"I’m going to go on in ahead of you and I want to get a picture of your reaction,” Madonna Porter says as she unlocks the door to the building she calls her museum, using her shoulder to push it open.
Once inside, she waits, smiling, for the jaw-dropped reaction that’s probably typical of anyone who enters the structure, located behind her C.B.S. home.
On the walls from floor to ceiling and covering a long table in the centre of the room — as well as in cabinets and boxes and plastic bins — is Porter’s collection of Barbie dolls, more than 500 and valued at $250,000 according to an appraiser, she says.
There are Barbies from the mid-1960s with fuzzy yellowed hair and present-day dolls with pink hair highlights. There are mermaids sitting aboard a pirate ship, a royal wedding party and a biker Barbie in leather on her motorcycle. There are princess Barbies, ballerina Barbies, Barbies on horses, Spice Girls, fairies and dolls in outfits clearly straight from the 1980s.
All of them are fully dressed and posed, either on doll stands or with their feet in a flower vase under their gown to keep them upright, and they’re all perfectly coiffed, their hair meticulously brushed out and lovingly styled by Porter.
She started collecting them – and other things, including teapots and china cups and saucers – about 15 years ago, she says.
“I never had a doll in my life,” she says of the time before then.
Porter has gotten her dolls from different places: many of them came from thrift shops such as the Salvation Army store in Long Pond, where the staff knows to set them aside for her.
“One time they said, ‘Donna, you don’t need any more dolls,’” Porter says. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get the Barbies.’ A high addiction to Barbies, that’s how I’d describe it.”
Porter spent 38 years working for Eastern Health before she retired, and says she found herself becoming depressed, missing her job and her colleagues. She also deals with PTSD, and collecting, sorting, cleaning and styling the Barbie dolls has helped with her anxiety.
“It took care of my anxiety and stress,” she said. “Taking something that was a mess and fixing it up and making it beautiful again made me happy.”
Porter has welcomed hundreds of people into her museum and has gotten great joy from sharing her collection, especially with children. In 2009, she approached the Town of C.B.S. to get a permit allowing her to officially open the place as a museum. She was denied, however, due to liabilities.
Porter’s health isn’t what it once was, she says, and she’s finding the upkeep of her collection more of a challenge. That’s one of the reasons why, this morning, her collection will be gone.
She’s nervous about it, but she’s thrilled.
“My dream is coming true,” she says.
Anne Marie Grenning was home painting her fence one day during the COVID-19 lockdown when her phone rang. Assistant manager of Branch 1 of the Royal Canadian Legion in St. John’s, Grenning — whose husband, Greg, is president of the branch — had forwarded the branch’s calls to their home.
“It was Ms. Porter,” Grenning says of the phone call. “She said, ‘You might think I’m crazy for what I’m about to say, but you can Google me and see that I’m not.’”
Porter had seen a news story about the issues the Legion was facing in this province due to the COVID-19 pandemic and had decided to offer help by donating her entire collection — Barbies, pottery and everything — to Branch 1 to be auctioned as a fundraiser. She invited Grenning and three members of the branch’s executive over for a visit to see it.
“What was my reaction when I saw it? Not as drastic as it was when I had Googled,” Grenning says, laughing. “I knew she sounded like an honest person, but then when I saw pictures of the extent of what she had, I thought, oh my God. She’s real.”
The Legion works across Canada to provide services, support and advocacy for veterans and their families, including serving military and RCMP personnel. Legion branches across the country also offer programs to support seniors, youth sports, charitable initiatives and other endeavours.
Because the Legion’s survival is based almost entirely on gatherings — including renting their spaces out for weddings and other events, catering, seniors’ dances and bingo nights, among other things — the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some hard times.
“When the coronavirus hit, it became a struggle to keep the doors open,” says Greg Grenning.
The branch had to look for ways to adapt and came up with some new ideas, including selling meals twice a week, but things have been difficult, with the branch losing up to $50,000 a month.
Porter’s donation, the Grennings say, is a godsend that could get them out of trouble.
“The word for us is astonishment,” Anne Marie Grenning says. “Pure joy.”
“I can’t wait to meet the lady,” Greg Grenning says of Porter. “I can’t give her a hug and a kiss because of COVID rules, but I will certainly thank her for what she’s doing.”
Eager to help
Porter has always had a charitable heart, family friend Yvonne Kerrivan told The Telegram. She’s been known to take people in when they’ve had nowhere to stay, and once transformed one of the rooms in her house into a bedsit for a young woman suffering in an abusive domestic situation.
The Salvation Army thrift shop often sets aside bags of clothes for Porter, who picks them up and sorts them according to size, Kerrivan says, delivering them to people she knows who are in need of them.
“You know something? She might kill me for saying this, but there have been times in the past when Madonna would have hardly anything in her cupboards and she’d give it away,” Kerrivan says. “If she was down to her last teabag or her last spoonful of coffee, she’d give it away if someone needed it. She has left herself pretty low to help other people, and that’s just who she is. Donating her collection to the Legion, I think it’s fabulous, and it really is her dream come true.”
Timing is right
Porter had thought in the past of donating her collection to charity, but the timing or the cause wasn’t quite what she wanted. This time, she says, it feels right to let it go.
Her favourite doll in her collection? Porter is silent for a moment while she considers it, then walks to the windowsill, picking up a doll — not a Barbie — with short blonde hair and blue eyes. Porter has dressed her in a green velvet dress and a shiny silver crown.
“This one,” she says. “My daughter’s.”
Porter’s daughter died at age 41 after a fight with cancer, and one of the things the Legion plans to do with Porter’s donation is establish a bursary in both their names.
Early this morning, members of Branch 1 will visit Porter’s home in uniform, bringing a U-Haul. They’ll fill it with her collection and take it to a storage space, where it will be catalogued and valued and auctioned.
Porter is prepared for an emotional day, though she hasn’t yet decided what to wear. She plans to take lots of pictures and to have people with her for support.
She’ll still collect Barbies, she says, but she plans to fix them up and give them away instead of keeping them.
This morning, it will be Porter's reaction that everyone will be waiting to see.
“I’ll be so proud,” she says. “It's helping others and I’ll always be remembered. It’s time for me to let it all go.”