keep a body busy
Golson holds a female torso on his lap, carefully painting eyes and eyebrows
on its fiberglass face. Nearby, Sherrie Childress twirls a female bottom
seat and legs like those of a ballerina as she sprays on
big room that might have once been the parlor is hung with racks of long
legs and graceful arms. Tables are stacked with limbs and tools, cans
of paints and jars of goop. What look like frozen-in-time bodies are
Tom Childress surveys his kingdom.
Moderne Mannequins. That's the name on the small sign hung over the front door of a prim, green shake house on Houston's north side near the intersection of Little York Road and Airline. It's a business Childress began just short of 44 years ago. "Yeah, I guess I'll stay with it now," he laughed, thinking back over the years.
Back in 1946, just after World War II, a fellow came into the North Main Tourist Court where Childress worked as manager "He was a snowbird, from up Pittsburg, Pa. way, and he made a pass through Texas every year, just hit the high spots," Childress said. The man repaired the fancy stores' mannequins, those from places like Sakowitz and Battlestein's.
"He'd come in with this roll of $100 bills and peel 'em back, looking for a twenty to pay his rent. One day he asked me how I'd like to make money like that. I was making just $52.50 a week, and he was carrying a roll of hundreds, so I said, Why not?"
So the itinerant mannequin repairman sat Childress down to watch. "He would patch something and show me how to do it, and his wife would sand. That man worked three wives to death." Childress, single when he began his mannequin repair business, says he had to depend on girlfriends for help until the early '50s when he married his wife, Timber. A vital part of the business, she is now in charge of the mannequins' wigs, of which she often orders hundreds at a time.
The secret, mannequin-repair substance, which Childress said took him 30 or 35 years to discover, is a formula using China clay, applied with a thin, metal spatula. "I couldn't tell you where to get it today because when someone finally told me about it, I ordered a lifetime supply."
The green house on Little York has expanded over the years. A warehouse was added at the back, then the two were joined together with another room. Now Moderne Mannequin has expanded into a nearby warehouse, where Childress says another 10,000 or so dummies are stored. Two years ago, the movie Pray for Death was filmed in the warehouse, but Childress refused a part.
It is difficult to find workers with the specific skills he needs, Childress said. His son, Kip, works with him, and his daughter, Mendez, now a mother of two youngsters, has worked with12 years. His artist, Golson, has been there 2l/2 years.
"I ran an ad years ago looking for an artist. About 150 people applied, and only one came close to being able to paint these faces. It s not the same in three dimensional as it is flat on a canvas," Childress said. Even an art instructor was unable to make the grade.
Golson, while never having painted mannequins before, did have some cosmetology courses under his belt and was always painting and sketching. Now he reads plenty of fashion magazines to keep up on makeup trends.
One room of the business is stuffed with shoe boxes and hanging bags full of wigs, and the bathroom tub is filled with elbows piled to the ceiling. Here there's a bag of heads, there, a box of feet. An old wooden Pepsi-Cola crate is stuffed with hands of all sizes. A chemical odor hangs in the air, and a thick coat of pink dust has settled over everything, including the phone, a television, a briefcase and dozens of packages of false eyelashes.
In the main room, tucked in among the many modern mannequins some in for repair, some Childress' rental stock are a number of strange birds. A couple of wooden Indians. A 1914 dressmaker's dummy. A pair of sisters who date from 1929 and are made of burlap and a concrete/plaster combination, a material so tough it was beep known to ruin drills.
There is an old Jantzen swimmer mannequin, who has only one removable arm. A Louis XIV and an entire Chinese potentate's court are arrayed under a fancy umbrella. Childress took the latter in as trade-ins after Saks Fifth Avenue used them for an opening promotion.
There are some chrome- and bronze- finished models around, a mannequin sprayed orange, lots of little children< some doll-sized < and a number of pubescent girls. Childress can spot the difference between a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old at a glance. And while some of the mannequins weigh up to 50 or 60 pounds, most weigh in at about 25 pounds.
Most mannequins today are made of fiberglass, and the most modern, coated with a dark gray granite spray called Zolatone. The avant-garde mannequins, $700-$800 each, come from Europe mainly, from the English company Rootstein, which Childress says sets the trends. They are often very angular, thin and very tall, and cost more than other styles because they will only be in fashion for a few years.
The most popular mannequins today are still very lifelike. Some companies, however, prefer not to have mannequins with extremely real-looking glass eyes, which cost $50 more. They ask Childress to remove them or paint over them.
There is only a handful of dark- skinned models in Childress' shop today. "Back in the days of Martin Luther King, they came to me and said 'Why don't you have any black modelsi' So I got some. But the stores don't use them." Spotted here and there through the mannequins is an Afro do or a long, dark braided wig.
Since the early '70s, female mannequins have had more defined breasts, nipples and navels < all innies, no outies < and in the last 10 years, pierced ears. Male mannequins today tend to have more musculature than in the past and lifelike bulges in other appropriate places. Male mannequins' mustaches, unlike wigs, must be molded and painted on the mannequins so they can't be stolen.
The only two clean rooms at Moderne Mannequins, those free of dust and carpeted, are segregated by sex. "None of them have any clothes on," Childress jokes, so one room is full of female mannequins, another males. Actually these are the mannequins who are ready Above, a contemporary mannequin wears a coat of Zolatone granite spray. Right, the heads were painted for a makeup show. to walk out the door, Cinderellas and Prince Charmings awaiting a new job and new clothes.
Besides working for the obvious customers < department stores, formal- wear rental shops, hair salons and so on, Childress is a participant in readying museum-costume exhibits. The strang- est request he has ever fulfilled came some 15 years ago from a Louisiana gentleman who owned a music store, on the roof of which were displayed an organ, a piano, a set of drums and so forth. The man wanted Moderne Manne- quin to supply him with a well-endowed, fully-dressed young female mannequin in the pose of a drum majorette one knee lifted, one hand on her waist and the other holding a baton aloft. He specified that the bust measurement was to be 40 inches.
The request was considered a joke until a signed purchase order arrived by special delivery the next Monday. When the mannequin was completed, Childress decided to personally deliver his $500 project to Baton Rouge, where she was to be installed on the music store roof. While a special securing bar had been built into the comely maiden to make her "steal-proof," the store owner refused to use it. "I want them to be able to steal it," the man announced.
And sure enough, in only her second week on the job, the drum majorette was reported missing. But the music store owner was prepared. For two weeks after that stories and photos about the mannequin ran in newspapers, asking "Have you seen this girl?" He could not have enjoyed better public- ity if the store owner had masterminded the mannequin-napping himself.
Authorities finally located the missing mannequin in a back alley, expertly dissected, possibly by a group of suspi- cious medical students. The store owner put her pieces in a box and shipped them off to Childress. As it turned out, her wounds weren't anything that $350 and a little time couldn't heal.
Linda Gillan Griffin is the Chronicle fashion editor. Her column appears monthly in Texas Magazine.
Modern Mannequin, contact Sherrie
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