Martin Tyre sits at his kitchen table and workbench with Chatty Chatty and Herman Munster dolls. Over the past five years, Tyre has turned his hobby of repairing talking doll voice boxes into a part-time career. (Staff Photo: Terry Lewis)
ALBANY — As a child, young Martin Tyre always enjoyed visiting his cousin, Kay, whose bedroom he described as a “toy wonderland.” He was especially in awe of Kay’s “Chatty Cathy” doll, but what he didn’t know then is how intertwined with one of the world’s most commercially successful talking dolls he would become.
He began collecting toys and his fascination with talking dolls grew along with his collection, eventually leading to his becoming one of a handful of people in the country who repair the voice boxes of talking dolls.
As an adult, Tyre spent 25 years working with the Department of Family and Childrens Sevices before retiring just over five years ago.
“After I retired I was on eBay looking at the dolls and that’s when I really started getting into collecting again,” Tyre said. “I was always fascinated by the talking dolls and how they worked. Dolls like Chatty Cathy were never meant to be repaired — they were meant to last 10 or 12 years then wear out. I began buying reasonably priced dolls that no longer talked and also picked up a small booklet on how to repair the voice boxes.
Tyre bought tools and solvents and a Chatty Cathy doll and took it apart.
Mattel’s Chatty Cathy spoke one of eleven phrases at random when the “chatty ring” protruding from its upper back was pulled. The ring is attached to a string connected to a simple low-fidelity phonograph record in the doll’s abdomen. The record was driven by a metal coil wound by pulling the doll’s string.
“There can be several things which can make a pull-string doll stop talking,” Tyre said. “The pull string can break, the spring can uncoil, the little record or the needle can wear out. As I said before, they weren’t meant to be repaired, they have to be cut open at the seams with a hobby knife, fixed, then epoxied back together.”
After several hit and misses with experimental doll dissections and reassembly, Tyre began to become quite accomplished in restoring life to many broken dolls.
“I began to get comfortable with my work but it was still just a hobby,” Tyre said. “I bought and repaired quite a few then decided to see if I could sell them on eBay. In 2009, between August and Christmas, I sold about 50 repaired dolls, and I thought, well now ….”
With his kitchen table also functioning as a workbench, Tyre expanded into other doll voice boxes such as as “Mr. Ed.” “Herman Munster,” and more recently the talking Ken and Barbie dolls. However, as dolls began arriving at his house he soon found out he had to learn more than just how to repair the voice boxes.
“I had to learn how to ship better and how to put the voice boxes back together more tightly so the wouldn’t fall apart during shipment,” He said. “I also had to learn about customer service, these people can be really funny about their dolls. They can get really involved with them, and every now and then I run across a crazy person.”
Since that Christmas of 2009, Tyre reckons he’s repaired between 500 and 1,000 dolls. “I really haven’t kept up with the number,” he said.
A meticulous craftsman, Tyre doesn’t regard himself as a doll repairman, but rather a custodian of the past.
“The Chatty Cathy dolls are more than 50 years old,” Tyre said. “I like to look at it as taking a piece of history and bringing it back to life. That’s what I get the biggest thrill from.”
Tyre said he never imagined his hobby would lead him to where he is today.
“What’s surprised me the most is that I really just fell into this. Never in 100 years would I have thought I’d be doing this,” He said. “It’s given me a career I wasn’t really looking for and something I enjoy doing most of the time.”