Mary Tyler Moore stood shivering in front of the crowd of thousands on that chilly Minnesota morning in May 2002, hurling her hat into the air one last time in the city that embraced her as its own. Beside her stood a statue – a bronze, 8-foot sculpture unveiled that day, immortalizing the star’s unforgettable tossing of the tam in downtown Minneapolis, the setting of her 1970s sitcom.
The statue, sculpted by Wisconsin artist Gwendolyn Gillen, would become a quintessential Minneapolis landmark, and would draw scores of the actress’s fans once more – nearly a decade and a half later – in the days after Moore died on Jan. 25.
Then, only two days later, the creator of the hallowed site died too, at the age of 76. Gillen was only four years younger than the TV star when she died Friday. Her daughter, Alessandra Gillen announced her death to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Alessandra Gillen said that of all her pieces, her mother was most proud of that statue, which was erected on Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis but is temporarily housed in a city visitor center while Nicollet Mall is being renovated. It is expected to return to the street later this year.
“She helped break the stereotype of womanhood that our generation grew up believing was our destiny,” Gwendolyn Gillen said when the statue was dedicated, the Star Tribune reported. “She was the light breeze that blew through our minds and left us with the feeling that we could do anything we wanted to.”
That brisk spring day in 2002 was Moore’s last public appearance in the Twin Cities. Then 65, Moore greeted those in the crowd with some of her character Mary Richard’s staple lines: “Ohhhhh, Rob” and a “Mr. Graaaaaant,” reported Neal Justin in the Star Tribune. Though the star was the main attraction of the day, indulging the crowd with her wit and charm, the statue unveiled beside her would do far more to preserve her memory in Minneapolis – the city where the feisty, single, career-oriented newswoman Mary Richards would advance the cause of feminism and inspire women nationwide.
“I hope when a little girl walks by the statue, she’ll ask her mother who that was,” Moore told reporters after the statue’s unveiling. “And it’ll be explained to her that she was a young woman who had a dream and followed it through.”
The show itself – particularly its humor – was one of the main reasons Gwendolyn Gillen pursued casting the bronze sculpture, she told the Journal Sentinel in 2001. She was chosen from 21 applicants to create the statue, which was commissioned by cable network TV Land.
“It’s so enjoyable, really,” Gwendolyn Gillen told Journal Sentinel art critic James Auer at the time, “to be portraying a woman. Sculptors are very seldom called upon to depict a woman of prominence. This is all very refreshing.”
One of the toughest parts of casting the sculpture, Gwendolyn Gillen said, was capturing the memorable toss, which was featured as the final scene in the opening sequence of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The shot shows a blissful Mary Richards twirling and hurling her tam into the air after a satisfying day of shopping in Minneapolis. In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named it the second-greatest moment in TV history, behind only John Kennedy’s assassination and funeral.
“I actually practiced throwing the hat to find out when it left the hand,” Gwendolyn Gillen said in 2001. She ended up depicting the hat at just between 78 and 80 degrees on the slant, with the hat barely touching the fingers of Mary Richards’ extended right hand, her thumb open.
“I’m not trying to do anything tricky or silly — suspending wires or attaching it to a building or pole,” Gwendolyn Gillen said. “I thought this would be a good way to achieve the effect.”
Gwendolyn Gillen sculpted all of her figures by hand, never digitally scanning a live model to create a replica, she wrote on her portfolio website.
“This process, though ancient and time-consuming, gives the finest result because it imparts a lively quality to the sculpture which cannot be found in digital reproduction,” she wrote. “It is like the difference between a photograph and a painting — A great photograph is a great photograph. A great painting is a masterpiece.”
Before turning to figurative sculpting, Gwendolyn Gillen was professionally trained as an actress and worked in professional theater for six years, she also wrote on her website. Starting a family and raising children curtailed her theater career, so she began working with visual arts – first with collages and then with ceramics.
“I loved the feel of the clay and the immediacy of expression,” she wrote. After some years, she began sculpting for bronze casting, eventually creating life-size and larger-than-life-size figures on commission. “The thrust of my work has always been to portray life as it is lived, with neither excessive sentimentality nor hollow heroism. I delight in the portrayal of humans in their infinite possibilities.”
In 2010, she spoke with the Shepherd Express about what she claimed would be her last sculpture – a life-sized statue of a murdered policeman commissioned by his son.
“My hands won’t take it anymore,” she said in the interview, adding that she had begun cartooning on the computer instead. “I never pre-plan these. I just start doodling. I stop when I see something. I have fun with it, I follow the line. Sometimes it goes nowhere. Let it go, then. That’s part of being an artist, if you will.”
In an interview with the Journal Sentinel, Alessandra Gillen recalled her mother creating small study sculptures in her studio in the basement of their Hustisford, Wis. home. She mourned the loss of her “sweet mum” in a Facebook post, calling Gwendolyn Gillen a “wonderful woman and mother.”
After Moore’s death on Jan. 25, fans flocked to Gwendolyn Gillen’s statue, leaving flowers in memory of the TV star. And on Friday – coincidentally, the day of Gwendolyn Gillen’s death – more than 150 people tossed their hats near the site in Minneapolis, in homage to the show. With onlookers watching from a second-floor railing above, the group of fans drew close to sing the show’s theme song, the Star Tribune reported.
Thanks in part to the statue, Moore’s memory has been ingrained as an essential part of the fabric of the Twin Cities. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is such a fan that she turned a City Hall space into the Moore Conference Room, according to the Star Tribune. She even uses Joan Jett’s version of the show’s theme song, “Love Is All Around,” as introductory music before speeches.
In a statement, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith wrote that Moore was a role model for countless women and girls in the 1960s and 1970s, including herself.
“She showed us how to survive bell bottoms, macramé and bad dates and grow into women with the careers and lives we want – and have fun in the process!” Smith wrote. “In real life, she may never have called Minneapolis home, but Minnesota will always love Mary Tyler Moore and consider her ours.”