Collecting store displays

Thinking about childhood trips to stores reminds me not only of all of the toys I saw but also of all of the displays and dioramas used to promote the toys.

I recall images of plastic fighting army men, tanks, cannons, barbed wire and jeeps laid out amongst plastic trees, battle-worn buildings on a painted board for war-type playsets and many a toy cap gun rack filled with make-believe weaponry for would-be cowboys, detectives, pirates, G-men, and spies on the store walls and counters.

The display versions of toys looked so spectacular and fantastic that not only did I beg “I want that! I want that!” but also on the occasional instance when I got one of those toys, a little disappointment resulted when I got home and opened up the box.

toy cap gun store displayThe toy looked different somehow. It just didn’t seem the same as the one on display.

“Yes, I know just what you are talking about!” collector George Kroll said. “The displays have always been more attractive to me than a boxed set, especially now as a collector, I actually think of the displays as art work.”

Make that scarce and valuable art work and in some cases a one-of-a-kind item. Collecting the original store display, promotional or demonstrator versions of old toys definitely provides you with something unique. Even a store display version of a common old toy might have high value. And that makes these displays all the more precious and special to collectors like Kroll.

A sergeant with the Frostburg, Md., City Police Department, Kroll has searched for Marx Toy Company store displays since 1999 when he found a demonstrator board version of Marx’s Blue and Gray Civil War playset with all of the plastic Confederate and Union troops, tents, horses, wagons and armory mounted on a painted and decorated board.

Now he owns almost 30 different store display versions of Marx toys from the 1960s and before, like a 1955 Marx utility truck set with six three-inch utility workers and tools and equipment set up in and around a metal green lithographed service truck in front of a colorful rural area background. The sign on the display notes “Supply is limited! Place deposit now!” You wish you could.

A bright, red-lettered banner proclaims “Start your collection now! 10 cents each!” at the top of Kroll’s Realistic Sculpted Action and Comic Figures display that has 100-plus plastic 54mm and 60mm athletes, warriors, pirates, cowboys, Indians, animals and comic characters like Popeye, Lil’ Abner, Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy in blue, white and red colors on nine shelves.

Kroll can also show you demonstrator board versions of Marx’s famous and popular playsets, boxed sets of figures, accessories and structures designed around a certain theme, time period, setting or popular show of the day. He has almost 20 of those like the Untouchables with feds, cops and gangsters battling it out on a prohibition era city street; Cape Canaveral with workers readying missiles and rockets for launching; and friends, Romans, countrymen gathered in the coliseum for a chariot race in the Ben-Hur playset.

Whenever he shows any of the toy displays to people, reactions like “Wow! Where in the world did you find this? I remember that!” occur. Try not to stop and stare at any of them in his collection.

“I think I like these so much because they are so unique. There has always been something about the store displays that really attracts me,” Kroll said.

While toy displays aren’t the main part of Californian David Schafer’s collection, he always wanted at least one demonstrator board of a Marx playset. So when he had the chance to get one of the 1955 Disney Television set which has about 40 different Disney characters, stage, background, banner, furniture and scenery in bright reds, greens, yellows and whites, he eagerly snapped it up.

“I just happened to luck out. The Disney Television store display is one of my favorite playsets. It’s a thing of true beauty. The playset is not rare but the store display sure is. As far as I know, I am the only person that owns one,” Schafer said.

He also has a demonstrator board version of a Flintstones “Half-Set” (a smaller version of the regular Flintstones playset) with Fred, Barney, Wilma, Betty and other “modern stone-age family” characters hanging around Bedrock and a 4-foot by 2-foot figure display of Marx’s Johnny West “Best of the West” tall, jointed, hard-plastic western characters standing and on horseback.

“I like that they are rare and almost one of a kind. They really display the playsets well,” Schafer said.

That makes such collectibles ideal museum pieces for both the Official Marx Toy Museum of Glen Dale, W.Va., and the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum in Wheeling, W.Va.

Official Marx Toy Museum (www.marxtoymuseum.com) owner/operator Francis Turner has old Marx toy displays like the repeating cap shooting cowboy rifles in the same red and white cardboard stand that the stores had; an Artillery Recon Set with soldiers in action poses around a jeep and cannon in front of a jungle type background; Miniature Masterpieces, sets of scaled, detailed molded figures and accessories in life-like scenes; American Frontiersmen and Rugby Sport-U-Ettes figure displays; and two different Best of the West displays on view for all to see.

