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ALL DOLLED UP

By Jeanne Starmack

Thursday, July 15, 2010

By Jeanne Starmack

starmack@vindy.com

LOWELLVILLE

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Photo by: Geoffrey Hauschild

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Frank Speziale of Struthers steadies the Baby Doll, which he will wear during the annual Baby Doll Dance at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival. Speziale has been doing the dance for the festival since 1981. The festival, which began Wednesday, continues through Saturday at the festival grounds in Lowellville. Hours are 6 p.m. until midnight.

In the past, she’s been torched and her head’s been blown off.

She had a face, too, that would scare small children.

But these days, the 15-foot-tall Baby Doll gets better treatment by those who see her as a beloved — yes, they do love her — Italian tradition.

Her face, drawn on paper that covers her ceramic head, is much softer and prettier now so those kids don’t run screaming.

Her head doesn’t blow up, and the villagers don’t burn her, either, mainly because there’s liability considerations in today’s sue-happy society.

Today, all she does is entertain the crowd at the Mount Carmel Society’s annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival in Lowellville. She meets the Mount Carmel Band in the street outside the festival grounds, is escorted in and dances and spins while the band plays an Italian march.

Zambelli Fireworks of New Castle, Pa., provides extensions for her arms, which shoot off fireworks toward the sky for about 10 minutes. In the dance’s finale, fireworks also shoot off from a rod sticking up from her head.

Oh, but there was a day, Mount Carmel Society President Bob Coppola remembered Tuesday, the eve of the festival.

He contemplated the history of the papier maché giantess as she stood in the driveway of a Struthers house where her keeper, society member Frank Speziale, stores her throughout the year. The house belongs to a relative of Speziale.

When he was a kid, Coppola said, the dance finale also included a fireworks bomb that took off the doll’s head.

In the old days in southern Italy, he said, it was even more extreme, because she signified a witch. She was set on fire, and her burning was a symbolic cleansing of the sins and troubles of the past year.

“The guy would throw it [the doll] and it would land wherever, and they’d watch it burn,” said Speziale, who’s been the feet of the Lowellville doll since 1981 — she’s hollow inside, and he wears her while he guides her through her dance. He took over the task from his uncle, Carmen Carcelli, who made the doll to the authentic size and with the same materials as in the old country.

Carcelli took the dance over from a man who’d brought the tradition to the United States from

Italy, performing at festivals throughout the area. Lowellville has had the dance since the Mount Carmel Society began in 1885, Coppola said.

Through the years, she’s been different colors. She’s been pink, and she was red, white and blue for the Bicentennial.

About 12 years ago, Speziale said, he painted her green, red and white, the colors of the Italian flag, to reflect her true heritage.

It was about that time, Coppola added, that Speziale began drawing her a prettier face — a final departure from her beginnings as a witch.

Coppola said he isn’t sure why she morphed from witch to the more benign persona, the Baby Doll. He said it happened, though, around the time she was brought to the United States.

Speziale said he has seen other baby-doll dances at other festivals, but they are not as authentic as Lowellville’s.

A table cloth over a Hula Hoop and a mannequin’s head are as elaborate as those dolls get, he said. Coppola said he thinks Lowellville is the only place in the tri-county area that has an authentic dance.

For Speziale, being the Baby Doll hasn’t always been easy. It’s hot under there, and once her fireworks are on, she weighs about 100 pounds. But for him, the doll and the dance are all about Italian, Lowellville and family traditions.

“I watched my uncle do the Baby Doll Dance as a kid, and I said, ‘One day, I’ll be doing it,’” he remembered Tuesday.

He will be the doll’s keeper, he said, until he passes it on — a nephew, who’s now in fifth grade, is showing an interest in succeeding him someday, he said — at least for now.

If you grew up in Lowellville, he said, you wait for the Baby Doll Dance.

This year, she performed Wednesday, the opening day of the festival, which also features plenty of Italian food, games and rides. She’ll do encores between 10 and 11 tonight and Friday night.