Unraveling the Mystery of a Mannequin From the Movie Mannequin, Now on Display at a Philadelphia Mall

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Unraveling the Mystery of a Mannequin From the Movie Mannequin, Now on Display at a Philadelphia Mall
At left: Emmy, in the new Fashion District mall in Philadelphia. At right: Emmy, from the 1987 film Mannequin. :

What’s lost isn’t always lost. Sometimes a researcher sifts through a dark corner of a storage unit and uncovers a forgotten artifact. It’s been happening a lot in Philadelphia, of all places, this month. Earlier this month Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren posted on his blog that the Free Library of Philadelphia’s annotated copy of the First Folio was once John Milton’s.

You don’t really need to have ever opened a book to know that finding the writer of Paradise Lost’s notes on a first edition of William Shakespeare’s plays is a pretty big deal. In case you need to place this, imagine that if in 400 years, a historian found Lady Gaga’s annotated copy of The Immaculate Collection. But what if I told you there was an even bigger historical mystery taking place in Philadelphia this very same month?

It concerns Emmy, the mannequin from Mannequin. It involves a clothing shop involved in a Twitter back-and-forth with Kim Cattrall. Offline, it’s all taking place at a new mall in Center City Philadelphia that’s the latest attempt to rejuvenate a section of downtown Philly. And for one week, it took over my life.

The news about Emmy also came to the world via blog post, this one by Marisa Magnatta, a producer for WMMR’s longtime Preston & Steve morning show. She wrote that South Fellini, a Philadelphia novelty clothing store, had acquired a mannequin from the movie Mannequin. It would be on display in the store’s new second location in the Fashion District of Philadelphia, a rehabbed mall in Center City (for those of you who don’t speak Philadelphian, this is what other cities would call “downtown”).

Some backstory: Mannequin was a 1987 movie, filmed mostly in Philadelphia, starring Kim Cattrall as Emmy (the titular mannequin) and Andrew McCarthy as mannequin designer Jonathan Switcher. Jonathan creates Emmy the mannequin, but gets fired from his job for spending too much time on her. He makes his way to the department store where Emmy ends up, and gets a gig as a stockboy. Emmy comes to life at night, and the two turn around the flailing store’s fortunes with their elaborate window displays. Jonathan is promoted to VP and saves Emmy from the clutches of the evil rival department store owners. She comes to life for good at the end and they get married.

The film also posits—and I swear to the Egyptian gods I am not making this up—that the greatest time in human history is 1980s Philadelphia.

But that’s all, erhm, window dressing. The real plot of the film, as lovingly described by Seanbaby, is “ancient cursed woman has noisy sex parties with Andrew McCarthy every night in a department store.” Mannequin also stars Meshach Taylor as a gay stereotype, Estelle Getty as a department store owner, James Spader as an evil department store manager, and G. W. Bailey as a night watchman. The film actually posits that Jonathan’s incredible window displays take 89 percent of business from other local department stores, in case you’re wondering if this movie about a mannequin that comes to life is realistic. Oh, and Emmy is actually an ancient Egyptian princess who has been Forrest-Gumping through history, having dated both Michaelangelo and Christopher Columbus before settling down with Jonathan. Mannequin makes Today’s Special look like Bicycle Thieves.

But the movie has a great cast, and it’s eminently watchable. It is also a complete mess. As the Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington wrote upon its release, it wants to be one of those fantasy comedies from the 1940s but never quite gets there. “The filmmakers had the aspirations of classy old-style Hollywood hacks, but not their tricks,” he wrote. The film also posits—and I swear to the Egyptian gods that I am not making this up—that the greatest time in human history is 1980s Philadelphia.

Perhaps the filmmakers were just really excited about our new downtown mall. Philadelphia, like many other major American cities, went through a massive process of what’s known as “urban renewal” in the second half of the 20th century. The mall, originally called The Gallery, was the brainchild of Ed Bacon, longtime head of the city’s planning commission (and, yes, father of Kevin). Bacon wanted to bring the suburban shopping experience downtown. The first part of the mall opened in 1977; a second part (as well as a new train station) would open in the 1980s.

Initially the mall was such a hit that a store was robbed on its first day, but the hype didn’t last forever. Original anchor shops Gimbel’s and Strawbridge’s went out of business. Other anchors left too, and soon the upper levels of the mall had more “for lease” signs than actual stores. The mall was still popular—before it closed, it generated above-average revenue per square foot—but started to deteriorate. Its Center City location, bookended by subway stations and train lines, always drew crowds. But it was starting to seem really old.

It also did not have a great reputation. There were riots during a Dr. J retirement parade in the 1980s and a Chingy appearance in the 2000s. Suburbanites realized they didn’t need to drive to the city to go to the same stores that were in their suburban malls. And some people just didn’t want to go into a mall that might also have poor people in it. I mean, look at the Yelp reviews.

