The story goes that Yoko Ono let her son, Sean Ono Lennon, play with a Beatles doll, and he ripped the head off.
So it was back to the sewing machine for Donna Moore.
The Kansas City woman had created the dolls — prototypes each a couple of feet high — and the company she worked for was trying to get permission to market them. It succeeded, despite the head mishap, and the Beatles dolls became part of a large body of work that Moore has produced since starting her artistic career at Hallmark in the 1960s.
Some of that work will be the subject of a special exhibit opening Saturday, June 10, at the National Museum of Toys/Miniatures in Kansas City. Most of the objects are three-dimensional plush toys. Some are instantly recognizable, like Snoopy, Felix the Cat, The Cat in the Hat, Mickey Mouse and Cap’n Crunch. Others are the creations of Moore’s imagination.
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“I draw with a sewing machine,” Moore said recently in her Prairie Village home, surrounded by some of her creations.
“I’ve probably got 70 boxes of toys in the basement,” she said. “And the rest is at the museum.”
Moore grew up near 18th Street and Cleveland Avenue and graduated from East High School. She dreamed of working for Hallmark because it was a cradle for artists and creativity.
Moore submitted a portfolio but was rejected. Her family scraped together money to send Moore to the Kansas City Art Institute for two years. Another rejection. More art lessons from a private tutor. Another rejection.
Hallmark had a policy of hiring only right-handed people who were at least 5 feet tall, said Moore, who was a 4-foot-11-inch lefty.
Finally, she lied about those attributes and got her foot in the door. Her first job was at a conveyor belt packing greeting cards, which Moore found difficult to do with her right hand.
Then it was a succession of other assignments before she landed in the design division, where she had wanted to be. Moore worked on a lot of “party units,” which were kits containing a tablecloth, centerpiece, plates, napkins, etc., all themed to a holiday or other occasion.
Eventually, Hallmark began to think beyond paper products. Maybe it should consider toys.
Moore began to produce three-dimensional soft toys with her portable Singer sewing machine. She would create the patterns like a dress design, sew the stuffed pieces together and then decorate the toy. She might make five teddy bears that would be shown to focus groups to gauge which one had the most appeal.
“I just draw the pattern the way I see it in my mind,” Moore said.
One early item was an anthropomorphic pumpkin for Halloween named Petey Pumpkin.
“The head of the department said, ‘I don’t think that this will work. We don’t need to order very many of these,’ ” Moore recalled. “Well, it sold out in a week.”
Petey Pumpkin and the Beatles dolls are among Moore’s creations included in “The Three-Dimensional Imagination of Donna Moore,” which will continue until next June on the second floor of the toy museum.
Also prominent will be various vegetables with personalities, including Barrett Carrot, that were part of a popular Hallmark line called Crazy Crop. It grew out of a marketing campaign called Calorie Gallery. A series of colorful dinosaurs that Moore created had a cameo appearance in the gift shop in the movie “Jurassic Park.” One of them also was featured in the 1994 film Wes Craven’s “New Nightmare.”
When she retired, Moore considered getting “rid of all this stuff,” but her daughter, Beth Moore, convinced her to save it. The daughter also alerted the toy museum.
“She let us know we had this treasure right here in Kansas City,” said Laura Taylor, a curator at the museum who was setting up the Moore display. “That’s how it came to be that we thought about doing an exhibit. We really liked the fact that she had an international career, but she was based right here in Kansas City. She kept trying to get that job at Hallmark, and then she worked her way up.”
The museum takes toys seriously, and Taylor said Moore’s work represents more than whimsy.
“The toy business has really changed a lot,” she said. “Much of this design work is done digitally now. So Donna Moore sitting down at her old Singer sewing machine and literally sketching these toys by sewing them was an artistic endeavor, not just something that was about making money.”
Moore was reluctant at first to agree to the museum exhibit.
“Who wants to see all this?” she asked. “When the light shines on you, you get a little embarrassed.”
Branching out from Hallmark
Moore became so successful at Hallmark that an in-house show was mounted of her work in the early 1980s. One person who visited and was impressed was Connie Boucher, who had built a company called Determined Productions. Among her licensing deals was an arrangement with Charles Schulz to market items based on “Peanuts” characters.
Boucher called Moore and asked her if she would like to create dolls based on the Beatles.
“I was paralyzed with fear,” Moore recalled. “I said I guess I could do that, but I would have to get permission. I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my job at Hallmark.”
One set of prototypes was to be dressed as the Beatles were on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” But Moore was stumped by the footwear. She said Ringo Starr drew an image and sent it to her. Moore didn’t think to save that drawing.
Then Boucher’s company wanted to know whether Moore would like a lump payment for her work or would prefer royalties.
“I had no idea what to say,” Moore recalled. “If I had been smarter, I’d have said royalties. But I just didn’t know. She did give me an outrageous amount of money.”
Not long after that, Boucher asked Moore to come work for her. Moore hesitated, noting that she was only a year or two away from receiving a Rolex watch for longevity at Hallmark.
“She said, ‘I’ll buy you three (Rolexes) if you come work for me,’ ” Moore said.
Hallmark felt like family to her. It was where she met her husband, Dean, who also worked there. But she soon quit her job, packed up her sewing machine and other equipment and set up in the family room of their home near Loose Park.
Moore had been sent to Korea and Hong Kong by Hallmark to work on manufacturing deals. On a trip to Japan for Boucher, Moore had to fend for herself in a roomful of businessmen to negotiate a deal to manufacture toys based on the creatures from “Where the Wild Things Are.” It worked out, and some of those toys that Moore created will be on display at the toy museum.
In the 1990s, Moore teamed with a former colleague at Hallmark, Suzie Cozad, to create their own company. Market Works Design made products for toy companies like Applause, Mattel and Dakin.
Now, Moore and her husband are enjoying retirement.
None of Donna Moore’s creations bears her name.
“You work and you work and you come to the end of it,” she said. “No one really knows what you did or who you are.”
She does miss the work.
“I miss the excitement. I miss going to different exotic places. I miss creating something that a kid is going to really like to hold and play with.”
“The Three-Dimensional Imagination of Donna Moore” runs Saturday through June 3, 2018, at the National Museum of Toys/Miniatures, 5235 Oak St. Admission is $5 for ages 5 and up.