Halo Blog Exclusive: Interview with Tom Courtney

For as long as I’ve been collecting Tonner Dolls, one name kept popping up and it wasn’t “Robert Tonner”.  I remember asking someone way back when if Robert read the boards.  “I don’t think he does, but I know Tom Courtney does.”  Tom, as I learned, was the marketing and production coordinator at the Tonner Doll Company but it seemed like he was everywhere!  “Tom” is in “this city” doing “this”. “Tom” was “here” doing “that”.  Got a question?  Ask “Tom”!  Those who were lucky enough to go to conventions came back with “Tom” stories.  The rest of us knew him as the man behind the curtain; perhaps not knowing exactly what he did but feeling comfort that he was there…to help Robert, to listen to us.  We knew that we were all in safe, very personable hands.

Tom Courtney

My personal experience with Tom came much later.  To my surprise, last year he asked me for a commission of a gay idol of his, Bo Dixon.  The challenge pushed me beyond what I had accomplished before and the end result is one of my favorite dolls.  Tom was very helpful, sweet and patient during the process and I could see how invaluable a person like that would be working by your side.

OOAK Bo Dixon Doll

When I first heard that Tom was no longer working at TDC as of last month, shock came over me along with a ton of questions.  As a collector, I wondered how it was going to impact the work on the dolls, their “look” and the company’s marketing.  As a business person, I wondered if he had another doll company in his sights.  And as a human, I wondered what it was like to have a dream job for so long and then at a youthful 46 be pondering where to go next.  Luckily for us, Tom is willing to share his experience and give us a unique perspective from the inside out.

Sam: Hi Tom!  Anything you want to say before we start?:
TC: First of all…please let me establish before we get into this…that I do not speak for Tonner Doll Company, and that the opinions registered in this interview are purely my own, and independent of Tonner Doll Company. Nothing I have said herein is a reflection of Tonner’s opinions or any of its employees. 

Sam: I wouldn't expect anything different :) For those who may not be familiar with exactly what you did at the Tonner Doll Company can you please explain your job functions?:
TC: Most recently, I was the Art Director – over the course of 10 years, I have worked in advertising, sales, marketing, website and strategic planning, just about everything except product design.  As Art Director, it was my responsibility to oversee and ensure the company’s visual ‘look’ to the public based on Robert’s vision – print ads, catalogs, photography/styling, etc.

Sam: That’s a hefty workload! I believe that was for all the Tonner lines, not just Tyler, right? What did you like most about your job? Least? What was the most challenging or frustrating?:
TC: No...not just Tyler – Working for a company like Robert’s involves a wide variety of doll appreciation.  In my case, I love Tyler & similar fashion dolls, but I also love Betsy McCall and Ann Estelle. What I loved most?  Photography...I worked with the most amazing man in photography, Robert Hansen-Sturm (named is spelled correctly, but we referred to him by his trade name ‘Storm Photography’).  I posed and styled the dolls in front of his camera.  We created magic.  I also have to say that getting to do the Tyler 10th Ann. Book was a big highlight, too.  I am very proud to be a part of Tyler’s history, as well as Tonner’s 20 years. The least: Being underestimated in any situation.

Sam: Working somewhere but not being in total charge can lead to some serious daydreams!  If you had had free reign, were there things about your job you would have like to have changed? Would you have pushed the envelope more or gone in a different direction?:
TC: I would like to have worked more closely with the licensors in product development. If I had free reign, I would require every person with whom I worked understand Dr. Deming’s Total Quality Theory. In addition, I would put more internal training in place like we had when I worked for the Government…always evaluating, revising and improving.  There was no envelope to be pushed. Robert was already doing that...and he was/is always open to new ideas.  There is no one in the industry like him...he is truly one-of-a-kind. My observations relate more to the management of Robert’s talent.  In a perfect world, what Robert needs is twice the staff to manage his constant flow of ideas – you’re only seeing a fraction of what he dreams up because there simply isn’t enough time and resources to do it all.

