Sunday, May 29, 2005

Plasticville USA 

This is another collection management story.

Six years ago when we had our very first fundraiser to raise money to process our corporate paperwork (it was a garage sale), someone dropped off a couple of battered cardboard boxes containing odd toys in various stages of disrepair. Not wanting to accidentally sell anything that we might want for LATDA, we set the boxes aside. One of them we triaged at the time, the other managed to get stored away and unearthed recently.

The box was covered with a layer of grime and dust, but appeared to hold pieces of plastic buildings and a couple of train accessories in their original packaging. It was hard to tell if there were any complete buildings until each piece was cleaned and laid out on the table. The most intact piece was a small station platform with a sign on top proclaiming the destination, “Plasticville”.

Half a roll of paper towels and an hour later, I had assembled ten more pieces of Plasticville – a tulip greenhouse; a concrete blockhouse radio station; a pink mid-century movie theater called the ‘Paramount’; a house under construction; a fire station; a gas station; a water tower; a train refueling station; a barn with the requisite ‘Mail Pouch Tobacco’ ad on the roof; and a pedestrian bridge plastered with nostalgic advertising for Corvair and Bardahl Oil.

As I pieced together each building, I realized how much fun I missed not being encouraged to play with trains. It was a different sense of ‘world-building’ than one experiences playing with dolls and dollhouses. Certainly a larger perspective – with detail coming from architectural features rather than accessories. Another of the LATDA leadership harbors the same regrets…her brother was the one with the train set. I think there is a train layout in LATDA’s future.

Plasticville is still being manufactured today by Bachmann Trains and there is a Plasticville Collector’s Association. I learned from the PCA that our pieces are HO scale. I love the ad on the HO page. One might infer that Plasticville might be somewhere in the vicinity of Hollywood Bl. and Western Ave., judging by the conductor’s announcement.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Toy Dept. 

It was one of those days when I seemed to be late for everything. I dashed off to Pasadena to pick up a gift for a last minute wedding, ended up taking a circuitous route driving west on Colorado Bl.*, when my eye was caught by a giant Rock'em Sock'em robot in a store window. I almost missed it, and only caught the word “TOY” in the rear view mirror. Running late or not, it was a LATDA imperative that I round the corner and go back to check it out, promising myself I would only allow a 20 minute detour.

What I found was the Toy Dept. (slogan: REAL toys, like YOU remember!) The Rock’em Sock’em Robot was centerpiece to a good old fashioned merchandising display of boxes of Mattel’s redux version of the classic toy. The other window featured a supermarket cart full of Funko bobblehead dolls. Rather than the blare of tweaker/rap/rock or the blah of the Wave, as I walked through the door I was greeted by the perky and familiar strains of Looney Toons music and mid-century toy commercials.

The YOU in the slogan was definitely me, judging by the demographics of the rest of the patrons walking wide-eyed and gob-smacked down the length of the store. But I don’t think I remember any toy store being this nice when I was a child. This was the toy store I imagined I remembered. (See my blog entry for 2/24/04)

There was a man in the process of stocking shelves in the very back of the store. The last ten feet of the store had the air of not quite being finished – as if the paint had only just dried. I extended my hand and congratulated him on a job well done. I ‘interviewed’ “Uncle Dave” (I forgot to ask his last name…and it only says “Uncle Dave” on his card) at length and was impressed by his vast experience in the toy world. He certainly looked younger than most of the people in the store (including me) and hardly seemed old enough to have developed such a keen eye for nostalgia. He and his partner (whose name I neglected to collect – remember, I was late for a wedding) designed every aspect of the store down to the custom shelving. They even fabricated much of it themselves. They made the Rock’em Sock’em Robot in window out of salvaged gatorfoam board from some discarded promotional displays.

As Dave said, they wanted to make a toy store that was not merely an electronics store. They have drawn on the classics, stocking as many items in their historical packaging as are available. Mixed in are newer toys that require the same play value as the classics – hand manipulation, humor, team play, and imagination.

I need to go back to peruse the selection more carefully. But I didn’t walk away empty-handed. I bought a pair of wind-up battling sumo wrestlers…a cultural spin on Rock’em Sock’em.

*the address is 255 East Colorado Blvd., Pasadena (626) 396-9487

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Funny Munky 

Went to the opening of the Funny Club show at Munky King in Chinatown last night. This was another attempt on my part to learn more about the art/urban/vinyl/toy phenomenon. The tiny space was PACKED with hipsters, fans (who obviously understood the scene already), and artists. I spied Gary Baseman in a corner but had already been peristaltically moved in a clockwise motion by the crowd edging to speak to the two artists, b.b.birdy and Nakanari. The designers were customizing blank DIY figures with paint pens as well as signing posters.

The mood was festive, but a little on the loud side for any kind of talk thanks to the reggae DJ truck in the front of the store. It was also too crowded to really stop and look at any of the work, so there will have to be another trip to view the show more carefully. I also made the gaffe of mistaking the founder of the store for someone else.

