The Toy Hospital That Inspired the Band Name of the New York Dolls

A repair shop for toy dolls inspired the name of one of the most iconic proto-punk bands.

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Doll Parts

By the late 1960s, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (born Sylvain Mizrahi and no relation to designer Isaac) and schoolmate and drummer Billy Murcia were testing out their band The Pox. 

After their singer quit, the two transitioned into fashion and launched the clothing line Truth and Soul—even selling pieces to famed fashion designer Betsey Johnson. At the time, Sylvain also worked at a men’s boutique called A Different Drummer, which was adjacent to the New York Doll Hospital, the toy doll repair shop at 787 Lexington Ave in Manhattan. Founded by the late Irving D. Chais, the doll hospital remained in operation from 1964 through Chais’ death in 2009.

[RELATED: Watch: Martin Scorsese’s Documentary on New York Dolls’ David Johansen]

The doll shop would also inspire the name of Sylvain’s future band: the New York Dolls.

Dressed like street hustling tarts, raised in their platform heels and painted faces, the New York Dolls invented their own gang-like drag aesthetic around the grittier rock burgeoning within lower Manhattan by the early 1970s—a scene already ravaged by the Velvet Underground and the Stooges, all preceding, and allied, with the punks about to burst just a few years later. 


Officially formed in 1971, the main lineup of the New York Dolls was rounded out by Staten Island-born singer David Johansen, along with guitarists Johnny Thunders and Rick Rivets—later replaced by Sylvain—bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane and Murcia, who died a year later of an accidental overdose at the age of 21 and was replaced by Jerry Nolan.

Predecessors of the mid-’70s punk scene, they called themselves the Dolls at first before Sylvain christened them with their “doll hospital” moniker.

“Once we got started and once we got going, we became the darlings of it all,” said Sylvain of the band’s lady-like style in a 2015 interview. “We never had that roundtable meeting—‘you’re gonna wear this and you’re gonna wear that.’ … Of course, we were crazy about T. Rex and Marc Bolan. One day we saw [Bolan] wearing these gray suede Mary Janes, and the next day I see Johnny [Thunders] and he’s got a pair almost like them.”

Broken Dolls

Talking about “Trash” and the debauched underbelly of a scuzzed up city, the mess of “Pills” and goin’ insane on a “Subway Train” on their eponymous debut in 1973, produced by Todd Rundgren, the New York Dolls followed it up with Too Much Too Soon before breaking up in 1977.

In 1991, Thunders died at the age of 38 from an overdose, and Nolan followed a year later at 45 after suffering a stroke. In 2004, Kane died at the age of 55, and Sylvain in 2021 at 69, both from cancer.

Johansen, the last surviving member of the New York Dolls is the subject of the Martin Scorsese-helmed documentary Personality Crisis: One Night Only.

New Dolls

By the early 2000s, Johansen and Sylvain, along with a new lineup, featuring guitarist Steve Conte and ex-Hanoi Rocks bassist Sam Yaffa, reformed the New York Dolls and released the band’s third album, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, in 2006, followed by Cause I Sez So in 2009 (produced by Rundgren) and Dancing Backward in High Heels, in 2011, the final album featuring Sylvain.

Within their time, the New York Dolls influenced punks across the pond like The Damned and The Sex Pistols, fellow CBGB comrades The Ramones, along with everyone from Def Leppard, Hanoi Rocks, Guns N’ Roses, Morrissey, R.E.M. and Green Day, among many others.

“When we began, people would say, ‘why do you play like that?'” said Johansen. “We would look at them like, ‘This is the way we play. We don’t know how to play any other way.’ It wasn’t like we created some sort of sound on purpose or something. We had this very strong ethic about how rock and roll should be. People would ask us, ‘What kind of music is this?’ And we were like, ‘It’s rock and roll music. Whaddya think it is?’” 

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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