Sam: Can you finally talk about the “big head” (increasing size of Tonner heads) issue? LOL:
TC: I can say some people don’t like what they perceive to be a larger head…and some don’t mind at all.  As with any design issue, you will always have varied opinions.  People have different head sizes…plain and simple.  And we are talking about dolls here.  You would really need to ask Robert his thoughts on a doll’s proportions as he is the sculptor/maker. My personal feeling on the subject…if you don’t like it, feel free to make your observation, get over it, and don’t buy it if you don’t like it – either move on or start your own doll company. Let it go…

Sam: With such a long working history, what was one of your favorite memories from the last 10 years? What will you miss the most about working with TDC and Robert himself?:
TC: I will miss the times I was able to travel with Robert – just the two of us.  Man…we dreamed big! No one will ever be able to take that away from me. For the company as a whole – launching a new collection was always exciting – the whole company would be abuzz with retailer and collector reactions - both good and bad.

Sam: You had a lot of direct contact with the wants and needs of the fans. What did you learn from being so hands on with collectors and what do you have to say to them?
TC: One thing that was really hard to learn was that you cannot force a collector into learning something about the doll or a concept – from me, people always thought it was ‘cheerleading’ before I worked for the company…then ‘marketing’ after I started. 
TC: There are people in our community who think they know the answers to everything, but know absolutely nothing…and all those who will listen to them with believing ears. It’s the people who declare the overuse of pink in a collection to be a ‘quality standard’ when it really is a collector preference – or those that think because a doll is expensive it has to be perfect, not accepting that nothing is perfect. Many will say that the companies need to understand these things…but the fact of the matter is, they understand all too well…and are often frustrated by the excessive expectations some people have when it comes to what the collector thinks a $200 doll should be without understanding the hows or whys.
TC: I remember one incident when an online know-it-all declared a particular fabric to be cheap, when I knew for a fact it was expensive – even by apparel manufacturing standards.  Often, ‘opinion’ is taken for fact by the lurkers, and no matter what efforts a company takes to keep open lines of communication, most are inclined to accept it without verification.

Sam: How has this experience shaped you and prepared you for whatever you go on to next?:
TC: Well…it’s a trip that it’s been nearly a fifth of my life.  Looking back, I’ve had so many ‘lives’ that it’s kinda tough to sort out what will happen next.  I do know that I’ve learned that people are not always what they seem – and I’ve been guilty of that, too…so I’m certainly no innocent. I taught myself Adobe Creative Suite in order to take on graphics inhouse…and that was certainly unexpected, as it wasn’t something in which I ever thought I had any interest. I’ve grown a little older, a little wiser, and a bit larger.

Sam: With TDC behind you, what are your plans for the immediate future? I know you’re a big food fan. Is there interest in creating a cookbook? Are there personal projects you are looking forward to accomplishing before you settle in to your next job?:
TC: I do love food…and I love cooking.  I have a concept for a cookbook/blog that I’m developing more for fun than professionally.  I am a curious cook…I want to know the ‘why’, which is why Julia Child fascinates me so. Personally…there is the unpleasant subject of my doll collection – not that it is unpleasant – it’s what to do with it.  Most of my collection was housed in my office at Tonner – now with an uncertain future in terms of residence, I don’t know if I will be able to properly store or transport it.  So I fear some of it may be heading to eBay. I do want to get back into sewing in miniature…but again, much of it will be determined on whether or not I will have to move. I have been approached by some folks with project ideas, two of which are doll-related – I can’t really elaborate on them right now as I’m still getting my head wrapped around the concepts.
When's lunch??

Julia, you've never looked better!

Sam: Can you see yourself with another doll company or do you want to try a whole different field? If you would like to continue in the doll world, is there a particular company you would like to be a part of and would you look to do a similar job or would you like to expand into a different area of the doll business?:
TC: Very good question, Sam…I’ve been asking myself this since I was let go.  One of the reasons I wanted to work for Robert was because I had immense passion and respect for his dolls, both child and fashion. I loved them so much that I was willing to leave one life behind in DC to move to the Hudson Valley. I worked day and night, weekends and holidays, any time needed to finish the job – all while also trying to find a place in the local gay community: an area with an unfriendly and judgmental social climate with members unwilling to welcome newcomers into it.  Where ever I go next, I will definitely make sure there is no ruling class of Nazi Gay Mafia.  I’m sure they would be thrilled to know they’ve made my 10 years in this beautiful, but loveless area completely miserable – so I am grateful that I had such a fun and wonderful job where I could find refuge.
TC: I’ve asked myself if I could pour myself into another company’s products when my level of passion is not the same.  I may be limiting myself, but I won’t work for anyone that I don’t respect. I feel that I could do anything given half the chance, really.  Anyone into mutual respect and who is putting his/her faith in me will get 800%.
TC: I’ve always thought I would be a great product developer with my keen eye for detail, especially in licensed properties.  I have this crazy-mad memory that is invaluable when looking at product translation and avoiding repetition, with a strong ability to find the cross-merchandising potential in a product line.

