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BEVIS HILLIER

Always on Sunday : The Making of a Flea-Market Fanatic

March 22, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER

Actress Kay Tornborg is usually back from the Sunday flea markets by the time most people are setting out for them. She gets home at about 11 a.m. Early birds catch worms, at flea markets.

The first Sunday of each month finds Tornborg at the Pasadena City College market; the second Sunday, at the Rose Bowl; the third Sunday, at Long Beach. On the fourth Sunday she stays in bed.

Tornborg is no mere magpie, but she has a number of collections that grow side by side: doll-house furniture; American art glass of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; mildly erotic German bisque figures of the 1920s; architectural drawings; 1920s shoes made of white kid.

A few star pieces don't fit into any of these categories. As apt furnishing for her Craftsman house, with its heavy beams and staircase of Douglas fir, she has a Mission rocker and two art nouveau armchairs. On a sideboard stands a delightful turn-of-the-century automaton toy--three children in white hats riding geese that cackle as they move. Tornborg is also fond of an English Regency sugar-bowl transfer-printed with a girl in Empire dress feeding a cat; and of a futuristic Philco "Predicta" television set of the 1950s.

Most offbeat is her collection of old hatboxes. She has 26. "It's a collection that I hardly realized I had, until I had it," she says. "It just appeared somehow. The other day I thought, how did I get started on this? A long time ago my sister gave me a hat for Christmas that came in a box from Peck & Peck, a very polite store in New York City. That was the start." Tornborg also has a box printed "Santa Anita Park--California Sports Hats," decorated with two stylishly dressed women in trilby-like hats with broad front brims. A box from the Star Store, Bangor, Me., depicts women with dogs and a big swooshing car of the 1930s. All Tornborg's hatboxes contain hats, though not always the ones originally sold in the boxes.

Tornborg, whose parents came to America from Sweden, was born in New York City. Her father was a CPA. "He didn't collect anything except fees from clients," she says. Her parents thought that children should be brought up in the country, so they moved to Brewster, N.Y., a rural district about 1 hour and 15 minutes by car north of New York City. "I thoroughly disagree with them," Tornborg says. "If I had a previous life, it was definitely in a metropolitan area. I'm a city creature." But she thinks that growing up in the country influenced her future as a collector. "It gets you used to playing by yourself, which stimulates the imagination. I think I collect things because they pique my imagination when I look at them. When I met my beau, Philip (Collins, a consultant creative executive at Columbia Pictures Inc.), he said that he had seen me in flea markets and that I looked like I was in a trance.

"It's probably true. Last Sunday morning I was scrounging through a box of stuff and I came up for air, and realized I had been somewhere else for a while. It's very easy for me to look at things and imagine whom they must have belonged to, who played with them, how long the people had had them, why they threw them out."

Tornborg started collecting as a child. "There was a very dusty, unfashionable antique shop in Brewster. While I was a little bit frightened of it, I did go in there and bought four Depression-glass goblets--for my hope chest. Hilarious! That wasn't a hot topic in my family, whether I would get married or not. I'd just read about hope chests in a magazine."

As it turned out, it was marriage that turned her into a serious collector. In 1974 she married actor Christopher Lloyd, who later played the mad scientist in "Back to the Future." (They are now in the process of getting a divorce.) When Lloyd was on location for films, Tornborg accompanied him and went antiquing. In Aurora, Ore., where he was on location for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Tornborg learned a lesson the hard way.

"I got taken by somebody who sold me a piece of 'art glass' that wasn't art glass. I was really upset about it; I'd paid $350. It got me going into research, into researching everything. I read like crazy about American art glass."

Tornborg's own acting has also brought opportunities for antique hunting. "Once you get finished with rehearsals and are doing the play, you have all your days free to shop. One of the best jobs I ever had was doing dinner theater in Boiling Springs, Pa. It was a collector's paradise, it was right in the heart of 'stuff ' country, all these wonderful shops."

The trouble with some of the things Tornborg collects is that little research material about them is available. She has found few references to the German bisque figures, and those mainly in 1920s trade catalogues. No magnum opus has been issued on hatboxes. "Collecting them is like exploring without a map," Tornborg says.

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