Images of Christmas past inspire hobby

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2001

It's nostalgia time, baby boomers.

Imagine you are still a little shaver in your flannel pajamas with the attached feet. It is Christmas morning. You bound out of bed and race to the living room. Under the tinseled tree is a big box with your name on it.

You tear off the paper and find that play set you dreamed of, the big one with all the little plastic people and accessories as advertised on "The Mickey Mouse Club" or "Roy Rogers."

Flash forward to 2001.

Play sets made from 1951 to 1969 are now collectors' items, and one of those collectors is Soldotna attorney Dale Dolifka.

Dolifka admitted that reminiscing about childhood is the big attraction.

"I think I got my first set when I was 4," he said.

Dolifka grew up in Colorado ranch country, where vast distances and harsh weather often left children holed up and looking for ways to entertain themselves indoors.

Dolifka's family accumulated farm play sets, stocked with little cows, pigs and sheep living in metal and plastic barns with movable fences. Young Dale's friends in the neighborhood were aficionados of Western sets, with wagon trains, forts and battling plastic cowboys, Indians and cavalry.

Eventually, the boys grew up, and the toys went by the wayside for years. But when Dolifka had children of his own, he found himself collecting the same sorts of toys he had enjoyed as a youngster.

"What happened over time is most of it got lost. It's been a process of recreating." he said.

Now Dolifka has acquired about 75 of the sets. He subscribes to specialty publications and has attended several collectors' shows in other states.

But unlike purists who keep mint-condition collectibles on the shelf, he gets his sets so he can play with them, he said.

In a family tradition, he, his wife, Rhoda, and their three children -- 11-year-old Kara, 14-year-old Jeffrey and 16-year-old Aaron -- take out, assemble and display the sets on tables in their basement recreation room starting during the holiday season.

"It takes hours and hours," he said. "It will take three months of evenings to fill the tables."

Vintage plastic attracts new attention

Dolifka still looks like a happy kid on Christmas morning when he talks about his toys.

 

The Dolifka's Aaron, Kara, Jeffrey, Dale and Rhoda have made collecting toys from the 1950s and 1960s a family hobby.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Nearly all were manufactured by a single firm, Louis Marx and Company Inc. Founded in 1919, it was the world's largest toy manufacturer in the 1950s. In its heyday, the company had factories around the world and more than 5,000 products. In 1955, Time magazine did a cover story on Louis Marx, calling him "The Toy King."

The Marx play sets were sold through chain retailers such as Sears, Montgomery Ward, Spiegels and Waldens. The Sears Christmas books, which have been reprinted for toy collectors, show page after page of the sets.

The collectors, now boosted by the Internet, are leading to a renewed interest in the toys. Although model trains and toy soldier collections, both of which overlap with the play sets, are more popular, items such as Dolifka has increasingly are in demand.

Marx sold the company and retired in 1972. The company subsequently changed hands again and eventually folded, but in 1995 a new company, Marx Toy Corporation, formed to reissue old favorites using the original molds.

"They have opened a Marx museum in West Virginia," Dolifka said.

A second museum in Iowa specializes in miniature farm toys, he said.

"We are planning to go next fall."

Dolifka got serious about collecting about 1985. He subscribed to the specialty magazine "Plastic Figure and Playset Collector." And in 1990 he began a tradition of setting up at least one set each December to exhibit at the Soldotna Public Library.

This year, it will be a high-rise, police squad and fire house.

In addition to the little firefighters (including one who slides down the pole) the set includes a fire truck, ladder truck and chief's car. It has a wind-up spring that ejects the fire truck from the station for a fast emergency response.

"It is kind of meaningful this year with the firemen and the police," Dolifka said.

From the Alamo to Zorro

The old toys such as Dolifka collects were mass-produced, with metal buildings made to stock designs and interchangeable plastic figurines.

But the sets also show attention to quality and creativity. The 2-inch-tall figures are diverse and detailed, and the kits come with varied spring-loaded and battery-operated gizmos.