Sam: It makes me sad to hear about the after hours environment but I'm glad your work helped you through. As for your skills, I think we could all use one of you! You’re first on my list when cloning becomes available lol. You are quite the skilled designer in your own right. Will you keep creating your OOAKs? Would you ever be interested in making your own doll and if so, what type of doll would it be?:
TC: A dear friend asked me this very question, and although I won’t say ‘no’…it’s unlikely. Problem is…I’m not a sculptor…and I think that’s a critical skill for a dollmaker to possess. Anyone can come up with a story, draw a picture and hand it over to a sculptor – but when the concept, character and persona are a unique vision of the sculptor, what you get is a true, personal reflection of the artist. I do know how a doll is made…and the production details of getting the doll from cradle to shelf. I also have a very specific taste in what I like…and I’m not sure how others would like that – I’m a little selfish like that.  I’m also a bit thin-skinned when it comes to criticism, especially when I’ve made something for me…and not someone else.  This is why I like my OOAKs…they are only for me…so I don’t care if someone else likes it or not.  But the applause is very nice…and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t like the little sparks of attention showing off brings, particularly amongst my family and friends.

Elizabeth and Franz-Josef
by Tom Courtney
Gorgeous daywear!

Sam: With all of your production experience and years in the trenches, you’re so knowledgeable about the landscape of dolls in general. Where do you see collecting heading next?:
TC: In my opinion, collectors across the community are bored.  There’s this group of “I only collect 16” fashion dolls” – meaning they only collect Tyler or Gene.  One might say change is not very welcomed in the doll community.  Most people want to stick with what they have, recycle, buy some new clothes or shoes…and that’s that.  If this concept were actually true, then the doll makers would be doing just fine and all your old favorites would still be made.  But it isn’t true.  Most people want the ‘newest’ thing – so much, in fact, they will go positively ape shit to get it.  Collectors are obsessive-compulsive people who are never satisfied with what they have. I know because I am one. We wait and wait, open the box, and the thrill is gone before the doll is even placed on the shelf – we are already thinking about the next doll. Some get buyer’s remorse, so then they start to find all the little flaws in an item in the hopes they can either return it to the seller, or they can sell it.
TC: Collectibles customers require that change happens faster and faster…give them what they want not only now…but yesterday! And make sure it holds its value – we might not be able to invest in collectibles anymore, but we certainly don’t want to see our hard-earned money flushed down the toilet within seconds of opening the box! The internet has driven this addiction for instantaneous gratification – time was you waited for a catalog to be mailed…you took it to your doll club, you drooled and drooled over your favorites – not anymore.  Now, a camera phone snaps a pic of a prototype at a trade show and it’s seen in seconds by thousands of people – they begin to criticize it and ponder its worth.  Retailers wait in anticipation to hear the collective yay or nay before placing their order. The manufacturer then may decide to not produce the item based on poor reaction – or to change it.  It all happens within minutes, and it still isn’t fast enough.  And the manufacturer that is capable of keeping up with it all will win – for the time being until change is once again demanded. It’s a vicious cycle.
TC: We are more than likely seeing the collectible doll fading into dormancy such as what happened before Gene re-awakened the collectors – not because it was a superior product, but because Gene was different…new. During this dormancy, artists will probably rise again…and a new generation of collectors will rediscover the old manufactured dolls when they can’t afford the artist prices. Others will desperately want to cling onto their youth and return to the toys they knew as children.  It happened in the 80s with Barbie, Effanbee and Madame Alexander…it will happen again.

