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TOYS : At Exhibition Covering 1810 to 1960, Play Is the Thing

November 13, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER

LA JOLLA — Dick Tracy, that two-fisted crime stopper; his detective partner Sam Ketcham, and the police chief cruise Gotham, alert for miscreants, in their 10-inch, windup squad car.

There's no doubt it's Tracy behind the wheel of this 1938 toy. His angular profile is painted on the driver's window. And the front view of his mug decorates the painted steel windshield.

Displayed next to squad car No. 1 is an out-of-print Big-Little book: "Dick Tracy and the Racketeer Gang." Nearby, a viewer may spot a genuine Rose O'Neill Kewpie doll and a "Sensational No. 7 1/2" Erector set, both manufactured in 1925.

More than 100 post-Industrial Age playthings beckon to children and former children at UC San Diego's Mandeville Gallery. Culled from the 5,000-piece Lawrence Scripps Wilkinson Collection of Toys in Detroit, "The Toy Show 1810-1960" surveys toys and games used by American children in this period.

The exhibit ranges from an 1810 Little Henry paper doll to "The World's Educator," an 1887 predecessor of Trivial Pursuit; from a 1930s Buddy "L" hook-and-ladder fire truck to a pair of Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls from the 1960s.

But what's a historical toy show doing at a gallery devoted to modern art?

"My advisory committee said they'd like to have a different type of show," gallery director Gerry McAllister said. "We are a contemporary art gallery. That's not to say we won't do once a year a Frida Kahlo show or 'Pioneers in Paradise,' " an exhibit two years ago on Western folk artists.

The toys and games of youth evoke memories, and they tell us something about the times and societies in which they were made.

William C. Ketchum Jr., writing in "Toys & Games," published by the Smithsonian's Illustrated Library of Antiques, says toys "strongly reflect accepted contemporary mores--that little boys should be brave, honest and hard-working, that little girls should be kind, dutiful and attentive to their elders."

The anthropological aspect of toys was one of the reasons McAllister went to Detroit and picked out the 137 pieces that are in the exhibit. She stressed that the Mandeville Gallery is not presenting a commercial exhibit or "trying to be popular" but acknowledged that "The Toy Show" has proved very popular.

"The nostalgia the toys evoke--they brought back so many memories for so many people" at last week's opening, she said.

Carol Morley, a toy and train collector who toured the gallery with a group Monday, was moved by the Shirley Temple doll.

"Shirley Temple was the big rage during the Depression," Morley said. "She raised this country up because she was happy, dancing and everything. You'll see Shirley Temple dolls around because she was so loved by so many people."

Helyn Barrangar, also on the tour, stopped in front of a section of toys that move.

"I used to have something like this, one of these push things," she said, pointing to a stick with a wheel on it. "That's 1910. I came along in 1911. I always played with boys' toys, too, because my brother was three years older. I had Tinker Toys when I was little. What do kids have now? The toys that we have now are made out of wood or plastic, and they all click or something."

McAllister conceived "The Toy Show" after she learned that the Scripps Institution of Oceanography had rejected a proposal by Wilkinson for a toy exhibit in the aquarium's small gallery. Wilkinson, a member of the Scripps family's East Coast branch, saw the aquarium gallery while in San Diego to inaugurate Scripps Pier.

A former toy buyer and vice president of F.A.O. Schwarz, Wilkinson built his monumental toy collection over the past 25 years. Today, he encourages other institutions around the world to exhibit the playthings he has collected.

A number of the windup and movable toys may be viewed in action on a five-minute video prepared for the gallery by Jared Aldern. A flivver shakes and shimmies. A blue fish wiggles across the floor. A truck speeds around a track until a motorcycle cop "pinches" it.

"The Toy Show 1810-1960" continues through Dec. 13. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

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