In the 2011 book The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life, sociologist Elijah Anderson called the Gallery “The Ghetto Downtown.” The Gallery was a hangout for black Philadelphians—not just teenagers, as one might expect, but older people too. “Black church ladies sit and make their place there, you have men from the communities, men of the old manufacturing economy, men who worked at Budd Company,” he told me for an article about The Gallery I wrote for Philadelphia magazine in 2015. “They can come there and see their friends and make friends. They don’t always know each other well. And when they leave there, they go back to separate communities sometimes. But the train is right there for them.”

Anderson wrote that some white people wouldn’t even go near it. “A few venture into the Gallery only when accompanied by black companions,” he wrote.

We’re totally dancing to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” at our wedding.

I loved The Gallery. My mom worked at an office building at one end of it, and going to see her was a big adventure when I was a kid. When I moved to Center City after college, I frequented the mall’s CD stores and sneaker shops. I drank at the 2 Street Cafe, the better-than-you’d-think bar in the mall’s basement. Sometimes I’d post up in the food court and do work. The chaos of the place brightened me. I was totally sad when the mall closed in 2015! No matter how much they attempt to rebrand the opening of the Fashion District of Philadelphia, I’m still going to call it The Gallery.

Sometime in the fall of 2013, I bought a copy of Mannequin at The Gallery. I think it was on sale. I remember the clerk asking me to describe the plot and not believing me when I told her. “You know this was filmed down the street at Wanamaker’s,” I said, namedropping the iconic Philadelphia department store that is now a Macy’s. A year later I watched the movie with a woman I’d just started dating. We loved it, for whatever reason. We watched it a few more times. We bought each other Blu-Ray copies of it. And several years later, I proposed in the courtyard at Wanamaker’s. We’re totally dancing to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” at our wedding. If not for The Gallery and for Mannequin, who knows where our relationship would be.

So when I heard that Emmy was going to be on display at the Fashion District of Philadelphia, I knew I had to be there on opening day. I actually walked through the new mall with three different friends on the first few days, just to try to get a feel of it. Sometimes a new public space needs a little breaking in.

I am happy to report that the New Gallery feels just like the old one. It is very white and bright, the current trend for malls. (The decor reminds me of the mall at the Oculus in Lower Manhattan.) It has fewer sneaker stores, probably due to an exclusivity clause in the lease with the new Nike outlet. But the GameStop moved back into the same space it was before. It still smells like Cinnabon at the one entrance. It still feels like Philadelphia.

But the new mall focuses more on experiences: There’s a branch of the City Winery chain; soon there will be a movie theater and a Round 1, a Japan-based video arcade, bowling alley and bar. There is a candy-themed playplace where you can pay $28 and take cool Instagram photos. And, to the new mall owner’s credit, they have brought in some local businesses. Several of the stores are aimed at black customers: There’s a hat shop, a woman’s boutique, and a jewelry/art store, all black-owned. The crowd outside Dolly’s Boutique at its opening made it look like Jonathan and Emmy had just designed a new window display. American Hats had a band in the store opening day. Who knows how Philadelphians will view the mall, but it does just feel like The Gallery again in a lot of ways. I think that’s actually pretty good. I am cautiously optimistic.

South Fellini, another of the local businesses, was my destination on opening day. The store and the mannequin stunt are the brainchild of two Philly natives, Tony Trov and Johnny Zito, who initially screenprinted bootleg t-shirts in order to fund their short films while at Temple. That developed into an online shop, and then a physical location on East Passyunk Avenue, a South Philly commercial strip. (Their store is near Cheesesteak Vegas, if you’d like to place it.)

But both continued to work in the local film industry, and Trov struck up a friendship with a longtime worker on Philly movie and TV sets. That man, who the store says wants to remain anonymous, worked on both Mannequin films. And one day, in a storage unit, Trov noticed this guy had an Emmy mannequin.

He had lots of mannequin parts, actually. Trov and Zito instantly realized their prospects. They still make movies, and wanted to put it in one of the horror films they made together, but decided against it due to possible rights issues. (They’re well past the bootlegging stage of their careers.) Their South Philly store wasn’t big enough for it. But their mall spot in the new Gallery? When they signed a two-year lease with the mall, their anonymous benefactor reached out and said now was time to put Emmy back on display for Philadelphians to enjoy.

The mannequin, being a prop from a 1987 film, was not in great shape by the time it was procured by the store. Trov and Zito did some touch-ups on the face. They bought a new wig for it—“Disco Angel,” from a Delaware Ave. Halloween shop—and dressed it in some of the brand’s clothing.

I stopped by the shop at lunchtime on opening day and talked with the owners. I took some photos. I figured it was going to be a 250-word post for Jezebel with some photos and I’d move on with my work.

