Marx Toy Museum (Gone)
Louis Marx became rich by taking toys from other companies, changing them just enough to evade paying royalties, and then mass producing them as his own. Every toymaker did the same -- it's just that Marx did it best. He was a former office boy who bought his bankrupt employer's most successful product -- Zippo The Climbing Monkey -- and tweaked it so that he could sell millions more of them for a bigger profit. Marx didn't invent the yo-yo, but he figured out how to make them fast and cheap and sold 100 million of them, too, making "Marx" and "yo-yo" synonymous for decades.
Few people today, however, remember Zippo. And a display of yo-yos would only interest a few. The Marx Toy Museum avoids falling into this antique toy museum trap because Marx eventually began inventing toys of its own, and produced some of the stranger and more memorable playthings of the 1960s. Then Louis Marx retired and sold the company, and by 1980 it was out of business.
The official Marx Toy Museum is in West Virginia. The museum in Erie, however, is owned and operated by former employees of Marx's two area factories, which closed in 1976 -- known as "The Monkey Works" because they made so many climbing monkeys. The Marx company had long since been acquired, disassembled, absorbed -- but someone still owns the brand rights. "We pay $3,000 just to use the Marx name!" a former-employee named Kathy told us (she was running the cash register). According to her, the museum was built as a way for Monkey Works alumni to hang out and showcase their handiwork. There are always new exhibits here because there are lots of Marx toys in the attics and basements of Erie.
Many of the toys are displayed in the open. We at first thought that this meant that we could play with them -- until the staff yelled at us. In a room full of model trains we were encouraged to look at the windows of the Pullman cars to see likenesses of 1950s movie stars, baked into the metal, possibly by Japanese enamel workers (Marx was a pioneer of cheap global labor). There's a Zippo in the museum, of course, and a wall-mounted case that holds the same set of hand-painted miniature U.S. Presidents that we saw in the One and Only Presidential Museum across the border in Ohio. Marx "play sets" are everywhere, small versions of farms, gas stations, Wild West towns, and Civil War battlefields where kids could move around tiny plastic cows, horses, vehicles and human figures.
Marx could always be trusted to promptly enrich the market with a toy shadowing the hit of another company. His solution to the 1965 action figure sensation, GI Joe, with his fancy ball joints and internal ligaments? The same-sized "Stony," a blockhead of a soldier with simple hinge joints, his uniform plastic-fused to his body. But Stony was sturdy enough to beat any GI Joe to death in the sandbox.
Two of Marx's later great successes are instantly recognizable to Baby Boomers: Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots (1964) and the Big Wheel (1969). The wooden prototype of Big Wheel's wheel is given a place of honor, while its long-forgotten flop successor, the Green Machine (1976), is stuck in a corner of the train room.
Louis Marx had no interest in educational toys, a philosophy that became increasingly evident as the years passed. Space-themed toys -- the Tom Corbett Space Academy playset, or the Mystery Space Ship -- were TV and movie scifi byproducts, but a child could construct a lunar base or silently explore the meteor situation in the backyard. By the mid-1960s, Marx was making odd space robots and monsters, such as Big Loo (a moon robot that squirted water out of its navel) and Great Garloo, a green space monster that wore sandals and a leopard-skin loincloth. The Garloo on display in the Museum has its massive D-cell remote control held together with plastic tape -- it was obviously a well-loved toy, used to terrorize many a little sister.
Next to Garloo is a golf club toy with Arnold Palmer as its head. Pull a lever in the handle and the miniature Arnold swings a tiny club to knock a teensy-weensy ball around a little plastic golf course. Beside it, on a table seemingly piled at random with stuff, is Marx's failed Electro Hockey, a mechanical toy that tried to mimic a Pong-era video game. "There's no such thing as an original toy," Louis the buccaneer was fond of saying, although the microchip eventually proved him wrong.
Near the cash register, in a glass-topped display case, we found ourselves again confused -- this time by an array of metal cars and space pistols. Were the toys in the Marx Museum for sale? The ex-Marx employees laughed and told us no, all Marx toys are now valuable collectibles. This is something to think about the next time your mom wants to throw away your old Green Machine. "People see a toy that they remember," said Kathy, "and they leave their names and phone numbers all the time. They tell us, 'If you ever want to sell it, let me know!'"
June 2008: The Marx Toy Museum, officially closed, sold off its toys to pay its debts. Great Garloo went for $295.00.
April 2008: Marx Toy Museum To Close: Boomers Mourn