The Last Doll Lady, a 93-year-old anti-racism advocate, honored in new film about her 60-year crusade
LAGUNA WOODS — In the early 1950s, a representative of the Anti-Defamation League entered Selma Bukstein’s small hometown in Missouri armed with a briefcase full of dolls, single-handedly solidifying her life’s mission for the next 60 years — to fight prejudice.
As part of the program “Dolls for Democracy,” Bukstein visited local grade schools, using seven figurines that shared the likeness to such historical humanitarians as Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller in order to spread anti-bullying messages of brotherhood and tolerance.
At its peak, the program featured 2,000 doll ladies around the country, 241 chapters with about three to four women per branch, she recalled.
“If you don’t stop feelings of prejudice when the kids are little, those feelings only get bigger as the child gets bigger,” Bukstein said.
Captured on camera for the first time, filmmaker Taryn Hough’s inaugural 22-minute documentary “The Last Doll Lady” tells the behind-the-scenes story of a 93-year-old Bukstein as she tries to pass along her legacy of presenting important civic lessons to grade-school children as the last representative of a dying, mid-century program.
A free showing of the documentary is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at the Laguna Woods Village Performing Arts Center. Seats will be on a first-come, first-served basis.
In the film, Bukstein faces disappointment, rejection and criticism in her efforts to provide a service seen as trite or outmoded in the digital age.
“So many people were telling her how to run the program, that kids don’t care about dolls anymore,” Hough said, of the principals, teachers and other adults running the school programs. “They just kind of assumed that kids want tablets, apps or games.”
Turns out, in this case, the adults were wrong.
The film depicts a room of about 50 kids, ages 4-14, sitting, quiet and patient, hanging onto Bukstein retelling history, doll in hand. Then, rushing the stage post presentation for a closer look at the one-of-a-kind, handcrafted figurines.
Hough first read of Bukstein’s story in a newspaper passed on by her mother, a Laguna Woods Village resident. At the time, Hough was looking for a documentary subject — and her mother found it.
“Of course, the story is interesting because essentially this program was built by a bunch of housewives who got together to fight racism before the civil rights movement. That alone is mindblowing to me,” Hough said. “Then, I met Selma and thought wow, here is a woman who is really trying to make a difference in the world.”
The documentary has been submitted in 35 film festivals and counting and has won a dozen accolades including “Best Short Documentary,” “Best Director of a Documentary” and “Most Inspirational Documentary,” Hough said.
She recently signed a contract with PBS to air “The Last Doll Lady” next year, which will be extended in length for television. The network also piqued interest in Hough’s upcoming documentary featuring Laguna Woods Village’s renowned water ballerinas, the Aquadettes.
“Selma’s story reminds us that no matter how bad things get, there’s always going to be good people out there fighting racism,” Hough said. “One person can truly make a difference. And sometimes that’s a woman with a case full of dolls.”
To this day, Bukstein gives presentations featuring her 60-year-old, Barbie-sized figurines at local churches. She changed the program’s name to “Heroes of Democracy” in 2014, to appeal to a wider audience.
Though Bukstein started this work post-World War II and pre-civil rights movement — when the Ku Klux Klan burned churches and police brutality first came to light — after six decades of grade-school seminars, she is well aware that the work isn’t over.
“1950s prejudice is 2019 prejudice — it’s still here and it’s a disease you have to kill,” she said. “Hate hurts the person that carries it just as much as the person they’re being violent towards.”
Bukstein said she hopes to get back into elementary auditoriums to reach more kids before hate speech does.
“Children have to be taught to not be prejudice before it’s too late, before they become prejudiced,” Bukstein said, noting oversight on the issue from grossly undercompensated teachers and the thinly-stretched parents of today’s fast-paced world.
“If it’s not me, then who?”