Dolifka's collection runs the play set gamut.

He's got dinosaurs and space rockets; gas stations and school houses; cowboys, astronauts, knights, soldiers, police, babies, pets, Disney cartoon characters and lots of those little cars with the motors that get an extra kick from friction. The settings range from Antarctica to the Alamo to a circus.

"That's a huge set," he said.

 

Toy kits manufactured by Louis Marx and Company Inc., like this farm scene, feature metal pieces that are assembled by hand. Tiny tabs in slide into precut slots to hold the pieces together.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Often the sets are historical, such as ones depicting Cape Canaveral, The Battle of the Little Big Horn and the White House, which came with a set of plastic presidents.

Many sets tied in with television shows of the period. For example, he has "Gunsmoke," "The Untouchables," "The Flintstones" and "Zorro."

Dolifka admitted the sets would never pass muster for today's children.

For one thing, they are full of tiny, fragile pieces that easily could slip into toddler orifices and of moving, poking parts.

"I would say 90 percent of these sets you could never get today," he said.

He noted their working spring-loaded catapults and launchers.

"They would put an eye out in a heartbeat."

For another thing, the public mood has changed. The rigid sex roles and stereotypes of hostile Indian braves would never fly in this decade.

"A lot of these are very politically incorrect," he said. "It's very 1950s."

Appeal is in the details

Dolifka pointed out one big box on the shelf -- "Ben Hur."

When Sears first sold the set in 1959, the price was $7.98 for the 132-piece version. A bigger set with 217 pieces cost $12.98.

The Sears catalog of the time described it:

"A vast panorama of the Roman Empire as it was in the time of the Caesars unfolds before your eyes in almost unbelievable detail. Here is the slave market where prisoners are sold on the block ... there the Arena where gladiators meet each other in mortal combat, and the Galleries, before which Ben Hur raced his chariot to victory."

The set contains chariots with removable horses and drivers, gladiators brandishing swords and shields, toga-clad spectators, wagons, lions, columned galleries and a bazaar complete with urns and food.

Dolifka explained that the "Ben Hur" set, if in mint condition, now fetches $1,000 at collector auctions.

His own sets are humbler, the boxes worn, the bags opened and a few pieces missing here and there. His goal is fun, not perfection.

 

Metal trucks from the 1950s are parked on one of the shelves lining the Dolifka's indoor gym.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"I am not in the high end of it," he explained.

One of the sets he is most proud of is the "Alaska Play Set," issued in 1959.

"These were done in honor of our statehood," he said. "It was the only state for which it was done."

The set includes a Gold Rush store front, featuring a Red Dog Saloon, and translucent plastic igloos.

"The rugged 'citizens' include 16 Alaskan frontiersmen and 16 Eskimos," the Sears catalog reported, "molded in unbreakable polyethylene."

Their accessories included huskies, dog sleds, a kayak, skis, snowshoes, harpoons, lanterns, hides and an assortment of wildlife such as walrus, bears, wolves and penguins (oops).

In the two years following, the company recycled some of the molds for a series of follow-up polar sets: the 1960 International Geophysical Year Antarctic research station and its 1961 arctic satellite base, which added Quonset huts and rocket launchers.

Plays well in groups

Dolifka said he has a soft spot for camping dioramas and the old farm sets like the ones he played with as a child.

He has made long-distance friends with other collectors, such as a veterinarian in Illinois who shares his interest in the diminutive, plastic livestock.

Dolifka laughed and remarked that plastic cows are far cheaper than the real thing. And produce less manure.

"A lot of us are wannabe farmers," he said.

"That's one of the neat things about this hobby. I have made so many friends."

He said he has happy memories as well of the hours spent with his family and friends here assembling and disassembling the sets. He recalled the many times the neighborhood children would come over and join him for hours -- away from the television, absorbed in the old-fashioned toys.

But their strongest appeal is for the perpetual kids of Dolifka's own generation.

"They also make wonderful gifts," he said.

"Give someone a toy from their childhood, and you have a friend for life."



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