LOS ANGELES – Donna Mills (Knots Landing, Play Misty For Me and currently General Hospital) has a collection of about 35 vintage teddy bears – all from the early 1900s to the mid-20th century – but she didn’t own a teddy as a kid and didn’t get started collecting until she was well into adulthood.
“I used to work in England a lot in the early ’70s, mainly on thrillers and other projects co-produced by British television and ABC,” the actress said. “In my down time I loved going to the flea markets and fairs in London, and that’s where I bought my first bear.”
Mills thinks that bear is probably one of the several Merrythoughts in her collection, Merrythought being the British maker that got into the bear business around 1930. But it isn’t the oldest; that honor would go to her straw-filled bears from the very early 20th century, when teddy bears were first introduced. The stuffed animals are famously named in honor of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, who spared the life of a small bear while on a hunt. Those very early bears were stuffed with straw – actually excelsior, or wood wool.
Back in the U.S., Mills became friendly with a woman who was a major teddy bear collector. “You should have seen her house,” Mills exclaimed. “It was wall-to-wall bears, just teddy bears everywhere – very impressive.”
The woman took Mills under her wing and mentored her on the finer points of antique bears. “I knew what to look for thanks to her, but I also have bought bears just because I love the way they look, their expressions, or the craftsmanship that went into making them. Their faces – they have real personality. I just love them.”
The name most synonymous with antique teddy bears is Steiff, the German maker that began producing bears in the early 20th century, and Mills has several examples from the period. She also owns Steiff stuffed animals that aren’t bears at all. One is a bulldog, one is a wolf and one is a monkey, which she displays on a push cart. The monkey, in fact, is one of her favorite dolls. “It’s very old, and I’m not entirely certain it was made by Steiff, but I believe it was,” she said. “I love him, though, as much as I love any of my bears.”
At Mills’s previous residence, she had her teddy bears seated in chairs, which made for a whimsical design statement, as well as a surefire conversation starter. In her new home, though, she has the bears displayed in a bookcase outside her daughter’s bedroom. Her daughter, Chloe, 19, is a professional model and a student at New York University. One bear is too large to fit on the shelf however – he’s 3 feet tall – so he acts as a greeter, nearby. “I bought him in Paris, from a shopkeeper who didn’t really want to sell him, but he finally did.”
Mills’s collection has been truly a worldwide effort. She’s bought bears in England, France and even Amsterdam, Holland. “I was there around 1990, shooting a miniseries called Remember,” she recalled. “The filming went back and forth between Amsterdam, Dublin and Barcelona. It was great for the travel, but Amsterdam is where I found a couple of bears I liked.” All the bears in Mills’s collection were found and bought by her – except one. “It was a gift from my nephew’s wife. It’s this amazing teddy bear with glasses, a tweed suit and vest. She made every bit of it herself.”
It’s been years since Mills added a new doll to the group, but she came close not too long ago. “I was in a toy store in Palm Springs and the owner had her daughter’s collection of vintage bears on display, all ready to go to a museum,” she said. “They weren’t for sale, but they weren’t not for sale, and we went back and forth a little bit on a couple of pieces, but in the end I just had to walk away because she was simply asking too much for them. But that kind of put me back in the buying mood, so who knows – I may get more bears someday.”
The very earliest teddy bears – the ones in honor of Roosevelt – were made starting in 1902 by Brooklyn, N.Y., store owners Morris and Rose Michtom. They called their bear doll “Teddy’s Bear” and put it in their store window. It was an immediate sensation and prompted the couple to found the Ideal Novelty & Toy Co. Meanwhile, at about the same time, Richard Steiff in Germany was creating a soft toy bear for his aunt, Margarete, who owned a large toy factory. She began making the bears under the Steiff name and they were an instant hit, too.
The Steiff bears and the Ideal bears were very different from one another. The Steiff bears featured hump backs, long snouts, long arms with curved paws and large tapered feet. Starting in 1906, the trademark Steiff button was sewn into their ears. The Ideal bears had triangular faces, chunky bodies and long straight arms and legs. In those early years many other companies sprang up, making bears. The Laughing Roosevelt Bear, made by the Columbia Teddy Bear Co., featured Roosevelt’s large teeth. The Patriotic Bear, made in 1917 during World War I, was red, white and blue and had electric light bulbs for eyes.
Other countries were eager to get into the act, too. In addition to Steiff, Germany had Bing making mechanical bears and Schuco producing miniature bears. Hermann was another German maker. Great Britain had Dean making bears starting in 1915, followed by J.K. Farrell in 1921 (makers of perhaps the most famous stuffed bear of all time, Winnie the Pooh), and then Merrythought in 1930. Other early English bear makers included Harwin & Co., Chad Valley, William J. Terry and Chiltern. The U.S. had Knickerbocker, Bruin, Aetna and Gund. Even Australia had a company – Joy Toys – making teddy bears in those early heydays.
The older teddy bears were most often made out of wool mohair. Starting around 1930, silk plush bears were introduced. After World War II cotton plush was the material of choice, but that soon gave way to synthetics. By the 1950s the U.S. market was inundated with cheap plush toys from Asian factories. Teddy bear collecting began to die out, but it got a boost from Peter Bull in 1969, with the publication of his book on teddy bear collecting. In 1985, Christie’s held the first public auction ever dedicated entirely to antique and vintage teddy bears.
Donna Mills was born and raised in Chicago. Her father was an oil executive and her mother was a dance instructor. Donna studied ballet throughout her teens and, after a year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she left to pursue a dancing career. She was cast in a touring production of My Fair Lady, which ultimately landed her in New York City. There, she was cast in Woody Allen’s first play, Don’t Drink the Water. Her TV career was launched in 1966, with the role of “Rocket” on the daytime soap opera, The Secret Storm.
The following year, 1967, she landed a regular part in another soap, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, as the character “Laura Donnelly.” She left the show in 1970 for Hollywood, to try her hand in films. She immediately scored a leading part in the cult classic movie, Play Misty For Me (1971), opposite Clint Eastwood and also starring Jessica Walter. She spent most of the rest of the ’70s guest-starring on many of the popular TV shows of the time, such as The Six Million Dollar Man, The FBI, CHiPs, The Love Boat, Hawaii Five-0 and Quincy, M.E.
But in 1980, Mills was cast in the role for which she is best remembered – as the scheming, conniving “Abby Cunningham” in the long-running hit series Knots Landing (1980-1989). She left the show while it was still on the air, saying she was tired of being typecast as a villainess and that her character was getting stale. She spent part of the 1990s acting in and co-producing made-for-TV movies, such as The World’s Oldest Living Bridesmaid (1990), Runaway Father (1991), In My Daughter’s Name (1992) and My Name is Kate (1994).
In recent years, Mills has continued to perform in made-for-TV movies and has just been cast in a major recurring role on the long-running ABC daytime soap General Hospital, playing the part of “Madeline.” Mills is a longtime expert in the field of beauty and cosmetics. She has always done her own hair and makeup – even on set – and in 1986 she released an instructional video titled The Eyes Have It for achieving different make-up looks. She also released a line of cosmetics under the same name. Donna Mills is single and lives in Los Angeles.
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