Toy Robot Museum - Closed
Robots can be good or evil, Optimus Prime or the Terminator. The distinctive sound of clanking feet can announce the arrival of anything from the Tin Man to Mechagodzilla.
Joe Knedlhans knows this -- but he also knows the limits of robotdom. As the owner/curator of the Toy Robot Museum, Joe has surrounded himself with examples of what could be called the "classic" robot -- a boxy metal man with claws for hands, a missile launcher in its head, and a couple of D-cell batteries for power. His museum contains no astronaut robots (a toy made from robots with astronaut heads) and he questions the pedigree of creatures such as Marx Toy's Great Garloo, which he considers "more of an aqua-man."
"I can't tell you what a robot is," he said, "but I know one when I see one."
Joe speaks from personal experience. Earlier in his life, he was a New York City SWAT team cop who worked with modified bomb-disposal robots. One day, in 1986, Joe's wife bought him a toy robot as a gift. It didn't take long after that, he admitted, that "it just got way out of control."
Joe still has that first robot. It's in his museum -- but it's nearly lost among thousands of subsequent acquisitions.
The Toy Robot Museum is in a shopping plaza that's built like a medieval town, where the shopkeepers actually live above their businesses. Joe could have gone the store-pretending-to-be-a-museum route, but to his credit his business really is mostly a museum, with only a small gift shop up front. Every available square inch is packed with robots, robot books, robot art. Spare robot boxes perch atop the exhibit cases, spare batteries line the shelves. Floor space is given to robot arcade games, a robot cotton candy machine, and an R2-D2 Pepsi cooler. Joe's latest robots hang from the ceiling, the only space he has left.
As the museum's sole employee, Joe is here whenever it's open ("I live 14 steps from work.") and it would be inconceivable to tour it without him. It's fairly easy to recognize robot celebrities such as Robby the Robot, the Iron Giant, the Lost in Space robot, and Maria from the film Metropolis. But you need an expert like Joe to tell the stories behind humanoids like Mr. ZzyzzX and Emiglio, and to decipher the deeper meaning of shelves packed with Japanese robots, Erector set robots, robot clocks, robots with TVs in their bellies....
Joe showed us an exhibit devoted to Robert (not Robby) the Robot, a 1950s-vintage toy that's his personal favorite. "I have all three versions," Joe said, explaining that each successive model offered fewer features. Joe has recorded Robert's indecipherable squeaky voice, which plays from a tiny digital speaker mounted on the glass case. Similar audio clips are provided for other famous chatty robots ("Danger, danger, Will Robinson!"), although Joe lamented that young people no longer have the patience to sit through 60-second robot commercial jingles. "After ten seconds, they're bored."
The only real robot in this museum of toys is Topo, a three-foot-tall "home domestic robot" that debuted in 1983 (We met one in Florida's Xanadu, home of the future). Joe said that Topo was a flop, but that the man who invented it later became a millionaire by using his robot knowledge to create Chuck E. Cheese.
Joe, the former New York City cop, said that he now spends much of his time doing "kind of nerdy stuff" such as searching for tiny replacement gears, sticking plastic straws under his robots' rubber wheels to keep them from going flat, and dusting. He said that his two largest expenses (other than robots) are glass cleaner and batteries. "It's recommended that you play with your robots every so often, to keep the lubricating oil fresh." With some 2,100 robots currently on display, Joe's weeks are pretty much booked.
Visitors can play with robots at the museum as well. Kids can learn from old tape-powered tutors such as Alphie and 2-XL, while parents can trade cathartic wallops with Rock'em Sock'em Robots. There's even a 1980s-vintage Armatron industrial robot from Radio Shack, whose miniature claw can be manipulated to pick up and put down tiny inventory parts over and over and over....
Joe said that his collection is surpassed by some others, such as at the Robot Hut in Elk, Washington. But the Toy Robot Museum is the only one regularly open to the public, and Joe plans to keep it open and to keep improving his displays. "I've never sold any piece out of here," he said. "There isn't one robot that I would get rid of."
Joe's previous career as a cop was "very intense" he said. "So for the last third of my life I would like to have some fun. And this is how I intend to spend it."