Greg Rivera and Mike Essl, collectors of T memorabilia and proprietors of the website Mr. T and Me, bring the most important collection of handmade Mr. T dolls in existence to the Orchard Street Art Gallery on the Lower East Side. I Pity The Dolls!: A Collection of Contemporary and Vintage Mr. T Dolls opens June 9th, and will be on display through July 9th.
Ages, occupations, where are you from, where do you live now?
Mike Essl: Age: 31; assistant professor, graphic design, the Cooper Union; freelance graphic designer; I'm originally from a suburb of Philly and now live in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn!
Greg: Age 26; partner in an apparel line,MISHKA NYC; freelance prop/art assistant for TV and film; I was born in Bridgeport, CT, moved to Florida when I was 9; in New York City for the past three years.
A few for you:
Few people would call Mr. T a talented actor, a funny comedian, or even a good wrestler. He's really just a guy with a Mohawk and lots of jewelry--yet everybody loves him! What do you think is the universal appeal of Mr. T?
Mike: Ok, "He's really just a guy with a Mohawk" is not really ok to say out loud. Just a guy with a f'ing Mohawk??!! I wouldn't tattoo "just a guy with a Mohawk" on my arm. Mr. T was the light when I was a kid, my moral compass. How can you not love a guy that does so much for charity? That loves the kids? That wears all that gold and says things like "For the kids the T stands for Tender and for the bad guys it stands for Tough." He is also original. You can't say he is like X person, he made his own way and I think people know that. He is also really funny. Have you ever seen him on Conan? He's a comedic genius.
Greg: I don't know if I can answer that better than mike, I would just say, that my friend took a trip to some small village in west Africa and this kid recognized his Mr. T shirt. Mr. T makes people feel happy and positive about life.
Which one of you is the bigger T freak?
Mike: I am. But Greg's T collection is bigger. I ate an entire bowl of Mr. T cereal and got a mohawk on vh1. I also met Mr. T and cried after. Really it was more of a quiet sobbing, but still. I guess it depends on how you define freak. I dropped over $3,000 on Mr. T paintings, that is pretty freaky.
Greg: Well we both have tattoos, but Mike's is bigger. I have over 150 Homemade Mr.T dolls, so I think that makes me pretty freaky, but I would say Mike is the bigger T freak.
How (and for god's sake, WHY) did you begin collecting Mr. T dolls?
Mike: I only have one doll, I think they're creepy.
Greg: The homemade Mr. T dolls became an insane obsession after I figured out what they were. The first one that I saw was in 1997. My friend Brian Cain owned it, and told me that it was a made from a pattern to make your own Mr. T Cabbage Patch. Actually it was made from a pattern by Miss Martha Originals. When eBay started to blow up in like 1998 I began to find these dolls, and realized that there could be 100s if not 1000s of these dolls made in the 1980s from this pattern. I started buying everyone that I would see on eBay. I haven't won them all, but at this point I am up to I think around 160.
Yours might be the most specific collection of anything ever. Just Cabbage Patch-style homemade dolls? Really? No other styles of T doll?
Greg: Well, if you look at the dolls, they are very similar, but some look more like cabbage patch dolls than others. So it's more the idea of collecting the "soft-sculpture" Mr. T doll. Of course I collect any and all mass produced Mr. T dolls, from the Galoob action figure to a bootleg doll won at a carnival, to that stupid boxing Mr. T puppet.
To what lengths have you gone to find Mr. T dolls?
Mike: This wasn't a doll but one time I got sniped on eBay for a Mr. T LCD handheld videogame so I offered to buy it from the sniper and when he said no I sent the seller double the money in cash so that he would give it to me instead.
Greg: I haven't gone to great lengths. I mean, I do check eBay more than once a day. I did find a Mr.T doll at a flea market in Florida for $5. The old guy who sold it to me said, "You can have it cheap, I already had all my fun with it."
What other Mr. T memorabilia do you own? What's the most bizarre product Mr. T's face adorns?
Mike: We each have over 2000 pieces of Mr. T memorabilia so the list would be pretty long. You can see a small portion of stuff on the site. I would say that the homemade dolls are maybe the most bizarre. I have a Mr. T toy guitar made by Ohio Art. I don't really understand how that one got made. Some of the more random things are a T toothbrush, T air-fresheners, five different kinds of Mr. T soap, Mr. T hair trimmers... It is endless.
Greg: Apart from the dolls, and what Mike mentioned, I'd have to say one of the most bizarre photos on packaging is the one with Mr. T and (the poor cut-and-paste job) kittens. This image is on every Imperial Toy Company packaging. I also have a subway sign with Mr. T and Mayor Koch for the New York Fair Housing Task Force. Mr. T is busting down an apartment door to the astonishment of onlookers.
