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by Doug Carpenter

If Santa Claus has a special place in his heart for Western New York, it’s probably because it reminds him so much of home. No. This isn’t the set-up for another “It snows so much in Buffalo” joke. It’s the opening for our very own “Toy Story.”

Aside from the fact that the Polar Express is probably already booked solid through Memorial Day, why trek 9116 miles to the real North Pole when one of the most amazing collections of wonderful, whimsical and wildly nostalgic playthings you could ever hope to find under one roof is right here in Western New York? So take off the mukluks, grab your car keys and head for the Toy Town Museum.

As Museum Director, Michele Meissner may be a little on the tall side for an elf. But she certainly has the credentials for the job… and the toys. Boy oh boy, does she ever have the toys, as well as a truly magical place to display them. Started in 1987 in a modest Main Street storefront, East Aurora’s Toy Town Museum showcases a remarkable collection of toys, games and cultural memorabilia that capture the spirit of childhood for generations of Western New Yorkers.

The Museum has occupied its current home since 1996, when its founder – the non-profit Toy Town USA Foundation – accepted a generous invitation from WNY-based toymaker Fisher-Price, who offered 8,000 sq. ft. of second floor exhibition space above its popular toy store at 636 Girard Avenue. According to Meissner, it was both a perfect match and one very much in keeping with the community’s longstanding toy tradition.

“Western New York has such a rich history of toymaking,” Meissner says. “Besides Fisher-Price, in the late 1800s there were over a hundred toy companies in this area,” including such brands as Maxon Toys, Liberty Playthings and Brice Toy and Novelty Company. The support of Fisher-Price, an industry fixture since 1930, served both to strengthen the Toy Museum and establish a showcase for the company’s own considerable archive of historic toys.

Today’s Toy Town Museum boasts an ever-changing collection that offers, as Elton John’s Circle of Life from The Lion King so aptly put it, “More to be seen than can ever be seen. More to do than can ever be done.” Or at least that’s the feeling you get when you walk through the Museum’s doors and into a sea of vibrantly colorful exhibits and the memories they inevitably bring forth.

Hundreds upon hundreds of toys loved by girls and boys of all ages peek out at you from brightly-lit shelves and free-standing display cases, chronicling generations of happy times gone by but not forgotten. From Fisher-Price’s classic “Little People” – busily working on their farms or riding in their cars – to the merry menagerie of popular pull-me animals who followed countless toddlers around the house, the urge to reminisce is impossible to resist.

And if those don’t get to you, there’s more. Currently, there’s a very fashionable exhibit devoted to the ultimate miniature clothes horse and world’s most-collected doll, the one-and-only Barbie. Discover how her evolution from her debut in 1959 mirrored America’s own cultural odyssey. Or just enjoy remembering how much fun she was to play with. Either way you want to go, this unique Toy Town collection can take you there.

Of course, if your most vivid memories of the 60s are more about the music than the makeup, the current exhibit of Beatles memorabilia now in residence at the Museum may be just your cup of tea. The collection showcases items on loan from five local Fab Four enthusiasts, whose love for the lads from Liverpool brings the British Invasion a lot closer than Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The hearts of local TV fans are stirred by yet another popular Toy Town exclusive. Presented in cooperation with the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers, this one features two familiar and, quite literally, larger-than-life figures from Buffalo’s media past. Towering tall above an exhibit honoring two area TV icons – WKBW Channel 7’s beloved Rocketship 7 and Commander Tom Show – are both the original and the reinvented versions of Promo the Robot. Along with equally famous puppets Matty, Cecily and Dustmop, they help delighted visitors relive fond memories of their WNY childhoods.

The popularity of such media-savvy features points up the wisdom of the Museum’s efforts to make itself as interactive as possible. In addition to its permanent and changing toy displays, its programs also include a variety of other entertaining and educational elements. These include guided tours teaching students the history of toys and inventions and hands-on toymaking experiences in the Museum’s Toy Works Lab.

Meissner notes with particular pleasure how universal the appreciation and understanding of great toys is for all generations, illustrated by the Museum’s current “Timeless Toys” exhibit, presented in cooperation with the NBC Family Charitable Foundation. She says that a video the Museum shows about The Favorite Toys of the 20th Century is a huge hit with audiences of all ages.

“It tells the behind-the-scenes story of some of the most popular toys of all time. Toys like Slinky, Legos, Etch-a-Sketch and Mr. Machine. All true classics. And what’s really amazing,” she adds, “is that kids today are still playing with these same cool toys.”

The advantage to the Museum of allowing that enduring love of play to guide its choices is evident by the success it’s had with recent exhibits focusing on trains, fire trucks and the wide world of Disney toys. Likewise, shows like last year’s celebration of America’s favorite game, baseball – featuring authentic items from greats like Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and the immortal Babe Ruth – increased awareness of the Museum while attracting a whole new league of fans.

And with the holiday season being about as good a time as any to make a big deal about toys, Toy Town will be making a big deal about the holiday with one of its most exciting and ambitious presentations to date. From November 27th through January of next year, a new Toy Town Museum exhibit will focus on the making of the blockbuster 2000 Jim Carrey film Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The collection, containing dozens of props, costumes and set pieces used in the filming, is on loan from Western New Yorker David House, who purchased many of the items directly from the studio when production was completed. Included are everything from the candelabra that graced the table at Whos’ holiday feast to the Grinch’s lederhosen. Also on display will be the actual sleigh Mr. Mean and Green himself rode triumphantly down Mount Crumpit into the heart of Whoville.

The same sleigh, by the way, provided transportation for the arrival of Toy Town’s own personal Santa, who was guest of honor at the exhibit’s Grand Opening and who will return every Saturday through Christmas to meet and greet visitors from Noon to 4:00 p.m. Combine that with the opportunity to view both continuing screenings of the movie and the entire Toy Town Museum collection free of charge… as it always is… and even the Grinch himself would be there with jingle bells on.

Exhibits, programs and events like these, these, Meissner emphasizes, are just part of the Museum’s continuing effort to remain vital and energized. That, she is quick to point out, is because Toy Town is more than just a building or a collection of cherished keepsakes. It’s an expression of the playfulness and joy that lives inside each of us, young and old alike.

An independent non-profit Toy Town Museum depends on the community for financial support. In addition to admission donations and Museum memberships, a large part of that support is generated by what has become one of Western New York’s signature events, ToyFest. Now in its 19th year, the annual three-day celebration of all playthings great and small is held on the last weekend before Labor Day and attracts more than 100,000 toy lovers to East Aurora.

A highlight of each year’s ToyFest is the issuing for sale of a limited edition reproduction of a classic toy from the long and respected Fisher-Price line, with proceeds going to support the Toy Town Museum’s efforts to promote and preserve Western New York’s unique toy heritage. Knowing toy enthusiasts, you can imagine how quickly these instant classics become both valued collectibles and treasured possessions.

Of course, as Meissner puts it, “You can never have too many toys.” Especially if you have a toy box as neat as the Toy Town Museum to keep them in.

© 2004 Doug Carpenter

To learn more about the Toy Town Museum, call (716) 687-5151 or visit www.toytownusa.com.

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