For Carol Turpen, the toys she collects aren't just playthings


JOSHUA, Texas -- Remember Mr. Potato Head?

If you do, you're probably a baby boomer. And you're likely to recall with fondness the toys of your childhood.

Carol Turpen remembers not only Mr. Potato Head but also Hot Wheels, toy guns based on the "Bonanza" television series and many other baby boomer playthings. She's so enamored of old toys, in fact, that she has parlayed her interest into what approaches a full-time job.

Ms. Turpen is the author of "Baby Boomer Toys and Collectibles" (Schiffer Publishing, $29.95 in paperback), a collecting guide and price list that's coming out any day now. Volume II is in the works.

She also writes articles and covers toy shows for collecting magazines, and adds to her own collection by trading with fellow enthusiasts across the United States and abroad. "I only sell when I have to, to buy something else," she explained.

"I'm into all kinds of antiques, but toys are my favorites," said Ms. Turpen, herself a baby boomer and the former owner of an antiques shop. She and two brothers grew up in the Fort Worth area playing with tin cars and trucks. "If we played Barbie, nobody would play," she said. Now, "I don't like dolls that much."

Toys are hot collectibles these days, with prices that can range from perhaps $50 for a mint-condition, boxed wind-up toy to $1,000 for a "mint-and-boxed" robot, she said. And prices keep going up. But toys that are rusted or in otherwise poor condition aren't worth much.

"The baby boomers are the ones that are collecting most stuff now," she said. "They want what they had as a kid."

Famous faces sometimes are spotted at the major California toy show, including those of Michael Jackson, Demi Moore and Jonathan Winters, but Ms. Turpen wouldn't notice. "I'd never see 'em," she said. "I never take my eyes off the toys."

Nevertheless, she meets some interesting people who share her enthusiasm, she said. "Most people that are in this are real nice. Like me, they're big kids that never grew up."

Ms. Turpen ranks Felix the Cat high on her list of favorites. "I love Felix. He's probably my favorite character," she said. She has a wooden, jointed Felix from the 1920s, among other examples. Popeye is another top choice. "I like little vehicles, too," she said.

Wind-up and battery-operated toys (including a bear that pours and drinks what's supposed to be a Coke) are other favorites. "I like the ones that have a lot of pretty lithography," such as facial features or clothing printed on the tin figures, she added.

A "Bonanza" gun and a pair of wooden "Lone Ranger" revolvers from World War II (when metal was directed toward the war effort) are other items in her collection. "I was collecting robots and space toys, but they're pretty tough to find," Ms. Turpen said.

A prime example of a rare item is the Marx Merry Makers, a tin band of formally attired mice from the 1930s. The drummer pounds his snare, the violinist bows his instrument and the pianist tickles the ivories while the singer does a little dance. Ms. Turpen even has the box the band came in. Boxes, because they usually were discarded, are rarer than the toys they contained, she noted.

Ms. Turpen said her husband, Danny, a builder, humors her avocation; 17-year-old daughter Holly, a typical teen-ager, finds it embarrassing.

Adam, 9, doesn't object. He doesn't get to play with the old toys much, but he likes them anyway. "I think they're pretty neat," he said. "I don't know why they quit making 'em out of tin. They last a lot longer" than today's playthings, he said. "Toys now -- you have to figure out how to work 'em."

Ms. Turpen and her brothers didn't have a lot of toys when they were growing up; their parents didn't want to spoil them, the collector said.

Perhaps that explains her current passion for playthings, she suggested. "I guess I'm making up for it now."

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