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Little Big World
Collecting Louis Marx and the American Fifties
By Jeffrey Hammond
University of Iowa Press
Copyright © 2010 Jeffrey Hammond
All right reserved.
Chapter One Faces I Remember
When I was seven and first encountered Dale Evans as she smiled and stepped forward, hat in hand, I was transfixed. Sixty millimeters tall in rubbery white vinyl and resplendent in her fringed, star-studded western outfit, she was perfect: a free-standing, self-sufficient cowgirl who looked ready for anything. I routinely carried her around in my pocket, pulling her out during quiet times to peer at her face and wonder what she was thinking.
It's over a half-century later, and I'm peering into that face again. My childhood Dale Evans-it now feels right to call her Ravishing Dale-disappeared long ago in the way in which outgrown toys always disappear: that is to say, I don't know what became of her. Although the mint figure that I recently bought on eBay is smaller than I remember and her smile now seems disturbingly aggressive, she still holds considerable appeal. How could she not, when I once loved her more than I loved her real-life counterpart?
A matching Roy Rogers, hands resting on his gun belt as he gazes into the middle distance with a dimpled, inscrutable grin, is here, too-another eBay purchase. Although I can still visualize the real Roy Rogers, happy-faced and squinty-eyed, it is his 60-millimeter counterpart that comes to mind whenever I hear the name. This makes sense, given that I saw the TV adventures of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans only during the last year of the show's run, and then only sporadically because television hurt my eyes and I found it hard to sit still for the half-hour program. Their vinyl avatars, however, were with me constantly: I remember these broad, coarse faces more vividly than the faces of most of my playmates and schoolteachers.
Both figures came with the Western Town playset produced by the Louis Marx toy company. I received one of these playsets, its "Mineral City" version, for Christmas of 1957. Gazing at Roy and Dale now reminds me of what I felt when I gazed at them then: an inexplicable tranquility, a daydreamlike sense of being timeless and placeless. I wouldn't call this feeling "reflective" or "meditative": those words are too somber and purposeful. It's more a sense that purpose is melting away altogether. A middle-aged man who was raised Methodist but is currently not much of anything will also hesitate to use the word "spiritual" to describe his response to these figures, then or now. And yet, Ravishing Dale and Standing Roy-to distinguish him from Sitting Roy, a laughing jokester who also came with the set-seem to exert a minor-league version of the mesmerizing impact that religious icons have always had on believers. Faces like these are objects transparent to a deeper reality: they are half human and half something else.
Around 150 playset figures made of rubberized vinyl or soft plastic, most between 2 1/2 and 3 inches tall, are standing on my desk to the right of my keyboard. Most are Marx figures, but others were made by the Auburn Rubber Company of Auburn, Indiana; Tim-Mee Toys of Aurora, Illinois; Thomas Toys of Newark; the Multiple Products Corporation; Ideal; Lido; Ohio Art; and four European manufacturers: Atlantic of Italy, Britains of England, and Jecsan and Reamsa of Spain.
Although a few recasts are scattered here and there, most of these toys are originals-"vintage," as the eBay listings like to say. There are cowboys, Indians, soldiers, sailors, construction workers, 1950s celebrities, ancient Romans, ancient Egyptians, American presidents, farmers, bathing beauties, cops, firefighters, knights, and pioneers. Several animals-four horses, an elephant, a dinosaur, a gorilla, a monkey, a dog, and a cat-swell the scene. These are the very best figures that I've acquired over the past four years, the cream of over a thousand that are stored in a nearby bookcase, carefully sorted into plastic bags.
I have arranged the desktop crowd so that they are all gazing at a single spot, where I have placed a Standing Roy atop a barrel as if he's giving a speech. I say a Standing Roy because six other Roys are also in attendance, along with six Ravishing Dales, all in the front row and all in rubbery white vinyl. As these figures reveal, the Marx toy company subscribed fully to the fifties mentalité regarding the feminine mystique that Betty Friedan would soon expose: while the Dales are all in a single pose, Roy enjoys three times her mobility. In addition to the Standing Roy who addresses the crowd and the Sitting Roy who looks as if he's slapping his knee at an off-color joke, a third Roy-I call him Aggressive Roy-steps forward with a wary expression and a drawn gun. As a child I did not find the existence of two Roys confusing, though I was probably lucky not to own this third figure. Three Roys might have thrown me, as if I were being prematurely confronted with the paradox of the Trinity.
The presence of multiple Roys and Dales brings no discomfort now, only an atavistic satisfaction that I hope reflects something other than mere greed. As I gaze at the thirteen Roys and Dales before me, it occurs to me that the only thing better would be gazing at twenty-six of them. Here, in vintage vinyl, is tangible proof of the profound appeal of visual rhythm and spatial repetition. This same appeal generated another embodiment of the aesthetics of excess that held sway when I was growing up: the Rockettes. If one dancer doing high kicks is diverting, thirty will be spectacular.
