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The presence of multiple Roys and Dales brings no discomfort now, only an atavistic satisfaction that I hope reflects something other than mere greed.

Little Big World: Collecting Louis Marx and the American Fifties

As I gaze at the thirteen Roys and Dales before me, it occurs to me that the only thing better would be gazing at twentysix of them. Here, in vintage vinyl, is tangible proof of the profound appeal of visual rhythm and spatial repetition. This same appeal generated another embodiment of the aesthetics of excess that held sway when I was growing up: the Rockettes.

If one dancer doing high kicks is diverting, thirty will be spectacular. The potential monotony of multiple playset people in identical poses will not disturb a collector, for whom no two figures are ever the same.


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All collectors develop this hyper-discernment, this eye for fine distinctions lost on outsiders. The Dales exhibit similar variations within sameness: one leans forward more than her sisters; another, scarcely played with, gleams like polished ivory; a third is slightly grayed with play-grime that sharpens her features. Like an appraiser of Stickley furniture or Hockney prints, I see things that others cannot. Each figure is unique to me—a source of pride and embarrassment, in roughly equal measure. During the past four years I have unwittingly developed a moral framework that allows me to keep mailing checks to strangers and receiving dozens of little boxes in return.

Acquired at considerable cost and effort, my Dales can also feel reasonably safe from the hell of all playset figures: the landfill. Seven Roys might similarly be expected to handle what one Roy, unsteady on slightly warped feet, cannot. A law of lost-things probabilities—the mathematical equivalent to praying to Saint Anthony—is at work here. A middle-aged man who has collected thirteen Roys and Dales has upped the odds that among them are his Roys and Dale, the very figures that he once loved but left behind in a cigar box, probably to be sold this is a guess in a yard sale that his parents held when he was off at college.

These tiny survivors on my desk both confirm and defy the fact that, sooner or later, all real cowboys and cowgirls eventually head on down the trail. Or not.

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Even a former boy-Methodist with a melancholy streak will affirm that old toys can effect tiny resurrections. And what is a childhood toy if not a Faces I Remember vivid memory in tangible form, a material link with the former self who once played with it? Middle-aged nostalgia might be raising its gauzy head here, but if nostalgia consists of a yearning for lost times and places, I am innocent. I have no desire to return to my boyhood, which I remember as long stretches of purposeless reverie punctuated by occasional but intense moments of anxiety.

I want to incorporate them into the chastened consciousness of a grown-up for whom time is indeed marching on, and with alarming speed. In Hellenistic Greek, two words were commonly used for time: chronos and kairos. The distinction between absolute time and time-with-significance took many forms.

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Farmers linked kairos to the proper times for planting and harvesting. For rhetoricians, kairos referred to the right time or occasion for a speech. In religious discourse, especially among early Christians, kairos came to denote times of unusual spiritual energy: moments in which the human and divine realms intersected. This old distinction seems useful for describing what Roy and Dale have reanimated in me. It is also consistent with what fifties playsets were all about: achieving a godlike sense of all time collapsing into the sacred here and now of play.

What was a playset if not an assemblage of tin and plastic parts that a child could arrange and rearrange with absolute power? A small person in control of even smaller people, I could look down, quite literally, on Roy, Dale, and the cowboys that came with them. They always did my bidding.

I vividly remember setting up the Western Town street front, complete with hotel and bank, and arranging these figures into endless vignettes and narratives of my own making.

Little Big World: Collecting Louis Marx and the American Fifties (Sightline Books)

These escapes into the imaginary time and place of Mineral City took me out of Cold War Ohio just as surely as a similar daydream had taken the real Roy Rogers out of Depression-era Ohio a quarter-century earlier. If ancient kairos was time for something, playset kairos defined that something as nothing, as an escape from immediate time, place, and purpose into another realm altogether. Simply looking at them is generating some time-bending epiphanies. When I opened that big package on Christmas morning of and confronted vinyl Roy and vinyl Dale, freshly popped from their molds at the Marx factory in Glen Dale, West Virginia, the flesh-and-blood Roy was in his mid-forties.

