|Mel Odom stands before some of his Gene Marshall dolls at FAO Schwarz on 2/14/07|
Interview With Mel Odom
The internet has provided us with a chance to have a virtual interview with the talented and handsome Mel Odom, creator of the Gene Marshall line of dolls. For those who are not familiar with this line, it was retired one year ago and went out with a bang! I was lucky enough to attend the final convention celebrating the life, times and friends of this gorgeous doll.
Although I came to appreciate Gene and to meet Mel long after they became popular, the more I know the more respect I have for his creativity and the amazing dolls he created. Ashton-Drake, the first company to produce the line came through with an enormous amount of fashions and an extraordinary selection of furniture and accessories which are, to this day, cherished by collectors. Integrity Toys/Jason Wu, the final producers of the line, manufactured gorgeous fashions with the most amazing shoes, jewelry and other tiny details. It’s almost hard to believe that doll clothing could be so beautiful and so finely made.
Most importantly, Mel is known by all to be a kind and humble man. I am honored to have been granted this opportunity.
For this virtual interview, I have asked collectors to submit their questions.
—It’s been a year since Gene’s retirement. What has she been up to? Does she see Madra and Trent on a regular basis or have they all gone their separate ways?
A- I always figured Gene would move to Italy and live a very private life with occasional forays back into the spotlight. I think she would have always considered Hollywood her hometown though, and certainly gone back for visits and her friends. I think her friendship with Ivy would have always been there, perhaps with Ivy spending time with her in Italy.
—Do your doll characters ever populate your dreams?
A- It’s strange, you’d think they would, but no. I think I spent so much ‘real’ time with them that they’re exhausted as a subject for my subconscious. I wish they would.
—Are there characters you’ve imagined who never made it into the vinyl life? Which one(s) would you like to have seen produced? Would there have been another male?
A- I would have loved to create a Cora Harper doll. She was the gossip columnist in my book. I thought she was such an endearing character but her proportions (short/round) made her an unlikely character for doll-world success. We tend to like our girls thin and pretty. I wanted to do a doll of Eric Von Sternberg as well, he was pretty dashing and we could have used the same body as Trent. He wore a monocle and would have been very fun to design.
—Do you miss the designing, the production and the unveiling of a new Gene? Do you miss the fans, doll shop shows and conventions? Or was it easy to let go of?
I still see clothes in movies or magazines and think ‘That would be great for Gene or someone’ so I do miss having a place to go with that impulse. The research was always fun. The business part of it is pretty stressful so I can’t say I miss the unveiling. I was always on pins and needles when that was going on. I do miss the collectors and talking with them about dolls or their lives, that part was a pleasant surprise for me. My illustration career life was very solitary compared with the public person I became for Gene. That person was my father’s personality kicking in and allowing to me to be at ease by not thinking of the people as a crowd but as individuals.
I don’t find much of anything easy to let go of, but I did feel it was the right time and the right thing to do. Trust me, I’d thought about it long and hard before I decided. I’ve had no regrets, let’s put it that way.
—Did you ever consider how high Gene's star would shine when you first thought of producing a doll? Did you think your creation would gain world wide fame, spanning several decades and many different roles?
A- I always thought she’d be a success. That’s the only way I could excuse the years of work that went into creating her. I really thought she’d change things, and she did. She was created by an artist expressing something really personal, and I think the people got that. I was very much an open book about how much Gene mattered to me. That was her blessing and her curse. People would say negative things about ‘product’ and I’d react (inside) personally. That’s an unusual thing to deal with in business.
—If there were to be another Gene would she be as an ultra-limited resin or porcelain doll possibly hand-painted by yourself? (The person who submitted this question admits that this is his wish.)
A- No, I think she’s perfect in the material she’s in. As a boomer baby, I LOVE plastic toys, some of my favorite toys of all time were plastic. My experience with resin is limited but resin doesn’t really thrill me, it’s seems brittle, and I really don’t like porcelain. Porcelain for modern dolls is just sort of cynical. It’s making something artificially precious when the original material is actually better, more durable and even prettier. As for painting the faces, I would never be able to paint them to my satisfaction. I’m not good at painting little faces, too clumsy. I always drew the faces for the factory. That I can do.
—Is there ANY interest on your part in creating another Diva who will take our breath away?
Have you been approached by any manufacturers?
A- I’m working on a new doll now, but I’m not sure she’s a diva. She’s not that character. I’ve done the diva thing, I think better than anybody. Madra was certainly a diva. She was probably the most fun to design for, because she was such an over-the-top character. Nothing was ever too outrageous for her. She was also really beautiful, which gave her some power with the outrageousness.
I’ve been approached about bringing Gene back but didn’t like the picture I had in my mind of how she’d look. They were planning on a different material and style of body. Gene’s body is almost as recognizable as her face and I think she was perfect just as she happened. I would love for a manufacturer to approach me. I’d show them my new thing.
—Will you ever write a tell-all book about your time in the doll biz?
A- Well, I hope I’m going to still be in the doll business so I don’t think I’ll be writing any tell-all soon. LOL And really, I’m not sure there’s a story there, or maybe it’s just a very personal story. Early on Gene helped me go through some things I might not have been able to if I hadn’t been so preoccupied with a project I truly loved. She came from the heart.
—Do you have interest in having a coffee table book with your many beautiful illustrations, many of which inspired the Gene doll?
A- I would love to do a gorgeous big book on Gene. Trust me, I have a LOT of images for a book like that, dating back to the original drawings. I kept a scrapbook the first year or so before I got so busy I didn’t have time for the scrapbook. LOL. I think it’ll happen in time.
—How do you feel about dolls yellowing over time?
A- Well, nobody wants that to happen, but the deal with vinyl is certain chemicals that are used to help to keep it flexible. They’re mixed in with the materials that make up the color and texture. The materials are mixed by humans and as a result vary. And you don’t know till sometimes years later that there’s a problem. It’s a drag, but a constant possibility in manufacturing.
—Is it true that there was a "Smiling Gene" sculpt?
—What Genes do you currently have on display in your home?
A- I play with Plum Role the most, she’s always out. And my ‘Mel/Trent’ is standing around. I take different dolls out and play with them for a while or look at them, and then put them away again. I live in an apartment in New York rather than a house with a doll room. My doll room is my studio. And these dolls standing around in my studio kind of oversee my new projects, and give me examples of what is possible. I love my dolls, I think they’re truly wonderful, and treasure having been the one who got the inspiration to create them. They’re my children in a (crazy) way. I have lots of antique dolls in my studio too. And I always think of them as the grandparents to my dolls, in the lineage of fashion dolls. As you can tell, I love dolls and fine them profound and moving.
—Are there questions you believe should have been asked? What are they?
A- I think you’ve covered it! Thank you for this opportunity.
I want to thank Mel for his time and thoughtful answers.
Thanks, too, to other collectors who sent in questions: Becky Moar aka Becky in Upstate, Mary Dessert aka Mary in CT, PrncssPJ, Ernesto Padro-Campos, Amanda Turnock, Carolyn Tattersall Teachman, Steven Casey, Linda Kriegbaum.
If you didn't get to ask a question, you can put it in the comments section and Mel might answer.