Sam: I’ll have you know my friends and I are not at all like that description of a collectibles customer (hangs head in shame...yes, yes we are). But at least I’m in good company as you are an avid collector yourself. What are you a fan of?: 
TC: My personal collection is comprised of mostly fashion dolls...Tyler Wentworth will always be my favorite...and just about Anything Alice in Wonderland – but I have collected themes before, too...such as GWTW, ‘Gay’ dolls (like your ‘Bo’ that you created for me), and unusual items like Halloween. I also collect vintage Tonner (porcelains, mostly...and some vinyl children), Alice in Wonderland porcelain tea sets/figurines, Harry Potter Lego – and Christmas and Halloween decorations. I love cooking, photography, and Harry Potter, fashion – near manic about Potter!

That's dedication!  

Sam: Will we still see you at conventions?
TC: I think at some point, you might…especially the ones where costumes are involved.

Sam: Great! I look forward to that. Now here are some questions fans had for you: 

MJ asks: Hey Tom,How do you display your dolls/organize them in your own home?Thanks for all the work you've done and wishing you the best of luck Always!
TC: Thanks, MJ!  I displayed most of my collection in my office at Tonner; but that will now change.  The dolls I have at home are in a glass case…and some artist pieces are incorporated at various levels in my studio…so whichever way I turn, I can always see one of them. The dolls that are stored are done by lightly packing them with white tissue paper – if there are overlapping dolls, I make sure dark or brightly colored fabrics are not touching vinyl to avoid staining…I also add a few of those ‘DO NOT EAT’ desiccant packs to keep moisture down.
Steffi asks: Hi Tom, a long time ago, when the first Tyler dolls came out, you published a fan fiction in the Tonner dolls Yahoo group that I remember fondly (even though sadly it was unfinished). It showed you as a very talented writer. Now that you are leaving RTDC, do you have any plans on maybe writing a novel?
TC: The Wentworth Shadows Chronicles – LOL…misty water-colored memories.  I still have a printed copy of that!  I loved the flashback portion telling Regina’s story…that would make a great novel with the names changed. I love writing…and I’ve done several story treatments – any of them could get flushed out into a book or graphic novel…I’ve even looked into self-publishing via the web.  Stay tuned!
Steffi: And another blast from the past...Most of the convention exclusive Tyler dolls for the very first Tonner convention in Portland, were stolen.Did they ever turn up again, and was the thief found?Wishing you all the best for the future and hope you´ll be sticking around the doll scene somehow :-)
TC: Well…it wasn’t most of them…I think it was only two or three shipping cartons…app. 36 dolls or so…they were stolen from the dock as they were being unloaded – I don’t recall if this was done in China or in the US – no culprit was ever apprehended. Thanks, Steffi…we shall certainly see!
Jen asks: What is it about Alice in Wonderland that appeals to you so much?
TC: There’s a whimsy to Alice’s imagination that reminds me of myself as a child…creating other world’s in my head and living adventures in them when there was no one else to play with.  I wasn’t always a fan of Alice, though…it’s only been in the 3-4 years that I developed such a fascination with her. Thanks for asking, Jen!

Anon asks: What’s your favorite doll?
TC: My customized Midnight Garden Tyler Wentworth with original Sherry Miller face paint and Facets by Marcia jewelry.

And here are two very sweet comments:

Hi Tom, I just want to wish you the best in whatever is next for you! Thank you so much for working so hard on our favorite past time! It was much appreciated :)))) Thanks, Chrissy
TC: Hi, Chrissy…thanks!  It will take some getting used to not working for Tonner…but I’ll manage!

