Theodora “Theo” Raven wanted to create a world of magic, of wonder, of exploration. A place where adults could be kids again and stuffed animals could talk.
She succeeded, friends say, by joining her mother Helene to open Doodlet’s in downtown Santa Fe. Best described as a novelty shop full of gifts you didn’t know you needed to buy for someone you love, the store has become a staple of the city, renowned to some degree by its white goose lamps.
On Sunday, Doodlet’s was full of people playing with furry puppet animals, taking in the scent of milk bran-scented soaps (shaped like eggs) and propelling flying, screaming stuffed monkeys across the aisle. A white goose lamp sat in the window.
Perhaps the spirit of Theo Raven, who helped engineer the controlled chaos of the store for decades, was causing the mischief Sunday. Raven died Friday in her sleep of natural causes at 88 in her house on the same Tesuque property where she was born in September 1931.
“She was a curator of joy, and Doodlet’s was her opportunity to give that joy and charm and color and love and heart to everyone who walked in its doors,” said longtime friend Katherine Kagel, who runs Cafe Pasqual’s, located across the street from Doodlet’s.
An energetic, flamboyant (and some say naughty) woman who helped put the “character” in Santa Fe, Raven was known for wearing hot pink clothing, bandanas and a hair braid while driving a 1967 Impala Sport convertible around town until just last year. (Trivia note: Friends say she bought the vehicle in Seattle when it had 3,000 miles on it and she racked up over 260,000 more over the years.)
“She was the proverbial switchboard, connected so many,” said friend Lisa Dendahl. “She was the Queen of Hearts, Santa Fe’s own Mother Theresa, a compassionate yet mischievous Mister Rogers in a hot pink sweater and Saint Francis all in one.”
She was also the last of the Santa Fe Ruthlings, a family that took root in the area in the 1920s when matriarch Helene Maurer Ruthling, a German immigrant, came to New Mexico to care for Mabel Dodge Lujan’s grandchildren.
Ruthling later opened a children’s ranch in Tesuque where her three children — twin boys Carleton and Ford and daughter Theodora — learned to garden, take care of animals and engage in both physical and imaginative games with the other kids.
“Theo’s mother was very inventive with keeping all those kids occupied, so I think craft activities were very high on the list of things to do,” Kagel said. “She told me her family would give handmade gifts to each other. They didn’t have cash, so they made all their gifts. So it was a perfect extension of her family to go into gifts as a profession.”
Helene Ruthling’s ranch for children attracted national attention when the then-popular television show This Is Your Life spotlighted her in March 1953. The three Ruthling children showed up on the program to surprise their mother and talked of how they were then making Christmas gifts to sell to help finance their college education.
In the show, you can hear Helene refer to her daughter, Theo, as “Doodlets.”
Some say famed Santa Fe artist Will Shuster, the father of Zozobra, gave Theo that nickname. Others say it was her mother, who was known as “Doodles” as a child.
But Theo forsook college and joined her mother in opening the store on Palace Avenue in 1955. In the late 1960s, the duo bought the building on the corner of Don Gaspar Avenue and Water Street where Doodlet’s has remained.
Theo married art professor and artist Peter Raven in 1968 and lived with him for a decade in Seattle, flying back to Santa Fe when possible to tend to the store. He died in 1987 of a heart ailment, Kagel said. Two years later, Helene Ruthling, named a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 1985, died.
Theo Raven was named a Santa Fe Living Treasure in 2010 for her commitment to the community, her support of education and any animal-related nonprofit or organization. At the time, some people called her the “unofficial greeter of Santa Fe.”
In 2010, Raven sold Doodlet’s to Lisa Young, a longtime customer who wanted to keep the dream known as Doodlet’s alive.
Young, who had been visiting Doodlet’s since she was a child, said Sunday that Raven “will always be a part of the store. The store is so eclectic and reflects who Theo was — she had a reverence for life but an irreverent sense of humor. She wasn’t afraid to poke fun at various people and things.
“You might have something silly, like a yodeling pickle or Trump toilet paper,” Young added, “but on the other hand she had a sense of the sacred and she carried saints, folk art that is spiritual in nature and those sorts of things.”
The store became known for selling Gladys the Goose lamps. “I think Theo and her mom was charmed with the goose,” Young said. “They would dress the geese up and use them for promotional purposes … including a poster of ‘Ma’ [Helene] sweeping out front of the store with the geese out there.”
In October 2015, someone stole one of the geese as it was sitting outside the store. Young said the perpetrator was never found. The store still sells the white, well-lit geese today.
Friends say until her final days Theo Raven loved dogs, anything with a heart shape on it and flirting with men. She also maintained a childhood habit of sleeping outdoors, telling friends her dogs — Amigo and Huey — would scare off any predators.
She never had children and her dogs are now being cared for by friends in Taos, Kagel said. She is survived by two nephews, Carleton and Fritz Ruthling.
Coincidentally, Theo’s brother Carleton died the same day Theo did — Nov. 29 — 10 years ago. And brother Ford died Nov. 30, 2015.
“I guess that is the Ruthling portal,” Kagel said. “They’re totally pulling each other into the next life, aren’t they?”
Kagel said Theo Ruthling did not want a memorial service. Young said the store plans to mount a photo of Theo and one of her first dogs, also named Huey, in one of the store windows.