Thursday November 23, 2017

How a Missouri orthodontist's nerdy T-shirt design got a new life on Stranger Things

Gaten Matarazzo, right, who plays Dustin on Stranger Things, sported a Missouri orthodontist's T-shirt design in the the fifth and sixth episodes of the Netflix series' second season.

Gaten Matarazzo, right, who plays Dustin on Stranger Things, sported a Missouri orthodontist's T-shirt design in the the fifth and sixth episodes of the Netflix series' second season. (Netflix)

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Story transcript

Missouri orthodontist Wes Allai was thrilled to learn the T-shirt he designed in 1982 for his patients was featured on the Netflix show Stranger Things. 

In episodes five and six, the character Dustin, played by Gaten Matarazzo, sports an orange T-shirt with cartoon astronauts affixing braces to a floating set of teeth in front of a planet. The caption reads: "Brace yourself for the future."

"It's just a neat thing that has happened to me in my career here," Allai told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Wes Allai

Wes Allai designed this T-shirt for his patients to highlight the connection between orthodontics and NASA technology. (Submitted by Wes Allai, StrangerThingsTee/Etsy )

While only the top of the shirt is visible under Dustin's burgundy hoodie, Allai's patients were quick to spot the local design.

"One of my patients Facebooked me and said, 'You know I'm watching Netflix and Dustin on the series is wearing the T-shirt that you gave me 25 years ago," Allai said. 

"And then about five minutes later, she Facebooked me back and said, "I just talked to my mom and she still has her T-shirt from 30 years ago when you straightened her teeth."

Allai has been giving a shirt to every new patient who comes through his Springfield, Mo., dental office since 1982.

He designed it, he said, at a time when people were very excited about space travel. He wanted his patients to know about the intersection between orthodontics and space technology.

For example, he said orthodontic braces are made from nitinol, a resilient metal alloy designed to protect spacecraft from the impact of flying debris. 

Brace Yourself

Missouri orthodontist Wes Allai's daughter Molly is printing the shirt her dad designed and selling it on Etsy after the character Dustin sported it on the Netflix series Stranger Things. (StrangerThingsTee/Etsy )

The T-shirt is also a good fit for Matarazzo, who has a condition called cleidocranial dysplasia (CCD). His character Dustin has the condition too. 

Allai says this condition has many "dental implications," as patients are often missing teeth and require braces.

From what Allai understands, producers on the show wanted to find '80s merchandise for Dustin that would tie this together, but weren't specific about where they found the T-shirt. 

It's possible someone found the shirt in nearby Branson, Mo., a city with a big entertainment industry, he said.

Matarazzo has used his character's fame to talk openly about the condition, working with the foundation CCD Smiles to spread awareness.

Stranger Things' popularity and nostalgic 80s aesthetic can spark powerful merchandising opportunities. 

The Museum of Minnesota sold more than $400,000 worth of brontosaurus shirts after Dustin sported one of its purple hoodies earlier in the second season.

Allai's daughter is also cashing in by selling her father's copyrighted design on Etsy. The orthodontist is hoping to donate part of the profits to CCD Smiles. He said he would also love to reach out to Matarazzo.

"That's one of my goals is to get some shirts from him that are signed and maybe place of them in the lobby of the office," he said.