But all was not as it seemed. Seeing the original blog post that scooped the city on this breaking news story, Kim Cattrall tweeted that, no, the mannequin on display was a fake! The South Fellini owners thought Cattrall was simply reacting to the stock photo with Magnatta’s initial article. They came back with a still of the actual mannequin. But Cattrall was still not convinced.

A scandal! I had to investigate more. I contacted Cattrall’s publicist, but the actor is currently busy filming a new TV series (Filthy Rich) in New Orleans and could not comment. I went back to the store. I was under the assumption that it would be prohibitively expensive for the South Fellini guys to fake a mannequin that looks remarkably like Emmy, but there were some doubts. They informed me of a stamp on the bottom of the mannequin torso, from Wolf & Vine-Greneker, which constructed many of the mannequin props for the film. They had something that was at least somewhat legit.

According to interviews done around the time of the film’s release, six mannequins were sculpted of Kim Cattrall for close-up shots. Another 20 or so were made for stunts. And the woman who sculpted those mannequins was Tanya Wolf Ragir, a Los Angeles-based artist. I called her.

Tanya Wolf Ragir was arms-deep in clay when she picked up the phone. But she agreed to talk to me about her work on Mannequin and its sequel, Mannequin Two: On the Move.

Wolf Ragir has been an artist since she was a child. She is now, as she describes it, a “serious-as-a-heart-attack sculptor.” But, like many other artists, she also did commercial work. Her father’s uncle had founded a company that made fiberglass mannequins. She is an artist. It was a perfect fit.

She started with a kids’ line—relatively unheard of in those days in the mannequin industry, Wolf Ragir said. Through their parents, she recruited kids from bougie private schools and turned them into mannequin models. (She says some of these mannequins are still in use today, about 40 years later.) Later, she began developing mannequins of different body types. She sculpted lots of people for mannequin models—including Bill Paxton, early in his career.

Wolf Ragir says she made around 1000 mannequins over the course of her time in the business. She was, as she tells it, incredible at her work. Seeing how much Emmy the mannequin looks like Kim Cattrall, I believe her. “For me to crank out a mannequin every two weeks,” she tells Jezebel, “it was just like playing scales as a pianist.” When the producers of Mannequin were looking for a mannequin maker, her name popped up. “I had a big, huge reputation,” she says. “I was easy to find.”

Molds in Tanya Wolf Ragir’s studio of various mannequin masks. One on the right is a mask of Meshach Taylor, made for the Mannequin sequel. The one on the far left is Bill Paxton. Photo:Courtesy of the artist

She didn’t have to just make mannequins for this film. She had to make mannequins that fit the scenes. She was given a script with notes of every time a mannequin would appear on screen. She had to make a bunch of different poses.

“I was given the task to figure this shit out,” she says. “Here’s everywhere where a mannequin appears in the movie. I said to myself, ‘Look at the script, Tanya, what do you need to sculpt? Here’s where she turns into a mannequin. Here’s where she’s going into the chopper.’” (The climax of the film involves Emmy nearly falling down a mannequin destruction conveyor belt that is in the basement of a department store. I looked into it and these do not actually exist.)

Wolf Ragir had to sculpt Emmy in various scenes. She even had to sculpt a mannequin arm giving the finger at the movie’s villains, in what has to be the first time a mannequin ever flipped the bird. The task was helped, of course, by the fact that Wolf Ragir had a “full-fledged mannequin factory” behind her work. She was able to get armloads of arms and legs for the movie.

Cattrall tweeted that she sat for six weeks for Wolf Ragir. The session was just like any other. Cattrall posed in a Santa Monica garage Wolf Ragir was using as a studio at that time. The two became friendly. From her tweets, it’s clear Cattrall still really appreciated Wolf Ragir’s work. Who wouldn’t want a perfect mannequin of themselves?

But as fascinating as it was to learn about Wolf Ragir’s history as a mannequin sculptor, I still had the most important question unanswered: Was this mannequin really Emmy? After our call ended, I texted her a photo.

“At first glance I don’t recognize the body (for sure the hands are someone else’s),” she texted me. But the head, she said, was hers: “It’s for sure her head, I just didn’t recognize the body.”

I went back to the South Fellini guys. They explained to me how it all happened: When they found the Emmy mannequin, it was just a head and a torso. There were also a lot of other mannequin parts in varying conditions in that storage space. So they snapped various arms and legs onto her to make a full body.

The mystery was solved. The mannequin on display is Emmy’s head on some other mannequin body parts. For this reason, and only this reason, it is not like the Free Library’s first folio. It is not a complete specimen. It is more like one of the fragments of the First Folio that exist. It’s still important and historic. It’s just not a full copy.

It’s not her body. And it doesn’t come to life at night. But it’s still Emmy—her head and torso, at least. And a little piece of movie history is now on display for anyone to see.

Emmy—well, her head and torso—back on display for the world to see at last. Photo:Dan McQuade (Jezebel)

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