The displays get attention, especially from people who remember them from childhood trips to stores. “Many are amazed at how they have survived the years,” Turner said.

Turner has collected Marx for over 20 years and always keeps a lookout for more of the company’s displays.

“Marx had EXCELLENT timing in releasing new character toys. Through various contacts, Louis Marx always seemed to know the next big hit TV show. As a result, he was always working to have character toys in production for that year’s Christmas. The displays were store pieces to promote that year’s new toys. So my eyes are always open for any Marx displays. Very few of these displays have survived the years and they really are great display pieces,” he said.

At the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum (www.toyandtrain.com), curator Allan Miller regularly has some old store displays in the museum cases like the Marx “Paint Your Own Presidents” display which features realistic miniature figures on every president (at the time) from Washington to Eisenhower and playset demonstrator boards such as the Marx farm, which has a tin barn with lithographed red walls, green roof and a picket fence and a suspended hay bale and Fort Apache where it’s battle time as soldiers defend the fort from an attacking tribe.

“The Marx demonstrator boards do garner comments, mainly from folks from the right age range to have seen or remembered them from stores in their youth. In general, folks do find the displays neat, unique, and interesting,” Miller said. “What I have found in the displays that I have seen, is that the Marx displays, especially the playset demonstrator boards, were set up to look like you would have them if you were actually PLAYING with them. I’ve seen a lot of other companies’ displays that looked like someone just set up the pieces for you to look at, so you could see all that they had. The Marx ones, in my opinion, seem far more creative.”

Few would argue with that even though other types exist. Maryland collector Mark Hegeman got hooked on collecting toy store displays when he spotted one of an MPC Western Wagon at an antique mall in Pennsylvania. The fact that the display, set up just like it would have been in a toy store way back when, got his attention is not lost on Hegeman.

“I can still remember walking down the aisle and it was on a shelf in the back of someone’s booth and my eye was drawn to it. The feet and the body followed,” he said with a laugh.

He bought it and now he owns a “couple dozen” including Disneykins, American Heroes, Warriors of the World and Campus Cuties figures from Marx; Western Wagon, Texas Rangers and Wild Animals from MPC; and several figural displays.

He always looks for more and naturally, the old displays are harder to find as most didn’t survive because of the usual fate that came to them – the trash! A lot of the older ones that appear on the market originated from the Marx Toy Company.

“Marx was the largest toy manufacturer in the world for many years. So just by shear volume, they are going to have more,” Hegeman said.

Sources for toy displays vary from eBay to collectors or just people lucky enough to obtain one from stores that no longer needed them back in the day.

Kroll has a friend whose mother brought a playset demonstrator board home from a department store she worked at during the time. And what happened to that display when she gave it to the children? They tore off all of the figures and accessories from the board because they wanted to play with them.

Turner has found his museum’s displays at toy shows in Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio and at a few auctions while Schafer got his Marx Johnny West display and three others back in 1974 at a Burbank, Calif., toy store’s going-out-of-business sale.

“Luckily, the largest of the displays was in nice condition and I decided to keep it. I sold the others three years ago. I bought all four of them for $35, a price that would make collectors cry today,” Schafer said.

You got that right! Pricing can vary on these display versions of toys, often depending on the toy.

“The store displays to me are priceless, but as far as a monetary value goes they range from around $100 to a few thousand dollars. For example, a miniature gun display can go for around $150, but expect to pay at least $2,000 for a near mint Satellite Launching Station Counter Display,” Kroll said.

“I think the value depends on the buyer,” Turner added. “To a toy collector, a display/demonstrator would have unique display value as very few exist for each of the Marx toys. To a new collector seeking toys for his/her past, they are seeking the item which they played with as a child and in many cases, would prefer one which they could play with as an adult. But for most collectors a display will always have more value because of its uniqueness and rarity. The more rare the production piece, the more valuable the display.”

And try to find a better way to show a toy in your collection, Hegeman noted.

“For one thing, if you have a display of say the Presidents, you have all of the Presidents that were made at the time. So you have an instant full collection. And to me a store display is the ultimate way to display a piece because that is how the manufacturer felt it put the toy to its best advantage,” Hegeman said.

And sometimes other advantages as well, like Schafer did with his colorful Disney Television playset display.

“I used it in my 2007 Christmas card that I sent out to fellow Marx collectors,” he said.

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