How is it that Mr. T has been able to resurrect himself as a kitschy pop-culture icon while so many of his contemporaries remain has-been punch lines (e.g., Gary Coleman) or have simply faded into obscurity (e.g., Dirk Benedict)?
Mike: He never really went away. He has been in films and TV solid since the 80's. The only real break he took was to battle skin cancer. And also he is Mr. T! He also hasn't completely humiliated himself like some of the other actors of his generation. He gets when it's a joke, but also if someone like Howard Stern takes a cheap shot he comes right back at him.
Greg: Also 'cause Mr. T is a good businessman. At this point in his career he chooses how much gold he is going to wear, depending on how much people are willing to pay him. Not because he’s broke and sold all his jewelry. I think that’s pretty badass!
Do you think 53-year-old Lawrence Tureaud really wakes up every morning, shaves two-thirds of his skull, and dyes the remaining tuft of gray hair a youthful black? Is that kind of sad?
Mike: Mr. T is so tough he beat cancer! Sad? No. I think he looks great considering what he went through. I am surprised though that he still keeps it up after all these years. I hate to shave so I hope he has someone doing it for him now.
Greg: Sad? He probably still has a hot young stylist doing his hair every week, or at least a couple times a month. Mr. T ain't no fool!
Now that artists and new fans are creating dolls to be included in the Mr. T and Me exhibit, how rapidly is the collection expanding?
Greg: Well the dolls for this show are going to be sold at auction with the proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society and Cancer Care. I am hoping that after the show, people will begin to donate dolls or ask to make them for the collection.
Does Mr. T know about this collection? If not, what do you think his reaction would be?
Greg: I am not sure if he knows about the collection. I think he would think it was pretty funny actually.
Are there any fools you pity?
Mike: Yes. Sammy "The Red Rocker" Hagar, Jay Leno, Josh Stone, Greg Rivera.
Greg: Mike Essl, Carrot Top, The Creeper, Rezeon Scum, Mr. Ziti.
How has eBay transformed the life and business of collectors?
Greg: Oh man, are you kidding! Before eBay, I would scour ToyShop magazine or toy shows to find T stuff. eBay has brought so much stuff out on the marketplace, and has made it affordable. Ask any toy/collectible dealer that has a store, they will tell you Mr. T stuff is hard to find. I remember paying $40 for a Mr. T whistle at toy store in New York called Howdy Do in 1997. I can probably get that same whistle on eBay for $5. It has made items accessible and affordable. Look at something like Star Wars, it’s flooded the market. You are lucky if you can get $5 for a loose figure, where a collectible store would charge $20 and up. eBay has also opened up the international market. You would not believe how much T stuff I have purchased from Argentina!
After website and gallery show, what's next for you?
Mike: We would love to work with Mr. T. Maybe license some things or get his help on finding things we don't have.
Greg: Mike and I are going to travel the country looking for a Mr. T wax figure (sort of just kidding). I would like to have the show travel the country and even the world. I think people get really excited to see the collection, and I would love to make it accessible to a lot more people.
Favorite place to eat or drink in NYC?
Mike: Drink: Lucky 13 Saloon in Park Slope, Brooklyn! Eat: Vinny's in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn! Best veal parm ever!
Greg: Drink: Spring Street Lounge. Eat: Croxley's Ales' 10-cent wings on Monday and Wednesday night!
Best celebrity encounter on the streets of New York?
Mike: I once bumped into Cindy Crawford on the stairs at the Met. Literally bumped into her, like had to apologize, bumped into her.
Greg: I saw Robin Byrd walking her dog. She smiled at me.
What place or thing would you declare a landmark?
Mike: You are probably looking for irony here but I would want to declare CBGB's.
Greg: Subway Inn (60th and Lex).
What law would you pass to improve the city?
Mike: I think that if a car is stopped in a crosswalk I should be allowed to walk OVER the car. I have never driven in my life, but is it so hard to stop before the white lines?
Greg: I would designate more public space for street artists.
Any advice for Mayor Bloomberg?
Mike: Stop trying to buy my vote. It just ain't gonna happen. I don't want the Olympics or the stadium. The convention was enough.
Greg: Not really.
And finally, the world is ending tomorrow—how would you spend your last 24 hours in New York?
Mike: I'd eat biscuits and gravy for breakfast at Old Devil Moon. For lunch, I'd eat a corn-dog at Coney Island and ride the Cyclone, twice. Come home and eat a veal parm from Vinny's. Probably try to get some rice pudding from Bereket. Head over to Lucky 13 with all my pals, get drunk to Slayer, and be thankful that I never have to update another website ever again.
Greg: I would go the very top of the Chrysler building with a six-pack of amstel light to check out the view. Probably then hang out with my brother as he loots antique shops on the Upper East Side. Then I would probably go join the orgy in the Masonic Temple on 23rd Street until the world ended.