Focus on Toys: Tom Mix

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One of the best ways kids could enjoy the exploits of Tom Mix was by bringing the Western hero right into the playroom, in short, action-packed films. Small projectors and films for children were being made by several companies in the 1930s, led by Keystone Mfg. Co. of Boston. While Keystone made a variety of steel toys, movie projectors and movie cameras were its mainstays. The movie projectors themselves came in a variety of sizes and levels of complexity, priced from only a few dollars to around $70. As is typical in Keystone films, the film shown here starts with the title, "Tom Mix - Who's the Boss" in a box, with "Keystone" above and "Boston, Mass.," below. Then the action immediately starts - for it is a clip from a longer film, with no credits to roll through first. From the author's collection.

For toy collectors just as with collectors of movie memorabilia, the 1930s and ’40s radio and film character named Tom Mix presents an unusual puzzle – because there was more than just one Tom Mix. More than two, even. There were, in fact, seven Tom Mixes.

We don’t need to worry about most of the seven, however. Six were radio actors who impersonated the Western hero starting in 1933, when the real Tom Mix’s cinematic star was riding high in the Western sky.

The first of these radio impersonators was Artells Dickson. The last and most famous of them, Curley Bradley, kept the radio show going ten years after the movie star Tom Mix was, literally, out of the picture.

For movie-oriented collectors, the focus naturally remains on the real Tom Mix, the star of cinema, rodeo and circus whose fame inspired the radio show. But how do you tell the difference? Dozens of toys and promotional items were issued in the 1930s and ’40s – and since the larger percentage of them were issued in connection with the Tom Mix radio show by the show’s sponsor, Ralston-Purina, most of them would not be true-blue Tom Mix movie items.

Some overlap existed, however, to confuse matters. Many of the earlier radio premiums featured photographic likenesses of the real Tom Mix, or scenes from his films. Some collectors treat these as movie memorabilia almost as much as radio items.

Yet many others were based on elements that were original to the radio serial – and these include the toy rings, and even some of the toy guns. Fortunately, most of these items reveal their radio origin in their design. Many bear the distinctive Ralston-Purina checkerboard pattern, or use the “T-M-Bar” ranch brand as a major motif. These all appeal to cereal and radio premium collectors, while movie-oriented collectors tend to look elsewhere.

Even though the Tom Mix name was well-known among Western-movie fans well before the radio show made its appearance in 1933, the number of toy items being made were relatively few. Undoubtedly the most prominent was the one made by the Mordt Co. that capitalized on the talents Mix used in his rodeo and circus appearances.

Mordt, based at 350 W. Erie St., Chicago, specialized in items made of rope, including ring-toss games and “The Mordt Gym Set,” which let kids hang swings, rings and gymnastic bars from tree limbs. From the late 1920s into the early 1930s the company also made “The Tom Mix Rodeorope,” which it advertised as “the only perfectly balanced rope.” Packaged in 14-foot and 22-foot lengths, the Rodeorope featured the image of a young and serious-looking Tom Mix wearing his Stetson.

This unusual item was made for sale through stores. It also turned up as a Ralston cereal premium in the first year of the Tom Mix radio show. Radio collectors should keep an eye out for Rodeorope made not in Chicago but in South Plymouth, Mass., where Mordt had moved by 1933. The company was producing an expanded line of toys including cowboy outfits, toy guns, and tool chests. The Rodeorope produced for Ralston premiums presumably lists South Plymouth, Mass., for its address, not Chicago, beside the Mordt name. Movie collectors, of course, might prefer the ones bearing Mordt’s Chicago address.

As the 1930s rolled along, Mordt disappeared from the scene, while other companies stepped in with a variety of playthings, all of them based on the real-life star.

One of the manufacturers of Tom Mix items is still active today in Toyland: for it was Parker Bros. of Salem, Mass., that was issuing a Tom Mix game by around 1936. At the same time, the long-lived Whitman Publishing Co. of Racine, Wis., was granted rights to issue Tom Mix books. Arcade Mfg. Co., the famous cast-iron toy manufacturer based in Freeport, Ill., produced a Tom Mix Circus Wagon. Imperial Knife Co. of Providence, R.I., issued Tom Mix knives alongside its line of comic-character knives.

For some reason, three different companies based in St. Louis, Mo., were producing official Tom Mix items to satisfy his fans. Cowboy outfits bearing the Mix name appeared from Brauer Bros. Mfg. Co., a company with long experience in toy cowboy equipment. Meanwhile, the Mengel Co. produced a Tom Mix rocking horse. (Kids would have named their faithful steeds Tony, of course, after Tom Mix’s well-trained mount.) For happy campers, Canvas Products Co. issued Tom Mix tents.

Tom Mix playthings gradually decreased in number, so that by 1939 only Brauer’s cowboy outfits, Parker’s games and Whitman’s books were being produced.

By 1940, the year Mix died in an automobile accident, only the games and books were still being produced. Even those were gone by the next year. With his death, Tom Mix items seemed to pretty much disappear from toy aisles. They kept being offered somewhere else, though.

Audiences were still being thrilled by the adventures of the fair-playing cowboy in comic books, radio shows, and cereal premiums. Kids were aware Tom Mix was being played on the airwaves by actor Russell Thorson, through 1942, and then after a hiatus by “Curley” Bradley, from 1944 to 1950. But this knowledge hardly bothered them, for they listened with just as much eagerness as before – and perhaps even more.

Tom Mix premiums were being issued in numbers exceeding 200,000 at a time, in those years before TV changed everything.

Ralston cereals offered the Curley Bradley Fan Postcard in 1946, which showed a smiling and relaxed Bradley leaning his left arm against a window sill, a white hat on his head and white bandanna around his neck. He wore a checkered shirt to remind his fans of Ralston’s sponsorship, and a low-slung holster and gun. On the fan postcard appeared the words, “To My Straight Shooter Pal … ‘Curley’ Bradley, The Tom Mix of Radio.”

Curley Bradley was actually a singing cowboy, an entertainer of a sort the real and more serious Tom Mix never quite warmed to. Oddly enough, though, he had his own movie credentials. He had a part in early, silent Westerns as a horse-riding stuntsman, playing both good guys and bad guys, alongside stars like Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson – and Tom Mix.

More Images:

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The Tom Mix of radio was not the same as the Tom Mix of movies. The last radio actor to play Tom Mix, "Curley" Bradley, is seen here in an 8-inch by 10-inch publicity still from 1946, signed "Your Friend, Tom Mix." Author's collection.
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Collectors of Tom Mix movie memorabilia are usually pleased to find items from the Tom Mix Circus - for the circus-attraction Tom Mix was the same as the movie star. This steel-backed celluloid button measures 1 3/4 inches across, with 3-inch ribbons. Collection of Bill and Mai Larson
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Tom Mix Big Little Book from Whitman Publishing Co., Racine, Wis.

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