Toy Sleuth

Pam’s Pictorama Post: I write today from an airplane, speeding (or so they say, feels pokey and small today) across the country to catch up with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Santa Barbara, California. I am nibbling a square of dark, mint, organic chocolate I packed for the occasion and contemplating a rather satisfactory toy interaction I had earlier this week.

A number of months ago, maybe as long as a year, my good friend Eileen was opining on a toy she had as a child, but had long lost track of. She described it as a mouse playground which puzzled me – what the heck did that mean? Nothing came to mind. I began asking questions. Eventually Eileen located one mouse and I used the photo of it to do an image search on Google. Bingo! Turns out it was a German company, Kunstlerschutz. Wagner Kunstlerschutz produced sturdy looking toys in conjunction with Max Carl Toys of Germany during the years of 1951-1965. These figures were “flocked” rather than made of actual felt. I recognized them from my childhood, but have no memory of actually owning any.

I believe that most, if not all, of the world’s toys pass through the wondrous portals of eBay so next I began searching for said playground to see if it could be purchased. I found Kunstlerschutz animal houses (vaguely European in design), a school, a sort of a farm and of course ultimately the playground as well. However, while the animals are widely available, probably a tribute to their fairly indestructible nature and popularity, the buildings and playground are much harder to find. They seem sturdy enough, but still with pieces that could be lost or broken. I found record of one that had been sold on eBay previously for a large sum of money. Nonetheless, knowing that anything can happen on eBay, I put an alert on my account for Wagner Kunstlerschutz and playground and waited. I never heard a word until the other morning when at 5:30 AM this little gem popped into my inbox – complete, mice and all, for a fairly reasonable price. It was meant to be.

Other than a few books (my posts on A Cricket in Times Square can be found here, but I have also written revisiting my childhood favorites in The Story About Ping and Push Kitty), I have not largely pursued acquiring toys from my own childhood. I understand the thrill  and emotion of being able to experience them again however. Our books and toys were how we constructed our childhood worlds and possessing them again gives us our portal back to the past in a special way. Coming home from California on the airplane I watched the recent documentary on Fred Rogers which left me weeping. (Yep, sitting next to a pleasant seeming young German couple who were wondering why. I should have gone to a theater like everyone else.) Meanwhile, I wish Eileen (and her cat Apollo, who is meeting the Mouse Playground for the first time in these photos) much enjoyment with their newly re-acquired toy.

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Wagner Kunstlerschutz playground now in the Eileen Travell collection! All photos by Eileen Travell.

 

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Rock ‘n Roll Blues

Pam’s Pictorama Post: The ear splitting sound of electric guitar and flashing, colored lights – fans standing and yelling. Radio City Music Hall on a Wednesday night on a chilly, wet summer night. How on earth did this big band girl end up there?

Pictorama readers know I have occasionally taken to reporting on various aspects of my life, and lately that has mostly taken the form of writing about my new job at Jazz at Lincoln Center. As someone whose interest in music has rarely budged beyond a stubborn point after 1940 or so since discovering early jazz and dance band music in college, it gave me some pause to take a job where, by its very nature, I would be immersed in not only contemporary jazz, but all of the decades between.

I was very upfront about this concern throughout my interview process, often declaiming unwarranted into much of the first months of my job, until I realized that in reality most of the people I work with also have strong preferences and being open to things in a general way is the only musical mandate of the job. Over the intervening months on the march through my first year, I have discovered that I really don’t have to love everything. While my ambivalence about be-bop may be shocking to some (it really is) it is true that I don’t have to love everything. For all of that, there has been very little I didn’t at least find interesting – there was one painful night at Dizzy’s with what I will describe as abstract sax, but for the most part it has been an interesting ride.

Therefore, in the spirit of exploration I will try most things and as a result I have learned a lot. So the recent offer of a ticket to hear Steve Miller, who plays a blues program at our venue annually, resulted in a trip to Radio City Music Hall where I have not been in more than a decade. I met him recently and he seems to be a lovely person. His music is sometimes described as an entry point between rock ‘n roll and blues and with this in mind I accepted the offer of a ticket.

