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Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots.

Marx Toy Museum (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

Moundsville, West Virginia

Rock'em Sock'em Robots and the Big Wheel were gifts to the world from Louis Marx, guiding genius of the Marx Toy Company. Both have positions of honor in the Marx Toy Museum, yet the joy of visiting this place isn't in the familiar and classic playthings -- although they are fun to see -- but in the extremes, a natural byproduct of a company whose total toy output reached into the billions over a 60-year span before it went bankrupt in 1980.

Moon Base.
Moon Base.

"During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Marx made a dollhouse with a fallout shelter. That's pretty hard to find," said Francis Turner, owner of the museum. Francis himself is unusual; the museum is his private collection, but his passion for Marx Toys didn't develop until he was well into his thirties.

"I don't remember none of these from when I was a kid," he said of the thousands of toys that fill his museum. "I grew up in the boonies; we was poor as dirt." By way of example, Francis points to the Electra-Matic Marx Mobile, a battery-powered minicar that sold for $25 in 1959. That same year, said Francis, he and his dad rode a bus to Wheeling to buy a real used car -- for 10 bucks.

Big Loo and Francis Turner.
Big Loo and Francis Turner.

Louis Marx was a pioneer of the lovingly detailed, 2.5-inch plastic figurine, ancestors of a race that would later populate the top of every computer nerd's desktop monitor. Francis has dozens of rarities, from the original carving of the dead German that appeared in all Marx World War II play sets, to the plastic naked girl that Marx would hand out to his friends. A tiny figurine of gun-toting Mark McCain, young son of Chuck Connors in The Rifleman, is actually worth more than its weight in gold, according to Francis. Beyond price are the figurines that Louis Marx made of himself, dressed as dictators such as Chairman Mao, Napoleon, and Genghis Kahn. The museum displays them next to the gold-plated Tiffany cigar ashtray given to Marx by Chase Bank for his 50 years as a customer.

Johnny West Best of the West Collection.

Marx Toys were barometers of their time, and playthings such as the Campus Cuties, Alabama Coon Jigger, and Nutty Mad Indian catered to popular tastes, while the Atomic Cannon shot a solid plastic bomb sixty feet.

Campus Cuties.
Campus Cuties.

"You couldn't sell that toy nowadays," said Francis of the cannon. "Too dangerous. It would be illegal." By the mid-1960s Marx was making a Moon Base in psychedelic colors, and creatures such as Big Loo (a robot that squirted water from its navel) and Garloo the Giant Monster, a green space alien that wore sandals and a leopard-skin loincloth and terrorized many a kid sister.

Francis has a Big Loo factory-sealed big box; he bought it from Marx Toy artist who designed it. "The guy said, 'Aren't you gonna open it and made sure Big Loo is in there?'" said Francis. "I said, 'Nope. This could be the only sealed Big Loo box in the world.'"

The museum fills a former grocery store; it keeps going and going, conveying the scope of the Marx empire. There's a model train room, a prototype room, a gas station and truck room, a western room whose swinging doors are a full-size replicas of the doors in Marx's miniature Dodge City. Large glass cases display a history of the world, from the Stone Age to the Space Age, in plastic play sets.

Service Station.
Service Station.

Always a buccaneer, Louis Marx would promptly enrich the market with a toy shadowing a hit TV show or the success of another company. His answer to Hasbro's GI Joe, with his finely engineered ball joints and internal ligaments, was 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.

In its prime, Marx cranked out more toys than anyone, the majority of them in a factory only a five-minute drive from the museum. Louis was "The Toy King" and moved in elite social circles. The museum has a photo of him and Richard Nixon at a baseball game, and a plastic figurine of the Prime Minister of England that Louis had made as a gift when he had him over for dinner, and an action figure of Louis' long-time friend President Eisenhower (Ike responded by painting an oil portrait of Louis).

Marx advertised its vast selection of toys with the teasing question, "Have you all of them?" Francis the collector had an answer for that. "It's impossible to get them all," he said. The company made 400 different dollhouses, 50 different castle sets, 300 different farm sets, and the deluxe versions of those sets each contained hundreds of unique pieces.

"Nobody can get them all," said Francis. "Not even me."

Marx Toy Museum

Downtown, on the south side of 2nd St. just east of Jefferson Ave., in an old grocery store now painted yellow and green.
Closed forever June 30, 2016.

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