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Old show, new looks

The Baltimore Sun

Some of the kids participating in Baltimore's 67th annual doll show yesterday were mostly just interested in the free ice skating planned after the judging.

Not Destiny Cooke.

The 10-year-old left no detail unattended as she dressed her My Twinn doll - named It's-A-Me - as herself. The girl and her inanimate companion wore matching white ribbons around their pigtails, matching wire-rimmed glasses, matching magenta V-neck sweaters, gray plaid kilts and black patent leather shoes.

"I really think we may win this competition if we just hold our strength together," said Destiny, a fifth-grader at Dr. Nathan A. Pitts-Ashburton Elementary/Middle School. With her aunt by her side and It's-A-Me in her lap, she perched forward in her second-row seat, waiting for the judging to begin.

Destiny was one of 44 contestants vying to be crowned king or queen of the doll show, held at Patterson Park's Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro Family Skating Center. Any child up to age 14 was allowed to submit a doll to be judged in any of 10 categories, from most unusual, to best foreign doll, to most identical twins. The winner of each category got a blue ribbon. The king and queen each got a crown and a trophy.

No one submitted a doll in one of the contest's oldest categories, best bride. The newest category, best action figure, was created nearly a decade ago in attempt to enlarge the pool of male candidates competing to be king. Girls still outnumbered boys 3 to 1.

Run by the city Department of Recreation and Parks, the doll show isn't as big as it used to be. When it started in the 1940s, schools would hold qualifying competitions during the summer, and the finalists would compete in Patterson Park before a crowd of thousands over the Christmas week. Over the years, the event moved, first to War Memorial Plaza, then to Broadway Square in Fells Point, then back to Patterson Park.

But it has remained a beloved Baltimore tradition, a way for children to show off their old keepsakes and their new holiday loot. And it keeps alive the legacy of its founder, Virginia S. Baker, who worked in city recreation under nine mayors and ran an "Adventures in Fun" office under Mayor William Donald Schaefer. She was known as Baltimore's oldest kid.

Baker died in 1998, but some of her former assistants turn out each December to honor her memory. Pat Mallek, a former secretary, visited yesterday with a porcelain-faced doll from the 1920s. Her 3-year-old granddaughter submitted it as the lone entry in the contest's antiques category. (Another grandmother brought an antique but, being older than 14, was not allowed to submit it herself, and her two granddaughters were more interested in submitting their American Girl dolls in the best-dressed category.)

Destiny thought she had the twin category nailed - until she saw Alyssa Airey, 9, whose My Twinn doll had her long blond hair and black and pink athletic suit. (My Twinn dolls are custom-made based on a child's photograph.) Fortunately, Rosy Lapointe, 4 - whose grandmother made matching pink shimmery skirts and lavender knit vests and hats for Christmas for her and her craft-store doll, Grace, - entered in best dressed, not twins.

A master of ceremonies called the participants one by one to appear before a table where three volunteer judges were sitting. The judges asked them questions about their dolls.

"How long have you had it?" East Baltimore Guide reporter Mary Helen Sprecher asked a girl about her Bratz doll, which wore a gold sequined dress and a high ponytail.

"Ten years," replied the girl, there with a group of friends who all had dolls named Cloe.

"How old are you?" the judge asked.

"Eight," she said.

There was no microphone for the audience to hear the questions and answers, so kids waiting sipped on sodas, rested on their mothers, knitted friendship bracelets and chased each other around.

Antrel McDowell, 11, stayed occupied with his Game Boy. He was so entrenched in a Pokemon match that he continued playing at the judging table while presenting his robotic dinosaur, named RoboRex. He won the action figure category nonetheless but lost out on the king's title to Mark Ponce, 7, who brought a small plastic toolbox filled with figurines from the computer game U.B. Funkeys.

"This one is from my dad, and this one is from my sister and my mom, and these three are from Sears," Mark told the judges excitedly as he presented his collection in the most unusual category.

The judges rated each of the submissions on a scale from 1 to 10, not on a doll's looks alone, but also on how the children interacted with them. Poised and articulate, Destiny pulled through to win the ribbon for the twins category.

But the queen's crown went to an unsuspecting third-grader from Federal Hill Preparatory School.

Kory Sanders, 8, whose group from the South Baltimore Recreation Center showed up late to the competition, never thought she'd become queen with Cecile, her ivory teddy bear made of polyester. But who could resist a child explaining how her stuffed animal was a gift from her recently deceased grandfather and how she remembers her grandpa every night when she sleeps with his bear?

"I wouldn't expect the box to win, either," Kory said as she and Cecile sat on a throne beside Mark and his toolbox, smiling for photos and clutching their trophies.

"I feel like I'm a superstar."

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