My most recent visit to Radio City was to hear the Dalai Lama. The long line and wait to get in for that was sort of epic, although he was fascinating as always and worth the wait. I had not thought about that particular talk in a long time, but it came back to me when I arrived at Radio City on the Wednesday night of my late June vacation. (The only other time I remember being at Radio City was to hear Frank Sinatra shortly before he died. My then boyfriend Kevin, who had the tickets, had gotten the date wrong and we had to rush to the theater, arriving late with the concert underway.)

The flashing lights and shock of the opening act, Peter Frampton, knocked me back even further, to my childhood. After the initial shock, and admittedly thoughts about running immediately from the room, I was surprised to realize oh-my-gosh, buried deep in my brain were many of these songs, as if planted there by aliens. Not all of it, but about a third of what he played kicked off a sound track in my brain, of long forgotten AM radio. (This coming to mind recently with the death of Dan Ingram. DAN’ Ing-ram, his intro playing from another soundtrack in my brain.)

Popular music blared daily from the radio in our sea green Pontiac station wagon, and from the large brown and gold affair of a radio (a bit out-dated even then) atop of our refrigerator – as soon as my sister was tall enough to change the dial from the constant news radio of the day. (WCBS I believe. My mom favored them as her brother worked for the station at the time. News was a family business.) Music of the ’70’s also blared from my bedside clock radio, (the clock radio which I later, if only briefly, discovered jazz on but about that another time), and of course from a series of small Sony transistor radios I kept with me to the extent the batteries held out. Later, in high school, top 40 music would follow me to parties at the beach at night, and ring in each New Year with a countdown of songs. WABC, top 40 radio. Little did I realize that a small tape recorder was going off in my brain and decades later someone would hit the playback switch.

My co-workers filtered in around me shortly before Steve Miller came on. When Steve Miller started the tape recorder revealed a greater knowledge and memory of his music – albums on my sister’s turntable. Then he and Peter Frampton played some blues together, blues of course being what I really came for after all, and I started to get it – not so bad for a big band girl.

 

Change?

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Luckily for me someone thought this was Felix and posted it on eBay where I snatched it up immediately. I believe this little change purse (obviously much beloved by one or several children over its lifetime) is Norokuro, the Japanese cat/dog character of early comic fame there. I have written about Norokuro a few times before when speculating on a celluloid toy (in the post found here, Norakuro, the Japanese Felix? and Pam Toy Post) and someday would love to find a stuffed toy one if such a thing exists – I have seen no evidence of that however. While searching for such a thing I did come across this photo of a larger than life one from an exhibition of his creator’s work, Suiho Tagawa, at a museum in Koto City, shown below. That guy reminds me of the giant Dean’s Mickey Mouse we have in our bedroom, but is a bit disappointing somehow. I am hoping for a more cuddly version to turn up.

Meanwhile, this worn little nubbin of a toy change purse is splendid. I am not certain, but I think his eyes moved originally and the zipper is designed so it looks like a large, toothy, grinning mouth. It is quite small – wasn’t holding much change and a bill would have to be folded some, although I confess I know nothing of Japanese currency at the time and maybe it was more adequate than I think. The inside is surprisingly untouched and new looking, the same blue as the back shown below, with a small tag that reads Chase Japan in English. He is well designed in my opinion. And, quite simply put, I would have been nuts about this as a kid, utterly delighted to own him.

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I have dim memories of owning less remarkable change purses as a child. This one tugs at my memory and vague, tactile but indistinct memories of mid-sixties versions of my own rise up. I know I had a bright blue cloth change purse in the shape of an animal of some sort, but there were plastic ones too, long lost to time and evidently memory as well. Strange, when I think about it, that change purses are so interesting to children considering that money doesn’t yet have real meaning, and not to mention that during my childhood the ownership of them would have largely excluded boys. Somehow though, if you had one of these with a few coins in your pocket you felt like you had the world on a string!

