A new trend appears to be emerging on Chicago's fashionable Michigan Avenue: young girls carrying dolls. That's because one of Chicago's hottest tourist destinations is the favorite shopping place for girls 7-12 years old. VOA's Robin Rupli has more on The American Girl Place.
It's a "girl" thing: The American Girl Place, devoted to dolls and clothes and books and music - all reflecting the interests and activities of girls of yesterday and today. The bustling three-story building sells just about everything to feed a young girl's fantasy: dolls and doll houses and clothing; a formal restaurant; and a state-of-the-art theater featuring a musical revue. There's even a photo gallery where a child can have her picture put on the cover of the current issue of American Girl magazine.
"So many girls come carrying their dolls with them and you can see that they're dressed up like their dolls for the experience. It's a special occasion. It's not just about 'Let's go shopping,' " explains Anne Maddox, Vice President and General Manager of Chicago's American Girl Place. She says the company began as the idea of Wisconsin elementary school teacher, Pleasant Rowland who, in 1986, created a historical doll collection to both entertain and educate little girls.
"Each of our historical character dolls represents a particularly important part of the American history experience," says Ms. Maddox. "Felicity is the Williamsburg [Virginia] colonial period; Josephine is from the southwest she's the 1814, New Mexico, southwestern girl; we have Kirsten who represents the Swedish immigrant; we have Addie who is our African-American girl who represents the Civil War era; We have Samantha, who represents the Victorian era around 1904; our newest character is Kit who we introduced last September she's from the Depression era; and Mollie, who represents World War II," she explains. "So our stories around those girls revolve around those times and the lessons and life experiences and how they relate to those today. Because they're still learning the social and moral values that mean something in girls' lives."
The fictitious stories of Kirsten, Addie, Molly and the rest of the American Girl doll collection are told in books and also museum exhibits giving a very lifelike impression of a character's place in history. Many young visitors, accompanied by their dolls, shop for matching outfits - or maybe just bring them in for a hair touch-up.
"I'm making pretty pony tails on Samantha's hair," explains Vicki, a hair-dresser in the American Girl Place hair salon. "I love it. It's the ultimate job. Because it's so fun," she says. " I get to play with dolls again and I'm 'twenty-something.' I just love it. I get a paycheck to play with dolls. It couldn't get any better."
"Are there any dolls that are just beyond help?" Asks Robin Rupli.
"Yes, and what we do is recommend that they be sent to the doll hospital, where they have a whole new head," Vicki answers.
But perhaps the most noticeable part of the American Girl Place experience is the look on the faces of the little girls and their parents. Six year-old Audrey had just flown in from Indiana to enjoy the day with her mother, Kristin.
"So this is a special day?" asks Robin Rupli.
"Yep!" Audrey answers.
"What is today?" Robin asks.
"My birthday," says Audrey.
"Kristin, what is it like for you to come here with Audrey?" asks Robin.
"This is just a really wonderful day for her," she answers. "We're spending the whole day here, having lunch and tea and going to the theatrical revue and it's just a great thing for a mother and daughter to do together. She'll remember this forever."
"Does it bring back memories for you?" Robin asks.
"You know," Audrey responds,"I look at some of these dolls and I see things that my mother had when she was young and it brings back some of the memories of the pictures I've seen some of the older items and older clothing. And my grandmother as well." When visitors get tired of shopping, watching a show or getting their picture taken, they can then can enjoy a formal meal in the American Girl Place restaurant. Bouquets of flowers placed on white tablecloths, red daisy lamps and polka dot chairs, fanciful pink chandeliers, and blue, heart-shaped dinner plates provide a magical setting for parent and child. Even the dolls are provided special seats at the table with a little place setting to share the experience. And, says American Girl Place Vice President Anne Maddox, there's even something to stimulate conversation.
"You have questions that are placed on every table in a polka dot box, tied in a ribbon, that inspire conversation between parent and child, that adults might not think about," she explains. "For example, 'What was your favorite movie when you were nine-years-old?'"
As for the little boys in the family, General Manager Anne Maddox says after about five-years-old, boys naturally will want an experience designed especially for them. To appease the boys, she says, many parents take them a few blocks down Chicago's Michigan Avenue to FAO Schwartz, one of the most exclusive toy stores in the United States.