Gene Autry Visits Lincoln Doll Factory

 In 1950, Lincoln welcomed the singing cowboy of stage and screen, Gene Autry, one of many celebrities the city has hosted over the years (including Abbott and Costello in 1942). Omaha native and co-creator of the Terri Lee doll line, Violet Gradwohl, invited the cowboy crooner to town to promote the latest doll in her collection – The Gene Autry doll.

According to a 2012 Journal Star article, the Terri Lee dolls first rose to prominence in 1946 because of their “exquisitely detailed hand-sewn garments,” and because of the ethnic and gender lines that were crossed in the making of the African-American dolls. Runci had modeled the dolls after her own daughter, Drienne, when she was disappointed to realize that the vast majority of dolls being made were more for show than for play, and that all doll’s had blue eyes rather than the brown of her daughters’. Runci joined up with her aunt, Violet Gradwohl, to manufacture the dolls, and they decided to call them Terri Lee, after Gradwohl’s daughter.

Despite naysayers claiming that the Terri Lee doll wouldn’t sell because of her “funny face,” the doll-making duo proved them wrong, with orders “pouring in at a rate of nearly 3,000 a week.”

Violet Gradwohl, Harry Gradwohl, Gene Autry, and Terri Lee Schrepel pause for a group photo at the Terri Lee Doll Company factory in Lincoln, circa 1949. -- Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society / #RG5812.PH0-000042

Violet Gradwohl, Harry Gradwohl, Gene Autry, and Terri Lee Schrepel pause for a group photo at the Terri Lee Doll Company factory in Lincoln, circa 1949.

Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society / #RG5812.PH0-000042

Gradwohl tried hitching her wagon to a major celebrity to increase sales even more. 

From the Journal Star article:

In 1949, Gradwohl issued a Gene Autry doll. A huge fan of the cowboy crooner, Gradwohl convinced him to come to Lincoln to promote the doll.

Unfortunately, the Gene Autry doll was not that popular, Koeppe said. And he wasn’t made with the same craftsmanship and attention to detail that the Terri Lee line was known for.

What was popular though, was the doll’s Western wear -- which sold far better than the Gene Autry doll himself, Koeppe said.

A late night fire destroyed the Terri Lee Doll Company factory and, ultimately, the company itself.

Read more about Autry’s visit and the interesting family drama of the Terri Lee Doll Company in the Lincoln Journal Star’s 2012 article, World’s ‘best dressed doll’ born in Lincoln, and see hundreds of other historic and stunning image in the Journal Star’s new book, Volume II: Lincoln Memories.

Volume II: Lincoln Memories: The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s Cover
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