The potential monotony of multiple playset people in identical poses will not disturb a collector, for whom no two figures are ever the same. All collectors develop this hyper-discernment, this eye for fine distinctions lost on outsiders. Of the three Standing Roys, for instance, the head of one bends down at a slightly greater angle, which makes him-it should be clear by now that an object this appealing cannot be an "it"-appear broodier than the others. The Dales exhibit similar variations within sameness: one leans forward more than her sisters; another, scarcely played with, gleams like polished ivory; a third is slightly grayed with play-grime that sharpens her features. Like an appraiser of Stickley furniture or Hockney prints, I see things that others cannot. Each figure is unique to me-a source of pride and embarrassment, in roughly equal measure.
Don't we always love first, and only later shape ethical structures to justify it? During the past four years I have unwittingly developed a moral framework that allows me to keep mailing checks to strangers and receiving dozens of little boxes in return. I've even convinced myself that opening these boxes is an act of altruism which allows these figures, secure in the safety of numbers, to relax a little. A 60-millimeter Dale who has managed to stay in the world for fifty years is a brave but vulnerable thing-and even though a smiling cowgirl can get the blues, a half-dozen of them will never feel alone. Acquired at considerable cost and effort, my Dales can also feel reasonably safe from the hell of all playset figures: the landfill. Seven Roys might similarly be expected to handle what one Roy, unsteady on slightly warped feet, cannot. What's more, a vinyl cowboy in three poses can exorcize landfill terrors in more than one way: he can be wary and reflective and goofy all at once.
A law of lost-things probabilities-the mathematical equivalent to praying to Saint Anthony-is at work here. A middle-aged man who has collected thirteen Roys and Dales has upped the odds that among them are his Roys and Dale, the very figures that he once loved but left behind in a cigar box, probably to be sold (this is a guess) in a yard sale that his parents held when he was off at college. "Do you want us to keep any of your old toys?" I clearly recall my mother asking this question in a phone conversation, though not my exact reply. It must have been something like: "Of course not! I'm a grown-up; why would you even ask me such a thing?"
An actual grown-up-that is, someone familiar with the sobering effects of time-would have answered quite differently. The whiny urgency of "Don't sell Roy and Dale!" would reflect the grownup's knowledge that the real-life counterparts of these figures once brought many children a lot of happiness but are now dead, separated not only from each other but from all creature comforts. All flesh is grass, but rubberized vinyl is forever-or can be, if it isn't swept away by a mother's rage for order and a son's defensiveness. These tiny survivors on my desk both confirm and defy the fact that, sooner or later, all real cowboys and cowgirls eventually head on down the trail. My Marx Western Town, fresh out of the box, was already exposing the strongest verb in the grammar of living things: I die, you die, he/she/it dies, we die, you-all die, they die.
Or not. Even a former boy-Methodist with a melancholy streak will affirm that old toys can effect tiny resurrections. Time indeed "marches on," as the cliché goes, but time can also loop back onto itself in weird epicycles. What is a vivid memory, after all, but a temporary reversal of time's rush? And what is a childhood toy if not a vivid memory in tangible form, a material link with the former self who once played with it?
Middle-aged nostalgia might be raising its gauzy head here, but if nostalgia consists of a yearning for lost times and places, I am innocent. I have no desire to return to my boyhood, which I remember as long stretches of purposeless reverie punctuated by occasional but intense moments of anxiety. No Lone Ranger announcer is calling me back to "those thrilling days of yesteryear," because I actually remember those days-and truth be told, they weren't all that thrilling. Yes, I want to get my old toys back, just like countless other midlife guys with eBay names like "YazForever," "ElvisLives," and "Boomer1950," but I want them with me as I am now. I want to incorporate them into the chastened consciousness of a grown-up for whom time is indeed marching on, and with alarming speed. There's a fantasy of escape here, but with a difference that I hope saves me from being a walking cliché: I want to stop time, or at least slow it down a little, not by returning to the past but by giving time some flexibility in my here and now. To see and handle a toy from one's childhood is to oppose the unforgiving rigidities of chronology-to achieve an illusion of agency in the face of time's inevitable flow. I didn't know that I wanted to do this, or even that it was doable, until these 60-millimeter people started parading back into my life.