Hard to believe you're really leaving. I'm so sorry I missed seeing Julia Childs at convention, but I hope you will leave that album up on facebook for everybody to see. It showed the grand scale and scope of your insanity.And I still want to buy that Esme (or was is Jac? No, Esme) wearing the black variation of "Florentine"---she stopped me dead in my tracks, and shut me UP, for a second at least. (You, of all people, know how rare THAT is.) You are so talented, dear Tom---I hope you're going to go into dolly Haute Couture. love and a good-bye hug, Maggie
TC: Thanks, Maggie…sorry, but that Esme stays with me! LOL!
Marianne says: I first "met" Tom online in '99 when the what was to become the Tyler Yahoo Group first formed around early March. At that time, he procured software for the U.S. Navy. In his posts to the group, he came up with elaborate stories for Tyler and her friends and family to pass the time as we all impatiently waited for the first Tyler's release which wasn't until Dec. Tom was probably the premier Tyler fan and Tonner cheerleader. When he started working for TDC in 2000, all of us in the group felt like it was a dream job for him and very happy for him. So, when you posted that he has left TDC, I was very surprised which leads to my questions:
Marianne: Does he mind telling us why he left TDC?
TC: Thanks, Marianne…I remember those days fondly on Yahoo…we had great fun! I was laid off from Tonner…it was a bit of a surprise, but I certainly understand the decision.
Marianne: Does he feel the company has gone in a direction he doesn't wish to follow
TC: No…I was always willing to follow Robert’s creative direction…I was a great worker-bee!!!
Marianne: Does he feel that licensed products are the best (or only?) way for a doll company to stay afloat in the current economic environment?
TC: My opinion is that any business that wishes to grow needs to look into expanding their market through diversification; however, expansion has its own financial limitations and risks, and it needs to be carefully considered by any firm…Tonner is no exception.
Marianne: What are his future plans? Will he continue working in the doll industry
TC: Ideas right now are only abstract…I don’t know about the doll industry…will probably need more time to truly think this part out…but thanks for asking! I think this might be a good time to make a graceful departure and head toward a new horizon.  It’s time to let someone else have a chance to play…

Sam: Thank you, Tom, for giving us your time. You are a wealth of information and I would love to call upon you from time to time to get your thoughts on this crazy hobby of ours!

TC: You are most welcome, Sam…thank you for asking…and remember, always glow brightly!

I have to admit, I was worried for him. After all the economy isn’t the best and doll manufacturing is quite a specific niche. What if he couldn’t find a comparable job? What if the doll world lost one its top people (said a la Bridget Jones)? Then I started reading up on his background for this interview and realized Tom’s problem isn’t that he can’t do anything else, it’s that he can do whatever he wants and narrowing down the choice is going to be tough! With solid backgrounds in retail, business and contract law for the Navy, computers, photography and sewing, I have no doubt this cat is landing firmly on his feet. Selfishly I’d like him to stay in the doll field but I know he’s going to make some company out there very happy. Best of luck!


Kari said...

Awesome interview! Thanks so much for doing this Tom and Sam! I can't wait to see what you do next Tom!

alyrenee said...

Great interview. I will miss Tom at conventions! I also hope that the Tonner company is doing alright....

Marianne said...

Thanks so much for this interview with Tom, Sam! It's very interesting and helped me learn a lot about someone I've known for almost 12 years. I wish Tom the very best. I'm sure he has a bright future ahead of him.

Sam said...

Thanks so much, everyone! We're so lucky to have people like Tom that relate to us while giving us another perspective.

Alyrenee: I have no worries about TDC! Robert has proven himself time and time again, knowing exactly where to steer his company. Sometimes a brand wants a little shake-up, some new life. I really think that's all that is.

Quincy said...

Great interview Sam! I'm glad Tom is doing well! Love you both!!!

ANGELS Doll Studio said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Tom at a Metrodolls event 2 years ago. He is one of the funniest and most personable people I've ever met. I didn't feel like I was talking to a stranger at all, but rather a friend I had known my whole life. I wanted to encourage Tom in his future endeavors. I believe that he is an amazing creative force, and is very gifted. Wishing you all the best, Tom. Very much enjoyed your interview. Thank you, dear Sam, for doing this interview. Looking forward to hanging out with Tom at future doll events, and finally getting to meet Sam in person! Warm Regards, Laurie Lenz

Becky K said...

Two of my favorite people in one blog post. Well done, Sammie and Tommy, too. Thank you both for making doll collection a joy. Much love and success in the future.

Jacqueline said...

I stopped actively collecting Tonner back in 2005 so there hasn't beem an opportunity to run into Tom in a while. I was always impressed with how he could talk to anybody and still maintain a professional attitude and his great sense of humor. He is a capable and gracious person. I remember once when he was confronted by collectors who seemed to think that just because they had spent some money, he was obligated to explain the whole company philosophy! Those questions were cringeworthy, but Tom stayed cool and collected. He's the kind of guy who is going to land on his feet. I wish Tom the best.

Terri Gold said...

Interesting interview of a very interesting man. I will post a link on my blog to this.