by Marc Igler

Our Town: So long, Barbie

Publication Date: Wednesday Mar 24, 1999

Our Town: So long, Barbie

If you collect things--baseball cards, old apple peelers, license plates--you know that one of the biggest joys is being able to show your stuff to other people. It gives you the chance to explain why you do it and allows other people to share your enthusiasm, even if they don't understand it.

In three weeks, Evelyn Burkhalter will lose that opportunity, at least in the form she's had it for 15 years in downtown Palo Alto. Burkhalter has one of the most remarkable collections in the world: 20,000 pieces of molded plastic that, more vividly than most history books, tell the story of late-20th century America.

Burkhalter collects Barbie dolls. Since 1984, she's had them on display at her Barbie Hall of Fame. On April 15, she's losing the lease to her Waverley Street storefront. The building's owner, Rowena Wu, has decided to give the space to Barbie's next-door neighbor, trendy Zibibbo restaurant, which wants to expand.

Barbie, of course, is not everyone's cup of tea. But when you line up every Barbie model made since Mattel starting pumping out the dolls, you can't help but marvel at how they document the progression of American culture in the past 40 years.

Almost every trend, fashion, political view, lifestyle and technological advancement that Americans have witnessed since Barbie's debut can be found in the dolls. And Burkhalter has every model, from the Teenage Model Barbie of March 1959 to this year's X-Files Barbie. You can learn a lot about what this country has gone through by wandering through the narrow aisles of the Barbie Hall of Fame.

It's all there. The Jackie Kennedy pillbox hats and bubble haircuts of the early 1960s, the hippie movement, the transition of women into the work force, the go-go 1980s, political correctness. In Barbie, you see glamorous designer clothes and dream houses, but you also see the mundane details of family life--Corningware, camping trips, Big Macs, baby-sitting.

"It's everyday life--things that have touched everyone," says Burkhalter, who has that rare trait among collectors of not sentimentalizing her assemblage. A few years ago, someone called her Barbies "kitsch." She agrees with them.

Burkhalter started collecting Barbies in 1965 while running a school for deaf kids in Palo Alto. Back then, the Barbies came with clothes that you had to sew together. As a fund-raiser for the school, she would sew the clothes herself and sell them to the parents. In the process, she saw what Barbie meant to the little girls all around her. Seeing that explains Burkhalter's fascination with the doll.

Burkhalter, who along with her husband, Robert, raised two girls and two boys, says the time most dear to her in children's lives are the years roughly from age 4 to 9. She calls these "the quiet years," when kids play innocently, let their imaginations roam and start forming ideas about the world before peer pressure and other influences take over. For many girls, for better or worse, Barbie plays a huge role during this time.

Barbie critics, and there are plenty of them, say the doll reinforces all sorts of social stereotypes. Burkhalter, a straight-talker tempered over the years by many of life's twists of fate, politely tells these people to "lighten up."

"When you get down to it, it's just a doll, a doll that you'll find people look back on very fondly later in life," she says.

And to those who suspect Burkhalter is spouting the Mattel party line, forget it. In fact, she has a rather stormy relationship with the Southern California company, which has tried, and failed, through the years to buy the pre-1971 part of Burkhalter's collection. The company, surprisingly, has few original Barbies from that time.

Burkhalter doesn't know what the future holds for the Barbie Hall of Fame, which has had to move twice since it first opened on Hamilton Avenue. She can no longer afford downtown rents. And, now in her mid-60s, she doesn't want to move far from home.

One thing is for sure: Based on the number of offers she's had since word got out that the Barbie Hall of Fame is closing, her collection will wind up somewhere. She'll make sure it's a place where people can see the dolls and look back on their own "quiet years," when the biggest decision of the day was whether to dress Barbie in the evening gown or the miniskirt.

That's one joy Burkhalter will always have.

Marc Igler is an associate editor at the Weekly. 

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