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Breaking the Rules

Pam’s Pictorama Post: Today I am breaking a fundamental rule of Pictorama, I am posting entirely about an object I do not (and sadly it seems, never will) own. I ran across this pinafore the other day on eBay and was fascinated by it. Kim thought I had lost my mind, and in a sense he was right. Although I have collected vintage clothing to wear, I have resisted purchasing items that I cannot wear – costumes and the like – for the simple reason that I really do not have the space to store things of this kind properly. Of all things, old textiles require some care and a bit of room for storing. I briefly considered putting it on one of the stuffed toys (I have both Felix-es and a Mickey that are more or less the size of a toddler) but Kim, rightfully, gave me a skeptical look at that suggestion. So, in the while I bid on this beauty, in the end I did not really pursue it recognizing that I am not the best steward of this item. Nonetheless, I find it so amazing that it is my desire to record and ruminate on it a bit.

It goes without saying that it was in my opinion, a profoundly lucky mite who got to sport this pinafore. Oh to boast this over my pretty dress to keep it tidy while I played! What a fashion statement for a toddler in the 1920’s in Great Britain. It is hard to tell, but Felix is embroidered. I love the red ribbon on his neck and I have no idea why he is carrying a doctor’s bag, but he is. (This was decades before a later Felix had a bag of tricks.) The scalloped bottom is particularly agreeable I think. The only thing I might have asked for is a toothy grin on Felix which I always enjoy. I assume that, like so many items from this time in Britain, that this was unlicensed, but they did an excellent job rendering it. As a matter of practicality, I believe it would have been slipped over the child’s head and tied on each side for easy access. It has a lovely little pocket to hide something special in. A clever item all around.

Having grown up in the era of indestructible Danskin clothes (I swear the tops and short sets I had in 1968 are faded, but still essentially intact somewhere in a landfill – there is one of aqua blue stripe that I remember in particular), I cannot imagine living in a time of ironed pinafores. Messy playing and painting occasionally required one of my father’s old oxford cloth shirts frayed at the collar and almost dress length when I was little. Wearing those were a habit I subsequently maintained through college and beyond for messy work. (I am wearing one in my high school yearbook photo, taken on a pottery wheel.) I’m sure tiny me would have likely balked at such an archaic addition as a pinafore in my rough and tumble life, but perhaps my someday self would have known it was mighty special.

Wisemen’s

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This fails to be a proper Mother’s Day post, but Mom figures large in my memory of this childhood haunt, so it is with that nod to her that I proceed. Memories of Wiseman’s store have bubbled up a couple of times recently and it nibbled at my mind until I decided to record and share a few thoughts and memories of this iconic establishment of my childhood.

I think most of us born prior to 1970 or so have a Wiseman’s in their past. For me and my family it was a dusty miracle of a store in the neighboring town of Sea Bright. That town is a tiny landspit of a peninsula, with the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Shrewsbury River to the west, within walking distance over a draw bridge, from the house I grew up in. This narrow beach community can be traversed at its widest point in a brisk 15 minute walk. From any elevated point, such as the second story of a building, you can see the river and the ocean at the same time. It exists in a sort of infamy for its well publicized tendency to flood, and most recently Hurricane Sandy almost wiped it off the map. (Although in my childhood it was a Hurricane Donna that everyone referred back to as a literal high water mark, when the ocean and the river met on the main drag, Ocean Avenue. Strangely, photos show the water from each different colors.)

However, as it has evidently done repeatedly over the decades, it has slowly rebuilt and re-emerged. The specifics of the town are different from my childhood – a huge pizza establishment and bar where my mom had a store and the Post Office once were for example – but the bones and general outline remain the same. A full service restaurant where there was once a (superb) pizza place where I worked one summer – polyester uniform and all. The hardware store, church and laundromat have persisted. The Foodtown has become something called Andy K’s. 

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The church here has remained throughout. This appears to be a fairly recent photo.

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The Foodtown during it’s morph into what is now Andy K’s.

 

Still, it is another layer that I need to pull back to place Wiseman’s. It was on the same block as the belated pizza place as I remember. It was down from a store called Sy & Art’s which carried everything you needed for the beach, from high end bathing suits to towels and basics. Sy & Art’s lives in a sort of miasma of late 1960’s/early 1970’s psychedelic color and prints in my mind’s eye and although we might stop in occasionally, it was more for tourists who forgot their beach towels or tanning lotion than locals. (Wiseman’s would have been about three buildings down the block from the photo at the very top – that corner most prominent was where Sy & Art’s headquartered. Try as I have I cannot find a photo of it or the building, still standing, that Wiseman’s was located in.)

