Just when baby boomers think they've finally bought their last plush purple dinosaur for their kids (or someone else's), Dino the dinosaur, Fred Flintstone's purple pet, is making a comeback, and not just in TV reruns or on the movie screen.
The rumblings from the front line of the collecting world is that "boomerabilia" is booming: Toys, promotional giveaways, political memorabilia, ephemera and licensed character merchandise from the 1950s, '60s, '70s and early '80s -- long staples at flea markets -- are getting serious attention from collectors and dealers who once vowed never to pine for plastic. With robots, comic books and lunch boxes now crossing the auction block even at tony Christie's East gallery in New York, there's no denying that boomerabilia is the latest noisemaker in the sometimes loony-tune world of collectibles.
While junior's jumping for "Jurassic Park" promotions, chances are Mom and Dad Baby Boomer have been bitten by the nostalgia bug and are doting on Dino and focusing on Fred. A circa-1962 Fred Flintstone on Dino battery-operated toy by Marx, 12 inches tall by 18 inches long, now is worth about $250 to $350 in good condition without its original box. Boxed and in mint condition, it can fetch around $600 to $800, according to the "grandpop" of boomerabilia, dealer and auctioneer Ted Hake, of Hake's Americana and Collectibles, in York, Pa. Attics nationwide are being searched for childhood relics to enjoy once again or turn into cash.
"What people seem to remember is what they liked when they were 12 years old, but they don't begin to collect it until around the age of 30," Mr. Hake observes. It's deja vu all over again in the toy and entertainment worlds. Trolls are back in demand and "Trekkies" old and new are exploring the vast frontiers of "Star Trek" collectibles. Don't look now, but Hula-Hoops, Mickey Mouse Club trinkets, Gidget posters, and even pet rocks soon may be vying for the attention and money of Memory Lane mavens.
"The real money is in mint-in-the-box toys made between 1955 and 1968," says dealer and auctioneer Barry Goodman, of Toysensations, in Woodbury, N.Y. At the mammoth "Atlantique City" antiques and collectibles fair at the Atlantic City (N.J.) Convention Center, Saturday and next Sunday, the 32-year-old Mr. Goodman will be selling vintage G.I. Joes, Barbie dolls, "Planet of the Apes" figures, Matchbox cars, action figures and character toys like those he and his friends could have played with as children.
Toys currently in production that are marketed as collectibles from the start are less interesting to Mr. Goodman, who generally doesn't sell ones made after the original "Star Wars" figures (circa 1977).
"To be collectible, toys should have parts that were made to be lost, not last," he says, noting there's little fun in collecting something made to be stored boxed on a shelf. Mr. Goodman is particularly partial to a hard-to-find complete, 200-piece boxed plastic play set of Yogi Bear at Jellystone Park, made by Marx, circa 1962.
"It has real emotional pull," he confesses. He expects it to fetch about $325 to $650 in his mail-bid auction closing Oct. 18.
Mr. Hake got into plastic toys, games, figures, character lunch boxes and advertising premiums 27 years ago (when many of his current customers were young) upon realizing that his pin-back button-collector clients also coveted anything adorned with their favorite comic characters. While branching out into Disney collectibles was relatively easy, other areas required greater leaps of faith.
"At the time, I never thought I'd be selling G.I. Joe figures, but here I am," says the pop culture entrepreneur, who can get "in the $2,000 range" for top-of-the-line, 12-inch-high, late-1960s G.I. Joe "foreign soldier" figures.
Although he doesn't consider himself a collector, Joel Siegel, entertainment editor of ABC TV's "Good Morning America," occasionally acquires boomerabilia such as Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy scarves to frame and hang in his log cabin, or lithographed tin Disney character toys to display. "I couldn't afford these things when they were 49 cents," he says, "but now that some cost $249 I can buy them."
Mr. Siegel waxes nostalgic for the cowboy, comic character and radio premium memorabilia he first previewed as a youth in the late 1940s and early '50s. Although born four years before the baby boom's official start, he grew up alongside many boomers, and it's the TV and film world he covers that fueled the production of bountiful boomerabilia. He had the prescience to save much of his childhood stuff. "I still have my comic books from when I was 11 and my Hank Aaron rookie baseball card from when I was 10," he says proudly.
The fastest growing boomerabilia sub-category is action figures, according to Tom Tumbusch, of Tomart Publications, in Dayton, Ohio, which issues pop culture collecting guides covering topics from "Star Wars" to McDonald's Happy Meal toys, and a bi-monthly magazine, Tomart's Action Figure Digest.