If a daydream of stepping out of time's relentless flow, however briefly, sounds silly, at least I'm not alone: the ancients dreamt it, too. In Hellenistic Greek, two words were commonly used for time: chronos and kairos. As the word "chronology" suggests, chronos denoted time in a neutral, absolute sense: time in and of itself, ongoing and measurable as "the days of our lives," in fifties TV parlance. By contrast, kairos denoted a time in which something could happen: a fitting or opportune time, a "season." Kairos was time for something-that is, time plus significance. The distinction between absolute time and time-with-significance took many forms. Farmers linked kairos to the proper times for planting and harvesting. For rhetoricians, kairos referred to the right time or occasion for a speech. In religious discourse, especially among early Christians, kairos came to denote times of unusual spiritual energy: moments in which the human and divine realms intersected. To experience a kairos moment was to break into sacred time-and for the ancients, sacred time was not "no time" but a God's-eye embrace of all time.
This old distinction seems useful for describing what Roy and Dale have reanimated in me. It is also consistent with what fifties playsets were all about: achieving a godlike sense of all time collapsing into the sacred here and now of play. What was a playset if not an assemblage of tin and plastic parts that a child could arrange and rearrange with absolute power? A small person in control of even smaller people, I could look down, quite literally, on Roy, Dale, and the cowboys that came with them. They always did my bidding.
I vividly remember setting up the Western Town street front, complete with hotel and bank, and arranging these figures into endless vignettes and narratives of my own making. These escapes into the imaginary time and place of Mineral City took me out of Cold War Ohio just as surely as a similar daydream had taken the real Roy Rogers out of Depression-era Ohio a quarter-century earlier. What's more, to play with vinyl Roy was to enter the same all-time realm that flesh-and-blood Roy entered when he began his career in show business: an imagined West in which past, present, and future were all telescoped into a single, happy-trails moment. If ancient kairos was time for something, playset kairos defined that something as nothing, as an escape from immediate time, place, and purpose into another realm altogether. While this all-time zone might seem unattainable now, something left behind with a child's imaginings, the figures on my desk are proving otherwise. Simply looking at them is generating some time-bending epiphanies.
When I opened that big package on Christmas morning of 1957 and confronted vinyl Roy and vinyl Dale, freshly popped from their molds at the Marx factory in Glen Dale, West Virginia, the flesh-and-blood Roy was in his mid-forties. He had already been a Hollywood star for over a decade when he made the move from film and radio to the new medium of television in 1951. It would be twenty years before he would acquire his primary significance for later generations by lending his name to a fast-food franchise that needed a famous cowboy to sell roast beef-and who better than the King of the Cowboys?
The figures on my desk predate the use of a showbiz legend to sell fast food. Indeed, they predate fast food itself. These Roys and Dales came into the world when long-distance calls were still being placed from Los Angeles by a hardworking TV star to friends and family back home in southern Ohio-calls that were still being answered with "Lenny! How are you?" I can't imagine Leonard Slye admitting in these conversations that he was ever tired or sad. He had refashioned himself into Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys: how could someone who was so clearly living the American Dream feel blue amid the upbeat bustle of show business, let alone complain about it?
Staring at this desktop, I imagine the trio of 60-millimeter Roys as fiercely present stand-ins for the long-gone Leonard Slye: they usurp his conversation and bring it into my hearing. It is Sitting Roy, grinning like a fool, who is doing most of the talking, entertaining the home folks with funny stories about Hollywood and proving, he hopes, that he hasn't changed all that much. Aggressive Roy, a stoic in fringes, grabs the phone to assure his hearer-I'm imagining an old friend from school, before Lenny dropped out to go to work-that everything is fine, just fine, really. Lenny doesn't mention that they're already two days behind in this week's shooting schedule, or that his agent has overbooked this month's personal appearances. As the conversation draws to a close, it is Standing Roy, he of the noncommittal grin, who wonders what it all means. Things have gotten a little crazy out here in California-and naturally, Lenny would always think of California as "out here."
A no-longer-young TV cowboy spending twelve-hour days on a sound stage might have something in common with a toy collector who is fifteen years older than the tired man who is making that call. Both might be noticing increasing habit of weariness, a bit less pep in the old step. The showbiz cowboy may even have felt as boxed, sold, and played with as his 60-millimeter counterparts on my desk. If so, he might have welcomed a toy cowboy of his own-perhaps a rubber Hoot Gibson, had one existed-to dispel his own bent-head broodiness.
It's not difficult to imagine that on the very day in which the Standing Roy who addresses his playset peers was leaving the Glen Dale plant on the banks of the Ohio River, his flesh-and-blood prototype was telling his old pal that he hopes to visit soon but hot damn this television is sure enough a crank-'em-out deal; no rest for the wicked, dontcha know?
Excerpted from Little Big World by Jeffrey Hammond Copyright © 2010 by Jeffrey Hammond. Excerpted by permission.
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