Yesterday's toys turn into today's pop treasure


AMERICANS may be the world's oldest children, fighting off middle age with diet, exercise and as much nostalgia as they can get. The Baby Boom Nation has a fascination with pop culture because it's really the first frontier in our collective experience - driven by commercial television, the mass marketing of toys, clothing, food and music, and the idolization of sports and entertainment celebrities. Pop is us. It's burned into our consciousness - like a radio jingle or TV theme you never forget.

(Eddie Albert died last week, and how many of you instantly broke into the Green Acres song when you heard of Oliver Douglas' passing?)

We like to think we're not sentimental or nostalgic. But we are. As the baby boomers hit midlife, we go along for the ride through the Information Age, feigning excitement for its wonders, while reaching back for the lovable, cuddly, rubbery icons of youth. Yeah, we're all about now and the future, but we'd be happy to stay on Gilligan's Island forever. We all have a Rosebud, but it's probably not a wooden sled; it's probably something plastic, first seen in a TV commercial.

No wonder the Maryland Stadium Authority agreed last week to lease space in Camden Station to Orioles minority owner Steve Geppi for a comic book and pop culture museum. Geppi's 16,000-square-foot museum will occupy part of the second and third floors, above the new Sports Legends museum, another repository of nostalgia.

And no wonder the Discovery Channel has confidence that its new show, Pop Nation: America's Coolest Stuff, which had its first taping in the Baltimore Convention Center yesterday morning, will be successful. This program, due to air in October, takes your grandmother's Victorian dresser out of Antiques Roadshow and replaces it with Barbie's mirrored vanity.

This is all about post-1960 pop - comic books, clothing, toys, jewelry, film iconography and general kitsch. "This is not about your grandmother's armoire," says Christine Weber, a Barbie fan from way back - she's 48 - and the president of Tiger/Tigress Productions, the company producing the show for Discovery. (The executive producer is Cindy Frei, a Baltimore native.)

"Pop is the fastest-growing genre of collectibles," Weber says.

"It's the No. 1 category on eBay," says Frei.

Which brings up the commercial aspect of all this.

There's no question that Americans are fascinated with pop for nostalgic reasons. But this kind of collecting is accessible, too. Almost anyone can find a piece of pop treasure.

If you can't afford a Matisse, then put your McDonald's Happy Meal toys on display. Or, if your home lacks a French country sideboard, guests might ooh and aah at a vintage Easy-Bake Oven.

And you can always sell.

Trading in this can put some cash in wallets. Men and women might be sentimental about Cabbage Patch Dolls or Lost in Space lunch boxes, but everything has a price.

Which is one of the remarkable things about all of this - everything seems to have value, unless it's damaged. You can look it up on eBay, a partner in the Pop Nation venture.

Yesterday, Art Roberts arrived from Annapolis with three Nutty Mads, goofy, candy-colored plastic figurines produced by Marx in the early 1960s. These hunks of mass-produced plastic, formed into cartoon characters - Manny The Reckless Mariner, for instance - sold originally for as little as 19 cents each, Roberts said. Some were fetching as much as $25 each on eBay yesterday.

So into this yesterday came Kevin Brubaker of Rodgers Forge. He works in the creative side of advertising for a Baltimore company and, in his other life, he's a collector of lunchboxes - the kind branded with pop culture figures. He brought a 1966 Beatles box - a full-color lithograph in great shape with a thermos inside.

Sharing a table with Brubaker in the green room, waiting to be called for a taping, was Kevin Mohs, who brought something he had actually saved since youth and wanted appraised.

Between ages 4 and 8, Mohs lived with his parents in Japan. During that time, he collected playing cards featuring Ultraman, a superhero from prime-time television there. Ultraman appears to be a forerunner of Power Rangers. Mohs attended school at a military base. He and other children played a toss game with Ultraman cards. "You won cards by tossing them and making them flip," Mohs says. "I've had them for 30 years."

He kept them through three or four family moves - back to the United States, and to Europe and back - and through his college years. "Because my family moved so much, I placed value in things from the different places we lived and I set them aside and kept them in a trunk."

Mohs doesn't plan to sell his Ultraman cards, but he might try offering a few online to see what the market will bear.

People who bring their items to Pop Nation have three options - they can simply have them appraised and keep them, sell them online through eBay or sell them outright for cash. Antiques Roadshow would never be so base.

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