Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Toy Town Museum, East Aurora, NY.

My second stop on the way into Buffalo was inspired by nostalgia. This is an appropriate motivation now that I am a father. I may have considered going to the Toy Town Museum on the campus of the Fisher-Price Corporation even if I didn't have a kid, but in that case I may have felt a bit too self-conscious to linger there. Until about a week ago I didn't know that the headquarters of that toy-making giant was in Western New York. But once I found out it was in East Aurora, a mere twenty minutes outside of Buffalo, I knew I had to make a visit. I was actually pretty excited when I pulled up to the parking lot, because the stuff that Fisher-Price made throughout the 70's definitely enriched my childhood.

The genesis of The Toy Town Museum was the annual ToyFest started by a group of locals who recognized the importance that toy-making played in their community. The knew they wanted to work toward establishing a permanent space to house a collection of vintage stuff, and decided to produce an annual commemorative reproduction of a different Fisher-Price toy from the past in order to raise funds for the museum. In 1987, their dreams were realized and they opened their facility. ToyFest still continues at the end of every August, and draws over 75,000 folks from the US and Canada each year. Meanwhile Toy Town features both permanent and temporary exhibits celebrating the world of play.

Right away I was captivated by the displays packed within the several small rooms in the place. I was drawn first to some of the oldest objects on display- tin curiosities that represented the first wave of mass-manufactured playthings in the world. They appeared to be hand-painted and thematically tied to the circus and traveling carnival. There were also a number of faded soft toys depicting cartoon-like jesters and clowns. At the center of the front room was a fairly large diorama of a turn-of-the-century carousel, complete with riders and a detailed ticket booth. This was certainly a one-of-a-kind display that astonished me with its realism and quality of craftsmanship.

I also saw a huge erector set, a 12-room doll-house with all the trimmings, a small collection of Pez dispensers, and two miniature battlefields re-enacting famous battles from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The temporary exhibit included toys made from television and movie characters. A case of Desi and Lucy-inspired masks and dolls may have been the most intrinsically-creepy spectacle in the entire place. And there was an entire room filled (a bit incongruously perhaps) with Harley-Davidson toys and memorabilia. But the most lovingly-displayed objects were those in The Fisher-Price Archive Collection. Basically it encompassed a selection of products made by the company since its inception in 1931. Studying these things could give a cultural anthropology student enough fodder for a Master's thesis.

But my favorite elements of The Toy Town Museum were the few glass-fronted cases of the "Original" Little People sets, many of which I had when I was a tyke. Anyone in their 30's must have had at least some experience playing with these. They were a ubiquitous part of my childhood. They had the castle (complete with horse-back knight), the Sesame Street block, the gas station, the town square, the traveling circus, the suburban home, the airplane, a hospital, the farm, and several notable individual figures. I was in my glory taking macro shots of these scenes. I was simultaneously happy to see them again, and sad that they are no longer in production. Still I bet that there are enough floating around to supply a little town for E. some day.

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