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ART DECO PLAYTHINGS : Whimsical Cars, Buck Rogers Rockets Toy With Viewers at the Muckenthaler

February 20, 1992|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

As educational toys go, the 1939 Charlie McCarthy-Mortimer Snerd Car is a disaster.

It can't teach phonics or math, and its lily-white characters do nothing to boost multicultural awareness. However, if you wind it up, the passengers' heads will spin crazily as it whizzes across the floor. And it makes a really nifty sound when it hits the wall.

Education takes a back seat to whimsy in almost every case in "Art Deco Toys," a collection of toys and games from the 1920s, '30s and beyond that are on view at Fullerton's Muckenthaler Cultural Center through March 1. And that, according to Villa Park toy collector William Carr, is exactly the point.

"This is all about imagination," said Carr, who loaned several pieces from his collection for the show and was the guest lecturer at the exhibit's opening reception. "(A toy from the era) is not a computer; it doesn't have the teaching capabilities of a Nintendo. But it expands your world.

"A child can be a race car driver, a ventriloquist, anything he wants. The beauty of the toy is in the eye of the beholder."

Carr knows his way around a toy box. A collector for 29 years, he and his wife, Barbara, have amassed thousands of playthings that date from 1900 to 1950, including a 1930 copper and orange Steelcraft airplane designed as a child's riding toy. The plane, along with a smaller Keystone Air Mail riding plane from the late 1920s and a zippy fire-engine-red "Torpedo Scoot" made in 1938, are among a collection of larger toys that greet visitors in a child's bedroom set up near the gallery entrance.

The bulk of "Art Deco Toys," however, comes to the Muckenthaler from the Lawrence-Scrippe Wilkinson collection, a division of the Detroit Antique Toy Museum. Intended primarily as a loaning resource for other exhibitors, the collection includes about 4,000 toys assembled over three decades with the purpose, according to its press materials, of illustrating "various aspects of the historical progress of civilization." About four dozen of these can be seen at the Muckenthaler show, which was coordinated by the gallery's exhibition administrator Robert Zingg.

Travel, business and popular entertainment of the era are among the themes represented here in this gathering of model trains, super heroes, promotional toys and games that seem at home in the former 1924 home of the Muckenthaler family. Zingg and staff curatorial assistant John Karwin have made the most of the small collection, grouping items by topic and type in the Muckenthaler's airy galleries. (The great disappointment is that none of the pieces can be operated, not even by museum staff, due to tough loaning stipulations.) An informative visitors' guide provides an overview of the period along with details on some of the toys, and a small collection of catalogues and periodicals, including a pair of 1937 Life magazines, are available at the gallery entrance.

Of any piece in the show, the Burlington Zephyr model train probably best demonstrates the streamlined design most associated with the Art Deco period. Modeled after America's first diesel-powered streamliner, the toy features four sleek, silvery cars; through its windows, tiny, silhouetted figures suggest sophisticated travelers engaged in sparkling conversation. Across the room, the 1924 lighter-than-air ship, the Zeppelin Los Angeles, is re-created in a 1930 cast-iron pull-toy by Dent Hardware.

Brightly colored mechanical cars and rockets, most of them inspired by popular entertainers and cartoon characters, are also on view. The Buck Rogers Police Patrol Rocket, for example, features the fearless Buck peering menacingly at an enemy from behind a ray gun, and emits shooting sounds and sparks from its exhaust port when operated, and Dick Tracy tracks down bad guys in a well-used 1949 tin car. The McCarthy-Snerd car is displayed alongside a 1938 Charlie McCarthy dummy, natty in brown houndstooth and a crimson tie, and a paperback about the famous ventriloquist-dummy team.

Peering out from under a slightly disheveled do, a 1934 Shirley Temple Doll (complete with wardrobe case and a selection of perky outfits) is among the kinder, gentler playthings in the show. The Canadian Dionne quintuplets, who made the headlines with their birth in 1934, are remembered in a 1936 doll and furniture set by Alexander Doll Co. The dolls are backed by a reproduction of a delightfully gooey ad for Palmolive soap that features romantic watercolor portraits of the girls and text that coos, "When they were very young, the Dionne quints were bathed only in olive oil. Now that they are such big girls, the quints use only Palmolive."

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