Toy soldiers beat back time

He has never set foot in the Pentagon, but Francis Turner is America's most powerful and experienced military commander.

He led both the American and German armies at Normandy; he pushed aside Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee to seize control of all the troops at Appomattox; he was the genius who planned the Sioux ambush in the Black Hills and the blockhead who led Custer's men into it.

As owner and director of the Official Marx Toy Museum, Turner is the undisputed warlord of thousands of the little plastic army men who fueled the bloodlust of an entire generation of baby boomer boys in the 1950s and 1960s.

“These are from the days when toys didn't have to be so politically correct,” says Turner, waving his arm at the long snaking row of glass display cases inside which countless cowboys and Indians, Yankees and Confederates, cavemen and dinosaurs and Martians and astronauts are eviscerating, decapitating and generally disrespecting one another. “That's probably why they were more fun.”

Boom in demand, prices

Moundsville, once the home of the biggest toy-soldier factory in the world, is ground zero for a growing population of toy collectors (among their ranks: Steven Spielberg, Robert De Niro, Robin Williams and Ruben Blades). They're searching for the lost armies of their childhood.

These days, when “playing” means clustering around a video game console or a computer screen, that may seem like a nutty exaggeration. But in the '50s and '60s, plastic toy soldiers were to little boys what Barbie was to little girls: indispensable and ubiquitous.

They could be bought anywhere from 59 cents for a plastic bagful at a dime store to a princely $6.99 for the elaborately packaged playsets containing tin buildings and fortresses, so many of them (The Alamo, Valley Forge, D-Day) that the toy sections of department-store catalogs looked like military training manuals.

The demand for plastic soldiers (or spacemen and aliens, cops and gangsters, cavemen and dinosaurs, basically any two groups that wanted to annihilate one another) turned toy tycoon Louis Marx, whose company offered the first set in about 1950, into the Bill Gates of his day. By the mid-1950s, one of every 10 toys in America was manufactured by Marx

Marx spent little on advertising but cannily coupled his business to another growing baby boomer phenomenon, television. Davy Crockett, Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, “Gunsmoke,” “The Rifleman” and “The Untouchables” all had their own playsets.

But when the Marx company went bankrupt in 1978 (six years after Louis Marx sold it for $51 million), the soldiers all but vanished from store shelves.

As boomers grew older and richer, though, they began a nostalgic search for the toys they had played with, seeking out plastic soldiers at garage sales and flea markets. The hobby boomed with the Internet; nearly 5,000 eBay customers last week were offering toy soldiers for sale. Also booming: prices. A playset based on the 1950-52 TV show “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” that sold for $5.89 when new goes for $600 or more now that collectors are on the trail. But collectors who heard he had Marx figures for sale sought Turner out, and soon the 57-year-old was scouting for them, hitting garage sales in the Glen Dale region where former Marx employees often sold toys they'd brought home from the factory for their kids. The more he looked at the snarling little Al Capones from the “Untouchables” playset or the dead horses from the Civil War sets, the more fascinated he was. He started keeping some of the playsets instead of reselling them. “I got hooked,” he admits.

By 1998, Turner owned several hundred playsets, huge filing cabinets full of old Marx documents and a 3-ton set of factory molds stored in his garage with a neighbor's tractor.

“We've either got to open a museum, or I have to sell my collection,” he told his wife.

“Sell!” she shouted excitedly – and even though Turner went with the museum idea instead, he's sympathetic to his wife's not-very-secret belief that he has lost his mind. “This hobby will eat up your bank account, your house and your life,” he muses. The museum, which opened in 2001, is in an old grocery store here, less than a mile from the site of Marx's Glen Dale factory and not far from the old Marx dump sites that collectors still dig through in search of buried plastic treasure. About 130 playsets are on display, along with a generous sampling of other Marx toys, including various editions of Johnny West (an earlier, cowboy version of G.I. Joe) and the plastic Big Wheel tricycle.

There are some concessions to female baby boomers, at least in their pre-feminist versions: farm sets, toy kitchens, and a doll – Sindy, Marx's ill-fated 1970s attempt to break into the Barbie market.

“Cindy Brady, from ‘The Brady Bunch,' used to be in ads for that doll,” Turner notes. “I don't know if they really sold that many, but the girls who had them must have loved them. Women come in here and see that doll and they just burst into tears.”

Atomic Cannon too

But the heart of the museum is the vast array of fighting men, their homicidal impulses no less fierce for their 2-inch height.

You can see American troops storming ashore under fire from German bunkers at Normandy; Ben Hur's deadly chariot race with his Roman masters (while Hur's forlorn companions look on from their place at a molded plastic slave market); the U.S. Cavalry vanquishing Indians at Fort Apache, or vice versa at Custer's Last Stand.

“You think that's something, look at this,” Turner says, wheeling out an Atomic Cannon, a giant Marx toy patterned after a real U.S. Army weapon of the early 1960s. “This thing shoots 3-inch shells 60 feet. When we set it up, my son fired one across the room that hit me right in the head and raised a welt. You can't see that these days. None of these guns – this one shoots pellets, this one shoots sparks, they all shoot something.”