"Availability makes a toy collectible," says Mr. Tumbusch, who uses four criteria to judge emerging markets: wide availability of the items at flea markets and collectibles shows; relatively low prices ("70 percent to 80 percent should be worth under $60," he says); "a touch of stardom" (the characters or brand should be enduring); and whether similar objects still are being made. "We're not talking about antiques," he says.
When collecting action figures, such as Super Heroes, Transformers or even Ninja Turtles, the biggest mistake children make is opening the package and throwing it away, Mr. 'f Tumbusch observes, since collectors pay a premium for mint-condition figures in mint-condition original boxes. "We call the folks who had the foresight to buy action figures and put them away 20 years ago millionaires today," he says.
A generally overlooked hunting ground for collectible action figures is stock rooms of independent toy retailers, according to Mr. Tumbusch: "Sometimes you can buy a retailer's old stock for around $1.89 per figure, when the same items bring $20 to $30 at collectibles shows."
Good buys and large price fluctuations are well known to Carol Turpen, of Joshua, Texas, who grew up on TV shows like "Lost in Space" and "Bonanza," and began collecting boomerabilia around four years ago. When she couldn't find any books on the subject, she decided to write her own: "Baby Boomer Toys and Collectibles," (Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1993, $29.95), which includes photos and descriptions of nearly 800 toys made during the 1950s and 1960s. Even the author admits it just scratches the surface. Ms. Turpen is working on another book on the subject in which she hopes to include more information about reproductions, which are appearing with increasing frequency as prices for originals start skyrocketing.
"Robby the Robot," a 13 1/2 -inch-high Japanese-made mechanized battery-operated toy inspired by the 1956 "Forbidden Planet" movie character of the same name, was one of the most popular toys of the '50s and a favorite of Ms. Turpen's. According to a leading dealer, before a high-quality reproduction appeared on the market a few years ago, mint-in-box original Robbys sold for as much as $5,000 each. Now, dealers might get closer to $2,000 to $3,000 for one, because of the availability of cheaper reproductions.
While toys and dolls generally command the highest prices, almost anything that screams nostalgia is causing otherwise non-collector baby boomers to reach into their wallets for souvenirs of their childhood. There's a boomlet in promotional drinking glasses, decorated with images of famous Warner Bros. or Hanna-Barbera characters, sports heroes, or logos of stores, fast food restaurants, soft drinks or professional sports teams, which are selling for about 50 cents to $50 each, according to Bruce Possinger, of Saylorsburg, Pa., treasurer of the Promotional Glass Collectors Association. Political memorabilia from 1960 onward is among the fastest growing areas, according to Mr. Hake, who notes, "Folks generally seek out items from the first campaign they remember or voted in."
As the last of the baby boomers approaches thirtysomething, Mr. Hake expects to hear more about collecting psychedelic posters, Peter Max merchandise, and even early 1980s fantasy characters such as Gremlins, E.T. and Indiana Jones.
The mainstream art and antiques world isn't blind to new collectibles. "We're always keeping our eye on the pulse of what happens at big shows like Atlantic City," says auctioneer Kathleen Guzman, president of Christie's East. "Folks thought we were crazy in 1988 when we had our robot sale, but if there's a collection out there and a core group of committed people who desire it, we're willing to give it a try," she adds. Before long Georgian silver and George Jetson tin toys may be competing for prime time on Christie's auction block.
* Barry Goodman, Toysensations, P.O. Box 218, Woodbury, N.Y. 11797, (516) 338-2701.
* Ted Hake, Hake's Americana & Collectibles, P.O. Box 1444, York, Pa. 17405, (717) 843-3731. Catalogs for Mr. Hake's annual holiday auction cost $7.50 postpaid.
* Tomart Publications, 3300 Encrete Lane, Dayton, Ohio 45439-1944. For a free catalog, send a business-size self-addressed stamped envelope. Annual subscriptions (six issues) to Tomart's Action Figure Digest cost $25 postpaid.
* Promotional Glass Collectors Association, c/o Bruce Possinger, Treasurer, RD 1, Box 1116, Saylorsburg, Pa. 18353. Annual dues are $15, payble to the association.
* "Atlantique City" Holiday Fair, Oct. 16-17, at the Atlantic City (N.J.) Convention Center. For information call, (800) 526-2724.