He had already been a Hollywood star for over a decade when he made the move from film and radio to the new medium of television in It would be twenty years before he would acquire his primary significance for later generations by lending his name to a fast-food franchise that needed a famous cowboy to sell roast beef—and who better than the King of the Cowboys? The figures on my desk predate the use of a showbiz legend to sell fast food.

Indeed, they predate fast food itself. How are you? He had refashioned himself into Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys: how could someone who was so clearly living the American Dream feel blue amid the upbeat bustle of show business, let alone complain about it? Staring at this desktop, I imagine the trio of millimeter Roys as fiercely present stand-ins for the long-gone Leonard Slye: they usurp his conversation and bring it into my hearing.

As the conversation draws to a close, it is Standing Roy, he of the noncommittal grin, who wonders what it all means. Both might be noticing increasing habit of weariness, a bit less pep in the old step. The showbiz cowboy may even have felt as boxed, sold, and played with as his millimeter counterparts on my desk. If so, he might have welcomed a toy cowboy of his own—perhaps a rubber Hoot Gibson, had one existed—to dispel his own bent-head broodiness.

Lenny would never forget that river: the Slye family moved upstream to Portsmouth when he was still a baby and lived on a houseboat until he was seven. Then they moved to a farm in Duck Run, near Lucasville, where Lenny learned to handle horses.

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When Lenny was seventeen, the family gave up their dream of living off the land and moved back to the big town, where he took a job with his father in a shoe factory. At the time there was a rich fantasy world—a cheerful alternative to the dour realities of failed banks and big-city breadlines— growing by leaps and bounds in the Los Angeles suburb of Hollywood.

Lenny and his cousin Stanley tried to break into this fantasy world by forming, with little success, an act called the Slye Brothers— exactly the sort of no-nonsense name that a pair of practical Buckeyes would choose for themselves. Lenny had gotten considerably more poetic by , when he founded another singing group and called it the Sons of the Pioneers. After performing competently in a series of supporting roles, he got his big break in , when he was rechristened Roy Rogers, supposedly after his Duck Run den- Faces I Remember tist, and promoted as a competitor to the original singing cowboy, Gene Autry.

Almost immediately, he became a box-office star.

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He was also precisely what his vinyl avatars are warning me not to be: a confirmed nostalgist. Although my Mineral City playset encouraged an unabashed celebration of this mythical West, its very name revealed the dissolution of the realm that it celebrated. Despite the horses and cattle and fences, it was mining, not ranching, that drove its tin-litho economy. That the Marx company produced a variant set under the name Silver City underscored the absent West with even greater clarity. Mineral City, it seems, had already suffered a precipitous fall from playset Eden.

As Saint Paul confirmed in 1 Timothy, cupiditas radix malorum: desire is the root of all evil. Of course, if you were young in the thirties, what you most desired was money. Roy must have heard that biblical warning about having two masters, God and Mammon, but times are pretty damned hard, dontcha know? Though no theologian, Roy could attest that Mammon took a frightful toll.

As I visualize the forty-six-year-old cowboy shuffling back to the set—Hot damn, these boots pinch! This ex-teenager, now burdened with the playwear of middle age, walks back onto the set and directs a weary nod toward sidekick Pat Brady, another transplanted Ohioan who is living the Hollywood dream.

While Roy glances at the leftover sandwiches on the catering table, Lenny is remembering the sauerbraten and red cabbage that he and the old gang used to enjoy back in Cincinnati. Pat Brady, born in Toledo in but reborn, like his boss, as a gen-u-wine westerner, is also standing in the crowd on my desk. Unlike the Roys and Dales, Pat has been molded in the later soft plastic.

His face is a little chewed up, and with one hand on his hat and his mouth open, he looks perpetually surprised.

The flesh-and-blood Pat Brady died in when he was only fifty-seven, three years younger than I am now. Pat Brady surely knew, as his plastic counterpart seems to know, that with real people and toy people alike, love resides in the details. Once Roy and Dale got married, the turmoil that had marked their personal lives was finally at an end. Dale would follow three years later, when she was eighty-nine.