Marx Toy Museum keeps on going

MOUNDSVILLE -When visitors open the door to an unassuming building on a quiet street in Moundsville, they enter into an alternative universe, populated by an amazing array of toys from playtimes past and accented by a nostalgic re-creation of a small-town soda shop.

This other-worldly realm is known as the Marx Toy Museum, 915 Second St., Moundsville. Eighty percent of the toys featured in the museum were manufactured at the Louis Marx and Co. factory that operated a short distance north of Glen Dale. The rest of the playthings on exhibit were produced at other Marx plants.

The museum is the brainchild and continuing passion of its founder, Francis Turner, a Moundsville resident and an ultra-serious collector of all things Marx. The facility was privately owned by Turner for 10 years before “it became a nonprofit organization of the community” two years ago, said his son, Jason Turner, a Moundsville pharmacist who serves as president of the museum’s board of directors. A five-member board guides the museum which was certified as a nonprofit organization on July 1, 2011, Jason Turner said.

In another father-son connection, Louis Marx Jr., son of the company founder, serves on the museum’s advisory board. Marx learned of the toy museum from his childhood friend and business partner, Dan Lufkin, who also became one of the museum’s advisers.

Louis Marx Jr. has visited the museum twice, Jason Turner said. Francis Turner and board member Dennis Hanley of Moundsville meet with Marx and Lufkin once a year.

Old-time toys attract interest for a variety of reasons. With the advent of television shows such as “American Pickers” and “Pawn Stars,” Francis Turner said, “Everybody’s talking about collecting things and toys.”

In fact, he said, representatives of “American Pickers” contacted him for information. “I sent some pictures that were actually shown on the show,” he said.

Of course, as Jason Turner pointed out, “The museum has a lot of local interest because the plant was here and because of national interest.” Marx was “the largest manufacturer of toys in the world in the 1950s and ’60s,” he said. “In the 1950s, one in three toys across the country were Marx toys.”

The local facility is “the only museum dedicated to Marx Toys and Louis Marx and Co.,” Francis Turner said.

“We focus on the history of the company, the toys, the man, Louis Marx Sr., and the people who produced the toys,” Jason Turner related. “We have their stories. We share a lot of their stories.”

With the younger Marx’s involvement in the museum, “we have this connection to Louis Marx and can tell stories of Louis Marx,” the board president added.

Discussing the Moundsville site’s distinctive elements, Jason Turner said, “A lot of children’s museums have toys, but it’s more like toys and science. This is more of an adult museum than a children’s play museum.”

Francis Turner, who still owns the collection, serves as curator of the museum. Hanley remarked, “He (Francis) is passionate about wanting to keep this open. He and Jason built all the (display) cabinets.

“The collection’s on loan from him (Francis Turner),” Hanley said. “It’s an unbelievable labor of love that he’s done here.”

That soda shop setting, which Francis Turner calls the “Happy Days” room, functions as the museum’s gift shop.

The museum, open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from April through December, employs three tour guides. “They are outstanding. They know the whole history and individual toys,” Hanley said.

When individuals or tour groups arrive at the museum, they are shown a 10-minute film that introduces the history of the toy manufacturer. Visitors then enter the various rooms where toys are displayed thematically in a series of cases.

Models of the iconic Big Wheel riding toy can be seen. In its heydey, the Glen Dale plant produced 7,000 to 8,000 Big Wheels a day, Francis Turner said.

Several dollhouses, made mainly of metal with plastic furnishings and figures, are on exhibit. Marx made more than 400 different dollhouses, the curator said.

Visitors are impressed when they see that 125 Marx playsets are on display. “Nobody has that many playsets,” Francis Turner said. A kitchen set – with child-size refrigerator, stove and sink -was “one of the best girls’ toys they made,” he added.

The curator explained that Marx made three kinds of playsets: ones that depicted scenes from history, recreated television shows or represented everyday living. The original hand carvings for “The Untouchables” playset is on display.

“Any time a good TV show came on, Marx would make a playset,” Francis Turner observed.

The Turners built a western-style facade – modeled after a Marx playset – as the entrance to a room devoted to TV western-related toys based on figures such as Roy Rogers, Wyatt Earp and Davy Crockett and shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Rifleman” and “Wagon Train.”

Of special interest is the prototype room featuring items that were designed but never produced as part of the product line. “Pretty much everything (in the display) is one of a kind,” the curator said.

Several Marx toys bore the number “303,” on a license plate or as a house number, etc., but the reason remained a mystery for years. However, Francis Turner learned the answer when he met the son of longtime Marx designer Floyd Chamberlain. The son explained that their family home was located at 303 10th St. in Glen Dale. The name, Glen Dale, also appears on a number of toys to identify a make-believe entity.

Two display cases are devoted to items from the 1920s and 1930s. “A lot of these are wind-ups,” Francis Turner said, adding that a Marx plant in Erie, Pa., made push toys.

Rare items on display in the museum include a Tiffany and Co. cigar ashtray that Chase Bank gave to Louis Marx Sr. in May 1971 as a 50-year customer and a tiny toy figure of Marx. “He made eight figures of himself. I’ve been able to find three of them in 20 years,” Francis Turner said.

Louis Marx and Co. began in 1919, producing climbing monkeys and wind-up dancing toys. Marx built a reputation as a designer of popular toys with built-in quality.

Marx also was known for his “pioneering use of media licensing in his toys,” Francis Turner said, pointing to early toys based on Disney, “Merry Makers” and comic strip characters. By the 1950s, many of the toys were licensed products based on popular television shows of the era.

During World War II, munitions were manufactured in toy plants and experiments began on the use of plastic material. In the post-war era, plastic enabled Marx to make a much wider range of toys, the curator said. The museum’s collection includes a 1940s taxi cab that was Marx’s first plastic toy.

In the 1950s, Louis Marx Sr. was known as “the toy king.” Popular products from the 1960s and 1970s included Rock’em, Sock’em Robots, Big Wheels and Johnny West figures. A tall monster called Big Lou “is hard to find not broken. This one has never been opened,” Francis Turner related.

Of interest to local residents and country music fans is a display of favorite Marx toys that belonged to singer Brad Paisley, a Glen Dale native. The exhibit includes a photograph of Paisley, as a child, riding his Big Wheel in the parking lot of John Marshall High School.

In July 1972, Louis Marx and Co. was sold to Quaker Oats, which later sold the business to a British company. After consolidation attempts and plant closings, the company went bankrupt. Ironically, Louis Marx Sr. died on the same day that attempts to reopen the Glen Dale factory failed.

Encouraging visitors to return to the museum, Francis Turner concluded, “It’s just too much to take in at one time.”