Wiseman’s was a old fashion soda fountain, stationary and newspaper establishment. I do not remember consuming any food at the counter, although mom when asked seems to remember that the occasional ice cream cone was had there, this despite a rather memorable amount of dust, dirt and grime we both seem to remember. (They must have had take-out coffee as well, but this was before the ubiquitousness of coffee to go. I won’t say I never saw my parents drink take-out coffee, but it wasn’t the daily thing it is now. It was more something you did while traveling.)

Mom vaguely recalls that Wiseman’s was owned by two elderly brothers and agrees that I have spelled it the right way, having once herself been corrected by one of the brothers on the subject. My parents religiously purchased their weekend papers at Wiseman’s in the days before we had home delivery of those. It was my go to for a variety of items which included, but were not limited to, comic books, candy and even an inexpensive sort of toy which could occasionally be wheedled out of the paper purchasing parent in question. Most often it was comic books – my parents exhibiting a bit of rare squeamish about the more exotic candy offerings such as wax lips and odd tubes of colored sugar in numerous forms.

Wiseman’s was a strange and exotic territory for me, full of promise, and I never missed an opportunity to tag along on a trip there. It seemed surprising when we made the rare, unscheduled weekday stop, perhaps for a stationary item which they also carried, because it was a weekend destination in my mind. It would be quieter on those weekdays, without the bustle of a Saturday or Sunday when it was the center of the universe for a certain kind of local activity. It was a somewhat cramped dusty space, despite a very high, old tin ceiling, but narrow. There were ancient cheap toys, Halloween costumes, packages of outdated invitations and the like on the higher shelves, while the items that turned over frequently such as candy, magazines, comics and newspapers, were at an easy grab to the door. I remember looking up and being fascinated by the possibility of what you might find there. That promise remained unfulfilled alas; it was a realm I was never allowed to explore.

As I got older my purchases morphed from Archie comics into Tiger Beat, followed by Teen and eventually Seventeen. I could be wrong, but I believe Wiseman’s may have disappeared before I got to Cosmo, but perhaps not because I do not know where else I would have purchased it. (This was before magazines would have been sold in the always crisp smelling Sea Bright Drugstore, or the Foodtown which took care of almost all of our other ongoing needs and supplies as well as the daily papers.) I seem to remember Wiseman’s closing while I was in high school. Alas, it was not there when I waitressed at the pizza establishment, nor when I was employed by the French cuisine restaurant further down the street, both during college.

Someone mentioned it to me the other day and perhaps that’s why it came to mind last week when I was writing about the toy cowboys and horses I used to get by the bag as a small child. That was the nature of the toy you would get there. In my mind the weekend mornings merge together, the smell of the newsprint and dust, the anticipation of comic books, candy and all sorts of unexplored possibilities. I can imagine the sun slanting through the door and dust motes playing, as if knowing that it was a memory being minted even then.

Funny Little Felix

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: Even I wonder occasionally at the objects d’Felix that I acquire and those I pass by. I own a few variations on this celluloid fellow and I have written about my general antipathy toward celluloid. (These can be found at the aptly named Fear of Celluloid and the recent Tiny Toy Felix Fiesta.) This guy caught my eye and I scooped him up. I confess I thought he was going to be about thirty percent larger, but I liked him even more in person than in the photo.

Celluloid Felix back

He is marked Made in Japan on his back. Perhaps his Japanese origin in some way explains his attachment to his umbrella which he clutches in one hand (paw? does Felix have hands or paws?) while he holds the cord to the handle in the other. He has landed at my door in surprisingly good condition with only a bit of one foot missing and a few minor dents. His red paint is quite fugitive and he must have been a bit more of a dandy in his day, with red umbrella and ears – not to mention a toothy white smile we can’t quite see. He is lighter than a feather and although he is designed to stand well on his own feet, the smallest breeze would knock him over. As always I wonder how he survived child clutching and play and made his way through many decades to my door.