As I said, I didn’t get a good look at the show to make any informed comments about it, but I did pick up two of the DIY toys that were flying out of the store at $11 a pop. Gary and I examined them over dinner at the Empress Pavilion and found them tantalizingly well-engineered and fun to play with in their raw form (although we had to take care not to lose the tiny pieces in the string beans). The Cautions! Copy on the box seemed out of step with the slick product design, but maybe they were just having us on:

“The small products are enclosed in this box. Please do not hold them in the mouth by any means. There is a risk of being suffocated. Please do not give the children under 6-year-old by any means. There is a risk of the accident of not considering. Be careful of the handling enough. Please do not play with the products damaged for safety.”

Anyway, I will be going back to Munky King and would suggest you go too!

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Bob Baker and Charles Phoenix* 

Last night I was lucky enough to be transported by a theatrical experience that could only happen in Los Angeles. The performance took place at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater at the intersection of the Belmont Tunnel and the Beverly Blvd./First St. Bridge – an unlikely place to re-live one’s childhood at 8:00 PM on a Friday night.

First off, this was not my first visit to the famous landmark. When I realized that the theater was inaugurated in 1962, a year after my family moved to Silverlake, I erroneously remembered having gone there as a jaded ten-year old. Imagine my surprise when my sister reminded me that my first visit took place around 10 years later as a not-so-jaded 20-something. The occasion was my half-sister’s birthday – 4th or 5th, I don’t remember which. It was strange that other than a cousin or two, the entire birthday party consisted of adults. I remember being mildly interested in the performance, but my ability to suspend disbelief was hindered by the garish colors and loud music (not to mention the clowns…I am not a big fan of the clowns). What I do remember being fascinated by was the tour of the workshop after the performance. Strong in my memory was a description of how they created puppet heads by casting them in a latex compound that was light but durable.

My second visit was in 1989 when I took my own daughter for her third birthday. Again, 14 years later, our group consisted of more adults than children. I remember thinking that little had changed in the performance, although the puppets themselves and the theater seemed a little bit shabbier. But mostly I watched the kids’ reactions to the show. My daughter has always been rapt spectator – not fidgety or squirmy like some kids. But it was difficult to tell whether she was delighted or frightened by what she was seeing. She seemed to be processing everything as it came into her brain. It was only later that she would comment on what she felt about what she had seen.

Fast forward to last night – another 16 years passed and I found myself re-entering the theater, this time completely surrounded by adults. I have always meant to attend one of Charles Phoenix’s famous slide shows, but the combination of Bob Baker and slide show was irresistible and compulsory for LATDA research.

Perhaps it was the transition of entering the theater at night or the excitement of the crowd, but suddenly I felt considerably less jaded and ready to enter another world to be entertained. I had never really heard what a Charles Phoenix slide show was like, so I was pleasantly unprepared for his stentorian delivery (reminded me of George Takei, whose voice I often hear echoing through the halls of the Japanese American National Museum). His video interview was short but spoke volumes about Bob Baker and his contributions and dedication to his craft. The slide show augmented the stories about his early career and added that home movie quality of anecdotal information. Sometimes the tone of Phoenix’s narration was a little arch, but I decided that was simply his style and that he honestly admired his subject matter.

One thing that struck me in the video was an interview with one of Baker’s apprentices. He was a young Hispanic man who spoke of how he felt when someone pointed out to him that his work was art, and that he must be proud of what he was doing. I noticed that over 50% of the people (puppeteers) working for Baker were of Hispanic descent, and I wondered if it was a reflection of the neighborhood he worked in or of a kinship between Mexico’s artistic tradition in the field. Or were these some of the many school children who witnessed the magic of Bob Baker’s shows and had returned to learn from him?

It seemed that the all-adult audience dictated the presentation of the actual puppet performances. The lighting and execution of the performances seemed more professional and polished than I remembered. Some of the brashness in sound and color were still there, but at times I was completely mesmerized by the acting. And unlike my well-behaved daughter, I was standing up at my seat, craning for a better view. My favorite puppets were the various dancing skeletons – my least favorite…still the clowns.

Anyone want to raise funds for a Bob Baker Retrospective at LATDA?

*There are still two performances left and a few tickets still available!

Monday, May 02, 2005

TOYChallenge 

California Aquatics, Alakazam!, East County Electric Shock, Flying Pigs, DC Chicks, AshJenMagCor-poration – what do these somewhat cumbersome and quirky names have in common? They were all participants in Saturday’s TOYChallenge Western Regional competition, held at the San Diego Aerospace Museum in Balboa Park. I hope that they all Google their names and find our site! I just tried to find some updated information about the results of the competition, but the TOYChallenge site hasn’t been updated yet and Reuters hasn’t seen fit to cover this exciting event as of yet, so you’ll hear about it first on the LATDA blog!

Thanks to David Hoffman and Brenda Wilson and Kristen Greenaway at Sally Ride Science, Blue and I were able to meet with some very bright and promising stars in the future of toy design. Well, maybe they won’t all become toy designers, but it was heartening to see enthusiasm, creativity, humor, and work ethic in the next generation.

