December 2008 Issue
Collectors search for treasures from childhood.
Toy collectors, explains Gary Lyons, are a curious lot. “We’re a different breed,” the Cambridge resident admits. “I mean, who else but a dedicated toy trader like me would actually demand that his table [at toy shows] be set up down the hall just outside the restrooms because sooner or later everyone has to walk by.”
For Lyons, 56, that affinity for lavatory real estate translates into toy soldiers. Lots of them. He estimates that he has 5,000 to 6,000 pieces on display, an equal number in storage and more for sale: They range from 6-inch-tall Marx military figures to the ubiquitous 54 mm soft plastic figurines that made up the inhabitants of the Louis Marx & Co.’s popular playsets of the ’50s.
“There are 10,000 eyes watching us every night,” laments his amused wife, Debbie, about the several thousand figures ensconced on shelves in the couple’s bedroom.
Lyons’ love affair with miniature military personnel of every rank and file began as a boy growing up as the second oldest of seven children on a 40-acre family farm in eastern Guernsey County near Antrim, Ohio.
Store-bought toys were scarce, but Lyons’ father worked at a plastics factory and would bring home overruns.
“We were all interested in toy soldiers until we got interested in girls,” he says with a laugh. “Once we got the girls, we got interested in toy soldiers again.”
It wasn’t until the ’90s — well after he “got his girl,” Debbie — that Lyons became interested in toy soldiers again, using his peripatetic lifestyle as a traveling real estate appraiser to visit flea markets, tag sales, auctions and second-hand shops around the country with the purpose of ferreting out those “little green men” he played with as a child.
Once at an auction, Lyons bought a small Marx playset for $25, which contained a figure of General Custer, the second most sought-after Marx figurine among avid collectors.
“I sold the playset for 50 bucks,” says Lyons, “and kept the Custer. Today, he’s worth $350 to $500.”
According to Lyons, the Holy Grail for plastic-figure collectors is a 54 mm Marx & Co. figure of Johnny Ringo, based on a short-lived ’50s television program.
Since the series only lasted two seasons, few Johnny Ringo sets were made. Therefore, says Lyons, it’s not surprising that the action figure alone could cost $1,200; the complete play set $8,000 to $10,000.
In addition to buying them, Lyons sells and trades figures with other collectors around the country.
“I sell to feed my habit,” he jokes. Over the life of that addiction, Lyons estimates that he’s probably broken even dollar-wise.
Lyons’ children, 13-year old Tracy, 16 year-old Ryan and 9-year-old Adam, share their father’s interest in collecting. For Tracy, it’s anything animals, with an emphasis on Beanie Babies and horses. For Ryan, it’s anything Star Wars. But at 16, Ryan’s interests — like his dad’s before him — are changing. Darth Vader may have to wait.
Dave Blewette, 57, of Akron, bears a strong resemblance to a younger Willie Nelson –– complete with the country singer’s trademark braids. Blewette, a self-employed television producer, has amassed a collection of more than 10,000 toys, games and TV-related artifacts. The treasures fill his Fairlawn home and a storage unit he rents just to house the spillover. Not surprisingly, every item is somehow related to television. A fan of “The Addams Family” sitcom, he treasures a Thing bank wherein the character’s disembodied hand pops out and snatches up coins.
“It’s not particularly valuable or even that rare,” Blewette says, “But I think it’s kinda cool.”
Blewette fondly recalls his first purchase in the late ’70s, an unused Hopalong Cassidy lunch box that had been sitting on the shelf of a Main Street hardware store in Akron for 25 years.
“I knew it was kind of nutty,” he admits, “but I bought it for my older brother who had been a Hoppy fan as a kid. He’s a banker and I thought it would be funny for him to show up at work with it. He didn’t think so and gave it back!”
Since then Blewette has amassed a variety of unusual objects, including items related to the “Bonanza” series, popular from 1959 to 1973. According to Blewette, collectors of a conspiratorial mindset are certain that the show’s four principal actors, Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon often posed for package graphics with their middle fingers surreptitiously extended in a familiar derisive salute. And he’ll show you proof, if you ask.
In addition to TV-themed toys, Blewette owns more than 125 television sets from the late ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. His earliest set is a 1947 RCA rear-screen projector model that uses a series of mirrors to enlarge the image from roughly 5 inches to roughly 20 inches diagonally.
“Mine was the first generation raised by television,” he says. “And television was the first medium to sell directly to children.”
Parts of his collection have been on display at the Massillon Museum and the University of Akron. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., purchased two of his ’50s-era televisions in 1989 — a blonde Setchell-Carlson floor model and a two-tone RCA table top set.
Blewette has formed a nonprofit corporation, The TV Dinner Club Museum, in the hopes of finding an institution, university or organization that will place the collection on permanent display as a pop-culture learning tool for future generations. (For more information, visit www.tvdinner.org
“The real story behind it all is not money,” says Blewette, “It’s education.”
Lyons and Blewette agree that technology has made 21st-century toy collecting easier and difficult at the same time.
“The Internet has expanded the availability of a wider variety of old toys to a larger group of collectors,” says Lyons.
“On the other hand,” he adds, “much of what’s for sale on the Internet is misidentified — either out of ignorance or on purpose.” Entrepreneurs, he explains, often buy the designs, molds, dies and equipment of shuttered toy companies and reissue “reproductions” that are virtually indistinguishable from the originals.
“True collectors,” Lyons says, “know what they buy when they buy it,” garnering knowledge from fellow collectors and a host of books, magazines and Web sites dedicated to specific items and interests.
The Internet has also adversely affected the cost of building a collection. “When I first started collecting TV toys in 1978,” says Blewette, “I would stop at a gas station on my way to Hartville to change my paper money into coins, because folks at the flea market would be angry if you paid with bills. Now everyone thinks everything’s worth a million bucks.”
Lyons and Blewette agree, however, that for most collectors, making a fortune is not the reason for collecting antique toys.
“You can make a small fortune,” says Blewette, “if you start with a large fortune. It takes money to make money in collecting.”
But, he adds, the real reason is for collecting is a love for the object itself — and what that object represents in the life of the collector.