace opened a diner in Seattle’s Capitol Hill community. Her mother’s work meant long stays for Allison on her grandparents’ farm. It could be lonesome. She was the only child around. And she couldn’t always understand the Scottish burrs of her grandparents’ immigrant friends.

One night, when she was 7 or 8, she went to a theater by herself and saw the 1933 movie “The Invisible Man.” Later that evening, she was so scared that she climbed out of bed and walked half a mile to be with her mother at her restaurant.

During World War II, Navy officials asked her mother to run the officer’s commissary at the Sand Point Naval Air Station. So she shut down the diner and arranged for Allison to work at the air station, too.

Soon, a teenage Allison was working the front desk, where visitors included entertainers Bob Hope and Jack Benny and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

Young Allison Katzman when she arrived in Chicago toward the end of World War II.
Young Allison Katzman when she arrived in Chicago toward the end of World War II.
Provided

At war’s end, she was accepted into the School of the Art Institute, one of a handful of women in a class filled with returning veterans.

“Mom had never been east of the Rockies,” her daughter said. “The flight was from Seattle to Spokane, Spokane to Idaho. It went up and down like seven times to get to Chicago.”

Allison Katzman preparing a holiday display for the lobby of Continental Bank. Her work drew crowds and was featured on WTTW-Channel 11.
Allison Katzman preparing a holiday display for the lobby of Continental Bank. Her work drew crowds and was featured on WTTW-Channel 11.
Provided

She married a classmate, Robert Katzman.

Mrs. Katzman worked sculpting popular lobby displays for Continental Bank that told stories of holiday traditions around the world. Her husband did illustrations for Jim Beam and Playboy and taught art at Wright Junior College. They also helped found the Old Town Art Fair.

Allison and Robert Katzman.
Allison and Robert Katzman.
Provided

They lived in a historic McCormick Theological Seminary rowhouse near DePaul University, where their neighbors included Burt Meyer, a designer of iconic toys and board games.

Allison Katzman.
Allison Katzman.
Provided

Meyer worked for Marvin Glass & Associates, where he helped create Mouse Trap and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots — the original version of which was taken off the drawing board when boxer Davey Moore was killed in the ring in 1961.

But the game moved forward. “Meyer had the ingenious idea of making the combatants robots,” according to the book “Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them.”

Meyer admired Mrs. Katzman’s work, telling her, “You should be a toy designer.”

“At 40 years old, she started an amazing new career” at Marvin Glass, her daughter said.

Later, she worked for Meyer at Meyer/Glass Design.

The Guardian newspaper once compared Blythe to a spliced miniature “of Zooey Deschanel and Katy Perry.”

But her look was inspired by Betty Boop. Mrs. Katzman said she got the idea for the changeable irises after her other daughter, Melissa Katzman Braggins, received the wrong set of tinted contact lenses.

“They made a mistake in the lab, and one set of contacts came, and they were really a very dark, olive green,” she told the Sun-Times. “It was very glamorous.”

Blythe’s oversized head and eyes might have spooked little girls who’d gotten used to Barbies. When Kenner introduced the Blythe doll in 1972, sales were disappointing.

In 1999, though, Blythe was reborn. Photographer Gina Garan shot some high-fashion pictures of her. Junko Wong, who heads the Tokyo illustration agency Cross World Connections, was captivated. She helped bring Blythe to the attention of Japan’s Parco department store, which featured her in ads. CWC arranged to lease Blythe from Hasbro and Wong oversees the production of new dolls.

“She became an icon,” Wong said. “Now that the coronavirus is keeping us at home, many of the fans have more time to play with their dolls and at the same time support each other via Facebook and Instagram. It keeps us sane. Many of us are shy and introverted, but Blythe helps us express ourselves. She creates friendships and brings out the creativity in us that we all have in there, somewhere.”

Sarah Thompson with the Blythe doll she customized to win a Mini-Me contest last year at a Minneapolis convention.
Sarah Thompson with the Blythe doll she customized to win a Mini-Me contest last year at a Minneapolis convention.
Provided

Artist Sarah Thompson customizes Blythe dolls through her Etsy shop BunnyGirlBlythe. Her redesigned doll won a Mini-Me contest last year at a Minneapolis convention.

“They have these sort of blank faces, so you can put them in any setting, any situation,” Thompson said. “They can look happy or sad. There’s something innocent and sweet about them.”

Arrangements are pending.

In addition to her daughters, Mrs. Katzman is survived by a son, David Katzman, and four grandchildren.

Always a hired gun, she didn’t get rich from her designs. But Mrs. Katzman loved going to Blythe conventions, where she said she’d be greeted “like a rock star.”

Allison Katzman with her family at her 95th birthday party.
Allison Katzman with her family at her 95th birthday party.
Provided
“There’s something innocent and sweet” about Blythe dolls, said artist Sarah Thompson, who customizes the dolls for sale through her Etsy shop BunnyGirlBlythe.
“There’s something innocent and sweet” about Blythe dolls, said artist Sarah Thompson, who customizes the dolls for sale through her Etsy shop BunnyGirlBlythe.
Sarah Thompson / BunnyGirlBlythe