The Joys of Toys

The Marx Museum in Moundsville is Rock'Em Sock'Em Magnificent

When I was a kid, I never cared about what company made my toys. They could be Mattel or Milton Bradley, Wham-O or whatever. I just wanted them to be fun and cool and not too tedious to put away.

Then a month or so ago, I went to Moundsville, W.Va., and someone told me to be sure to check out the Official Marx Toy Museum. It’s located in a bright yellow-and-green storefront, a former grocery story right in downtown Moundsville, and it’s simply a world-class collection of toys all made by Louis Marx & Co. I am impressed. It’s the Smithsonian of plastic army men and mighty metal trucks! It’s the Guggenheim of goofy old wind-ups and vintage dollhouses. It’s the Carnegie of Big Wheels and plastic dinosaurs.

A friendly and unassuming guy named Francis Turner and his son Jason are the owners, the curators, the masterminds behind the place. A salesman for a machine shop, Francis started collecting mint-condition toys around 1989 after he bought a few from a friend. By 1992, he had so many Marx products that the Stifel Fine Arts Center at Oglebay Institute in Wheeling asked him to put together a show. Soon he started plotting and planning for his own museum, and by then his son was old enough to help rehab the old building and help figure out the layout of the display cases. They opened the museum in 2001.

"We have no toys that have been repaired," Francis points out. "No toys that have been repainted. Everything is original. We try to have the original box." Of course. Marx started making toys in 1919, and the first cases feature some early, wacky wind-ups, including butter-and-egg salesmen and a jaunty mouse jazz band (see above).

Early Marx wind-ups like the Merry Makers (above) were metal. Later, toys like the Robots and Flintstones were plastic.

Jason says most visitors are amazed. That’s because "they’re seeing a timeline of toys from the 1920s up to the 1970s." Adds Francis, "About 80 percent of them were made one mile from here in the Glen Dale factory."

That’s a nice local connection. In 1934, Louis Marx took over the old Fokker airplane factory beside the Ohio River in the nearby town of Glen Dale, W.Va., and converted it into his largest factory. By the 1950s, he was the most productive toy manufacturer in the world. Time magazine put him on the cover in 1955 and dubbed him "The Toy King." At the height of the post-World War II baby boom, Louis Marx was making many of the best-known toys in the world and creating huge demand for them via TV commercials. He eventually sold the company in 1972, and by 1980, it was out of business. "Now there’s nowhere in the world you can go and see this many Marx toys under one roof," Francis tells me.

There’s a gift store and 1950s-style café with refreshments and small treats at the front of the place, but most of the space is full of beautiful creations: tiny figures, trains, planes and even a great green-and-gold robot named Big Loo. There is one room full of original prototypes and original art from designers who worked at Glen Dale. There’s another room called Dodge City, which is full of cowboys and Wild West playthings, and there are several displays where Johnny West stands proudly as one of the first action figures for boys.

The Marx Co. also specialized in "playsets," collections of tiny figures in various settings from Fort Apache to Cape Canaveral, from medieval castles to the Civil War. I am happy to see a Flintstones set just like the one my Aunt Mary bought for me in the early ’60s: Fred and Barney figurines, Wilma and Betty, Dino and a number of little Stone Age houses. Oh, woe, who knows whatever happened to mine?
But seeing those little characters, their cars, their plastic palm trees and their Bedrock world makes me realize what fine works of art they really were, what a terrific toymaker this guy Marx must have been.

The Official Marx Toy Museum is open April through December, Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $8.50; seniors, $7.50; students, $5; under 6, free. Info: 304/845-6022, Moundsville is about 70 miles from Pittsburgh, 12 miles south of Wheeling, in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Definitely worth a visit.

Rick Sebak produces, writes and narrates documentaries for WQED tv13, as well as national specials for PBS. His programs are available online or call 800/274-1307.


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