Blair Murphy with dolls

Blair Murphy, owner of the Grand Midway Hotel, in Windber, is surrounded Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, by dolls he obtained in New Orleans from author Ann Rice’s collection. Murphy plans to display the dolls at a former church in Windber.

WINDBER – Blair Murphy’s visit to Anne Rice’s Memnoch Ball already changed his life once in 1995.

It was a party profiled by People Magazine. And Murphy spent the night alongside thousands of the famed gothic fiction writer’s biggest fans, a few of the era’s biggest stars and Rice’s eclectic collection of porcelain dolls – lifelike nuns, fallen angels and Victorian vampires, recalled Murphy, who was inspired to relocate to New Orleans the following year.

“That experience left an unforgettable impression on me,” he said.

So did the dolls.

Through a bit of chance, the Windber man is now the owner of much of Rice’s collection – and said he’s finalizing plans to display them in Windber.

Murphy discovered the dolls needed a new home last week after stumbling across a recent story in Country Road magazine. 

Sue Quiroz, the founder of the Vampire Lestat Fan Club and Rice’s former personal assistant, served as a caretaker for her collection for years before inheriting nearly half of it more than a decade ago when Rice left New Orleans for California.

“Anne always dreamed of having them on display in a museum. But ever since St. Elizabeth (a onetime New Orleans orphanage-turned home of Rice’s) closed, they’ve been stacked up in cardboard boxes,” Quiroz told The Tribune-Democrat on Wednesday.

“Finding someone willing to reintroduce them to the world again, it’s wonderful,” Quiroz said.

Murphy admits he’s no expert on dolls – but to many, he might seem like a natural fit to serve as their next caretaker, regardless.

His darkly Grand Midway home has hosted vampire conventions annually. It boasts an oversized Ouija Board on its roof and ghost stories often greet the guests who find their way to his spooky space.

In June, Murphy purchased a nearly 100-year-old Catholic church and already had plans to turn it into an art gallery.

“It’s strange because I had a dream about Anne Rice recently and when I woke up the next day I thought, ‘I wonder what that means,’” Murphy said. “I never imagined it would lead to this.”

He tracked down Quiroz after reading the article and by Saturday, he said he hooked up a trailer onto the back of his van the next day and made an 1,100-mile drive to Louisiana to pick up the dolls.

“I just hopped in my van and went,” he said.

Quiroz said she embraced Murphy’s vision for the collection, noting that she’d been moving them from place to place for years since Rice moved to the West Coast to be closer to her son, Chris.

“They weren’t meant to be boxed up inside storage units,” she said.

By Wednesday, large cardboard boxes filled half of Murphy’s blood red and charcoal-black bar room inside the Grand Midway.

Each box had photos of dolls posted on the outside allowing them to be easily inventoried – marked with names like “Ruby,” “The Vampire Chronicles” and “Victorian.”

A few are boxed in caskets, including doll creators Crees and Coe’s elegantly dressed depiction of the vampire Lestat – one of the tortured main characters in her famed series.

There’s also a series of nine Catholic nuns that Rice had custom-made for her decades ago, Quiroz said.

And others depict lifelike children dressed in full gothic-era attire – evoking images of Rice’s “Interview with a Vampire” character Claudia – or a child’s toy created by the unwitting doll shop owner who served as her caring protector in the novel.

Rice couldn’t be reached to comment Wednesday, but she’s spoken about her doll collection often over the years.

“I never purchased a doll simply because it was an antique, or the handiwork of a famous doll artist. I purchased only dolls which I loved and found to be beautiful and interesting … dolls I loved to look at,” Rice said in a statement to Dolls magazine in 2010, at a time a portion of her collection was heading to auction. “A doll is reborn every time a new person sees that doll. Dolls are immortal.

“They can live forever if they are passed on down the generations with love and care.”

Murphy said he’s humbled those dolls will have a chance to live on in Windber.

“I’m honored to have this collection, and I certainly want to display them in a way that she’d want to see,” he said, offering an open-invitation to the writer to come see the dolls for herself this fall.

He said he plans to create a permanent exhibit inside the Midway Cathedral – the former Holy Child of Jesus Church – to showcase the dolls to the public in October. If all goes as planned, many of them will be on display during his inaugural Dracula-Con Ball, a Windber Fire Department fundraiser on Oct 26 that will feature the Florida-based goth-inspired synth pop band Seven Shadows, dancers and other draws.

“In a lot of ways it’s going to be like the balls Anne used to have,” Murphy said. “And it’s going to be for a good cause.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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