The day started out EARLY as we arrived at the SD Aerospace Museum at 8:45. Judging didn’t begin until 10, but we needed to get oriented and paired up in teams. I was partnered with David. There were 18 judges hailing from diverse backgrounds, but weighted heavily on the science/academic side. Hasbro and Sony (another corporate sponsor) contributed a few judges, and there were two young engineering (I think) students. We were never formally introduced to one another, but my impression was that there were not as many judges who were representing the ‘toy’ side of the competition.

Since we arrived so early, we took the opportunity to wander around anonymously and check out the projects being set up. For the most part it was like a typical science project fair, with the obligatory tri-panel cardboard backdrops peppered with Word-generated graphics. But here and there you could pick out the kids who were market-savvy because they had laptops playing commercials, matching outfits and buttons saying things like ‘Ask me about____!’

The judging was split amongst nine teams. Each team was given about twelve projects to assess. Each project was viewed by two sets of judges. The projects were divided into four categories: Robots/Build It; Get Out and Play; Toys that Teach; and Games for the Family. Originally there were seven categories, but due to the spread of the projects received, they consolidated some of them. Our task was to choose two of the best projects to go to Hasbro to compete with two of the best from the East Coast Regional. We were also looking for Best in Category and Honorable Mention in Category.

With two hours to judge the first round, it gave us about ten minutes per project, a restriction that David and I found extremely difficult to adhere to (the judge nazis kept coming around to tell us we were taking too long). We were so interested in listening to these kids talk about their creative process that we tended to take too long. We only saw designs in the Games for the Family Category.

After the first round, the judges were gathered in a room to eat Subway sandwiches and hash out their favorites. Some of us relied on memorable conversations with the kids to make decisions, while others actually gave numerical values to criteria and chose their top contenders by the numbers. After the first round of favorites was listed on a board, each nominee had an advocate present a case. This is where it got interesting. There was a split between people who were attracted by projects that were technically sophisticated in design and execution and those who were impressed by originality of concept and process. It was clear that there was a difference in the process it took to create a mechanically sophisticated object and a board game, but it was not clear how to rate them in the same way. One of our (LATDA’s) concerns was also how fun was the toy? Would kids really want to play with it?

We decided that each of the groups that had made it to the final board deserved another look, especially so the teams who had not seen the finalists in their section could vote with authority.

Those of us who were there as ‘toy advocates’ seemed to have different opinions than those who were there from the science or even toy marketing side. But eventually, it seemed that everyone was satisfied with the recognition of a wide range of projects.

There was one dicey moment when one of the projects that Blue and I had lobbied for was inadvertently not named as the Honorable Mention in the Games for the Family winner. I had to fight my way to the stage and insure that they were properly recognized. (whew)

Since the East Coast Regional has not taken place yet (May 7), I won’t mention the winning projects here. But I would like to highlight some of those who participated but didn’t win the big prizes…

 One board game dealt with foods of the world. It was essentially a trivia game where the object of the game was to answer questions about food of various countries. In order to win it you had to be familiar with at least a food from every continent of the world. That they had included the Philippine delicacy ‘balut’ in their questions grabbed my attention (although they had incorrectly identified its contents – I am quite well acquainted with balut; but that’s a story for another time.) They also had a very clever solution to extending the life of the game, but I’m not going to reveal it in case they end up taking it to market – even though they were not one of the finalists.

 Another game had the catchy name “The Gift of Humiliation”. This was one game that we could actually see ourselves playing. Unfortunately it was dubbed ‘a slumber party game’ (which seemed to delegate it to a girl’s toy and too exclusive), but what was appealing is the fact that it required coordinated motor skills on a team level along with humor.

 A popular movie provided the inspiration for another game. At first glance this seemed to be a rash decision, since such a project involves copyright issues, but when we questioned the team, they had thought of this and obtained permission to use the images and names in their game – a fact that impressed the judges very much. This team was infectiously enthusiastic and of all the board games there, we could imagine many of the kids wanting to actually play it.

 Of all the outdoor toy projects, our favorite was one that had started off as a huge floating bird pool toy. It ended up as a minimalist water-version of the Mad Hatter’s teacup ride. It looked like a lot of fun, although the prospect of making oneself dizzy and close to barfing in a pool might not be a great idea.

I wish that we could be at the East Coast Regional just to extend the experience of being surrounded by young creative energy. We would like to heartily endorse this competition for next year. There seemed to be a preponderance of home-schooled groups entering the competition. If public schools were to take this on as a final class project for extra credit it could prove a valuable life-skills experience in design and critical thinking. Not to mention the potential for fun (although a lot of the projects seemed to pander towards the educational/science theme). College students interested in education could mentor a group as a project.

When LATDA finds a home, we would hope to host a future TOYChallenge. We’d better start looking for a big home because TOYChallenge has the potential to grow in the coming years.

Look for more thoughts on this blog about TOYChallenge...I'm still digesting...

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