I do not believe that plastic as fragile as this was used in toys in my childhood. Many of the plastic toys of the mid-to-late 1960’s are probably alive and well in a landfill today. Plastic to my generation was utterly indestructible, not to mention those of my brother, almost decade later. I have a distinct memory of stepping repeatedly on brightly colored figures and objects that belonged to him as a tiny tot.

I do remember being deeply engaged with a series of plastic horses and cowboys which, if memory serves, came in clear plastic bags. These must have been purchased at a variety of five and dimes or “dry goods” stores of a type that used to be plentiful. It seems like a strange choice in retrospect, but I am sure my mom probably grabbed them as a cheap option to keep me and my sister occupied on trips to my grandparents and the like, perhaps more focused on the horses than cowboys. I don’t particularly remember Loren playing with them (or with me with them) although it seems unlikely she didn’t. And my parents may have gotten more politically correct, or they were less available by the time Edward arrived on the scene as I don’t especially remember him playing with the likes of them.

I took a genuine interest in the horse and cowboys, and while I remember that damned if I can remember what was going through my mind playing with them. If memory serves they came in variations of green, red and yellow live in memory as shown below. The yellow in particular sticks in my mind. I don’t remember Indians, although logically they were also there – I probably just lumped humans into one category and horses into another. Below are similar ones of the types. Just another mystery of childhood I think.

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Period cowboys and Indian plastic toys for sale on eBay.

Plastic Puss

Pam’s Pictorama Toy Post: My ambivalence about collecting these fragile items is well documented, although I don’t think those past items were expected to stand up to heavy childhood play for the most part. However, this little fellow, and his bulldog mate, shown below, were meant to really be handled and played with. (As always, I am sad when a set gets broken up. These toys were listed separately and despite a best effort I lost a bidding war on the bulldog, which for some reason was much more popular than the kitty. They were a great pair.) I believe in his day this toy was reasonably sturdy – although his thin plastic probably always prone to denting and breaking. The plastic seems brittle now with age, but I assume a bit more pliable closer to its time of origin, and his joints a bit more tightly strung. However, someone kept these in splendid condition all these years.

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This fine fellow is fully articulated – head turns, legs move – only tail does not wag. He has a serious look on his face despite that jolly pink nose and that tail is aloft at a jaunty angle. The white string seems to be a recent addition, but I am nervous about how best to extract it and have left it for now. On his tummy he is marked Japan with a small cross symbol, and there is a red and white sticker on one foot that says inspection and some other bits I cannot read. I believe his mark means he was made in a pre-war Japan, or the mark would be occupied Japan. This duo resided most recently in Fargo, North Dakota.

This is the sort of small toy, coupled with the dog, that your mom would buy you to occupy you for the an afternoon or weekend somewhere, to be spent at your grandmother’s house perhaps. Sometimes those five and dime buys turn out to be most beloved items. In addition to endless sets of Colorforms (I met someone who worked on many of those and it was hard to begin to describe to him what a huge part of my childhood they were – a visual vocabulary all their own in my memory) there was a black plastic doctor’s bag which fell into this category of toy too. Frankly not sure what mom was thinking on that one, but I did love it and was going to be a doctor for a hot five minutes. It had tiny pills in it – somehow I suspect that would not be allowed today – best part though. The ultimate of all these casual acquisitions was my stuffed dog Squeaky (already memorialized in the post Felix on an Outing) which I insisted on taking everywhere with me for what in memory seems like years.

I occasionally see small children clutching toys on the streets and subways of Manhattan. The carrying of toys seems like a much more precarious endeavor here than my suburban childhood of travel which took place predominantly in our sea green, Pontiac station wagon. Without knowing for sure, my guess is that the rate of loss is much higher on the streets of the big city. (In fact for a time Kim was forming a casual but interesting collection of small plastic abandoned toys acquired on the streets and sidewalks here.) There is a part of my childhood self which asserts itself and I find I worrying a bit when I see a child with what is clearly a much beloved toy on the subway or street. However, it does allow for a form of toy voyeurism that suburbia provides in lesser degree. Not often, but once in awhile I see a really great toy. I remember several years ago a little girl on the subway with a simple, but very nice stuffed cat that was almost collection worthy. A smart little girl, she kept a firm grip on it.