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Toy Stories: A Chelsea Clinton fashion doll with an updated version of Barbie pal Ken exemplifies what toy philosopher Mickey McGowan calls the 'generational continuity that exists in the pattern of toys.'

Pop Life

What are our toys trying to tell us?

Metro sends two intrepid observers into the depths of the commercial toy chest to find out

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'EMPTY YOUR BRAIN," suggests Mickey McGowan, pausing briefly before the massive, garland-clad doors of this sprawling, toy emporium.

"Clear your mind," he urges, "and prepare to open it. We're about to look at toys."

With that thought in mind, he moves into range of the overhead electronic sensor. Detecting our presence, the doors slide open. After a second of hesitation, we step across the threshold and arrive, intact, on the other side.

McGowan, 54, has just entered his very first Toys "R" Us.

"So far, so good," he murmurs.

The founder and curator of Northern California's legendary Unknown Museum--a remarkable, and currently homeless, collection of over two million toys and knickknacks from the '50s, '60s, and '70s--McGowan is a toy aficionado and student of Americana of the highest order. His specialty is classic toys, a subject he can expound upon for hours at a time. From the comparative pleasures of plastic through the ages--did you know plastic from the 1950s has more natural luster and beauty than the plastic we know today?--to the evolutionary trajectory of Mr. Potato Head and the Cootie Bug, McGowan is a walking, talking encyclopedia of toy facts and poetic pronouncements. Considering his long-held opinion that time spent with the right plaything can change the course of one's life, you could say that McGowan is to toys what Richard Simmons is to sweatbands, and Anaïs Nin was to certain body parts.

So why hasn't he ever visited a Toys "R" Us before?

No doubt he resents the way big box stores like this one have driven the mom-and-pop shops out of business. Or perhaps he's protesting the way chain stores insidiously dictate the trends and tastes of American children.

"Mickey," I now ask, "you're a major toy fan, and a keen observer of popular culture. Toys "R" Us is the largest chain of toy stores in the world. Why in the world haven't you ever been to one before?"

"I never had a reason to," he replies. "New toys don't really interest me. Most of the toys in the museum are things I found at garage sales."

It must be mentioned, though, that Toys "R" Us does enjoy some representation within McGowan's collection, in the form of the store's amiable mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe. "I have him in my museum," acknowledges McGowan. "A plastic and vinyl, early '70s Geoffrey head. A very important artifact."

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FROM WHERE WE NOW STAND, just inside the Toys "R" Us front door, McGowan warily scans the frontier before us. A maze of box-lined aisles spreads out in every direction. Each turn is partly blocked by freestanding arrangements of games and dolls. Plastic castles dangle overhead. McGowan cautiously ventures forward.

"I see a few icons already," he allows, taking in a towering display of emaciated dolls in tight clothes. "I recognize Barbie, of course--though I don't really recognize her. I mean, she doesn't look anything like the original Barbies. Her eyes are different."

"Look," I point out, as we round the corner. "Games."

"Now here are some classics," McGowan nods, running his hand along the neatly stacked boxes of board games boasting the names Operation, Chutes and Ladders, and Candy Land: He has original copies of all three in his own collection. "Twister!" he suddenly intones, examining the famous game's cover illustration of a happy knot of adolescent youths. "Twister hasn't changed a bit. What a great game. This game has done more for boy/girl social behavior than any other game since Spin the Bottle." As for the cover of Chutes and Ladders, McGowan points out that the boys and girls portrayed now reflect a multiethnic array of faces. "The original wasn't like that at all," he recalls. Every face was white. So this is different, but it's actually an improvement. Most package design changes are for the worse."

Why are these classic toys so important to us as a culture? What they tell us about ourselves?

"There is a generational continuity that exists in the patterns of toys. You play catch with your dad, and then when you have one you want them to have a mitt like the one you had. A mom passes her favorite doll on to her daughter. Or maybe it's the mom who passes the catcher's mitt on. But one generation passes on its love of toys to the next. It's a wonderful thing. That must be why we still have Tinkertoys and Legos and Mr. Potato Heads."

We make our way down the aisle. But look! What's that up ahead? It's a small tower of Cootie Bug games. McGowan picks up a package and peers closely, turning it over and over like an inferior specimen. This is clearly not the Cootie he knows and loves.

"There's something smooth and bulbous about all the toys now," he remarks. "The original Cootie had more angles and edges. This design makes it look all puffed up and shot full of plastic growth hormones or something."

"The trend is no doubt the result of years of post-cootie-swallowing litigation," I suggest.

"Yes," he nods, reading the label, "It says it right here, 'Choking Hazard.' You never saw that on the original Cootie box, that's for sure." He puts the box back on the shelf.

"Ever swallow a cootie bug?" I ask. McGowan shakes his head. "Well, I'm here to tell you, you can swallow whole Cootie bug legs and still live to tell the tale."

"You swallowed the whole Cootie, or just the legs?" McGowan asks. It was just the legs. "Oh," he replies. "For a second there I was impressed."

We walk on, avoiding the cordoned-off computer games and Play Station area, currently hosting about two-dozen shoppers. "You notice there are more people in that small section than there are in the rest of the store?" McGowan points out.

"I don't personally understand those toys," he adds. "But I expect their appeal is in the magical qualities of the screen, the same magic that we feel with our televisions. We're hypnotized by the flicker and movement. Of course, the content worries me, the violent games and emphasis on killing and conquering--but if I were young, you know I'd want those toys."

Though McGowan is surprised at how many classic toys are available--he'd expected the high-tech toys to dominate the store--he offers these musings on why kids need both kinds of playthings: "It's cyberspace vs. brick-and-mortar. In the computer games, you don't get to touch anything you're looking at, you don't get to enjoy the texture of the wooden blocks, the smell of the electric train set, the taste of the clay. There's no finger-to-toy connection, and our minds need that as much as they need to be mentally and visually stimulated.

"Computer games only satisfy two of the five senses: sight and sound. When we need to train our other senses, touch, smell and taste, we will find our way to the classic toys."

But he doesn't believe that connection to the past is eternal.

"The classics will eventually be forgotten, and in their place there will be Tinkertoys in cyberspace, some holographic way of constructing that will satisfy the children of the next century."

AS WE CONTINUE OUR TOUR, my companion remarks, incredulously, "I hate to admit this, but it's kind of neat in here. Things don't seem to have changed all that much, not in the overall concept of the toys. Sure, there are more electronic toys. Toys that talk back to you," he allows, as we check out a large robotic dinosaur that proclaims, at the touch of a button, "Behold the T-Rex, champion since the dawn of time. Millions of years ago, the T-Rex ruled the earth. Now he rules this room." "But the talking and moving toys are just an extension of the wind up robots and battery-operated dogs we both grew up with," he concedes.

We pause a moment to mourn the passing of actual metal Tonka Trucks, now replaced with full-plastic versions of the originals

"I remember when you could whack someone in the head with a Tonka and they'd remember it," I state.

"And you could slice your arm pretty good on one, too," McGowan adds, wistfully.

We've reached the Sports Toys section.

"Here's one of the most commonly found objects at garage sales," McGowan says, indicating a short, plastic basketball hoop and stand. "These things are in the Top 10 of the most common garage-sale items these days. A few years ago it was those little round trampolines. Then it was Trump: the Game. For a few months, every garage sale in the state had one of those."

It's on to the building sets: Legos, Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs.

"Hey, Lincoln Logs. I have suitcases full of those," McGowan says, opening a box and removing the bag of little wooden logs. He shakes it, putting his ear close to hear the chimelike rattle of the pieces. "There's no sound in the world like the little clink of Lincoln Logs." After placing the parts back in the box, he stops to gaze at a simple set of plastic, stacking tugboats.

"These are beautiful," he says. "Just beautiful. The thing about toys is, if you can see them as pieces of art, rather than as playthings, you can appreciate them on a much deeper level."

WE'VE COME NEARLY full circle now, and McGowan is clearly enjoying himself.

"Look at this," he says. "Train sets. Skateboards. One classic after another! I never expected this store to be so--classical. Once again, it only proves the power of the past."

McGowan does have some strong misgivings about the place, however. In regard to the thousands of plastic toys all around us, he says, "Toys "R" Us is an ecological disaster." Pointing to a plastic playhouse, he asks, "I mean, how long will that thing last? Plastic. The biodegradable period of this entire store is about a million years."

We've reached the exit, and McGowan turns to scan the place one more time. Then it's back through the sliding doors and outside into the crisp, pre-Christmas air.

"For some reason," he confesses, "I was thinking there'd be a whole lot of toys I couldn't relate to. I imagined it would be chaotic, with alien things attacking me from the shelves, boxes crammed with things I'd never known about and would never want to know. I expected to be assaulted.

"Instead, I felt like I was among friends. Admittedly, they're friends who've mutated slightly since the last time I saw them, but friends are friends."

And toys are toys.

"Toys certainly affect masses of humans, especially those under the age of 12," McGowan concludes at the end of the afternoon's adventure. "We are shaped forever by the toys we come to know and love. Honestly, this store has more influence over a child than the president of the United States.

"And as long as the great classic toys are made available to open-minded children," he smiles, "then the world can be at peace."

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From the November 30-December 6, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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