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November 1999

Where the Toys Are

The National Toy Hall of Fame in Salem may seem like child's play, but try telling that to Mr. Potato Head.

By J.E. Vader

Once you get in, there are the achingly familiar objects—teddy bears, marbles, Crayola crayons, Play-Doh containers, Etch A Sketch screens, Frisbees, Erector Sets, Tinker Toys, Legos, Barbie dolls, Monopoly games. Things you’re used to seeing scattered on a playroom floor or stuffed in the back of closets—here they’re on shelves in tall glass display cases, carefully lit and arranged. It looks like the world’s most fastidious garage sale. But this is, indeed, the fledgling National Toy Hall of Fame in Salem, Oregon.

Housed in the 9-year-old A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village, a children’s museum on the shady banks of the Willamette River, the hall was the brainchild of former executive director Ed Sobey as a way to acknowledge toys as learning tools. The first class of inductees to the hall—those Babe Ruths and Ty Cobbs of playthings—were announced in October of last year. Naturally, there was controversy. Students from nearby Willamette University learned that Mr. Potato Head and Barbie’s friend Ken were not included. Outraged at the oversight, they staged a good-natured "protest," and some students dressed up as their slighted heroes.

"They might be upset again," sighs Pamela Vorachek, the Discovery Village’s new executive director. "Ken and Mr. Potato Head didn’t make the next class either."

They might make it someday of course—Mr. Potato Head was not caught gambling on Candyland games or anything. It’s just that the 13 people who comprise the selection committee—the First Lady of Oregon, educators, toy company owners—have so many toys to choose from and so few restrictions. The idea, Vorachek says, is to honor toys that have demonstrated long-lasting and widespread appeal—"Who hasn’t touched a Crayola crayon?" she says. And toys that can be used to create other toys clearly have an edge with the selection committee. But, beyond that, anything goes.

The second class—Lincoln Logs, the Hula Hoop, Duncan Yo-Yos, View-Master, roller skates, and the Radio Flyer red wagon—will be formally inducted in November. Ken will have to sit back and continue to wait. Perhaps he can take comfort in the fact that G.I. Joe hasn’t made the cut yet either.

Of course, anyone can nominate any toy through the Hall of Fame’s Web site or during a visit, and the list of potential Hall of Fame toys is formidable and sometimes silly. "Baby blankets" have been nominated—they’re more obsession than plaything, really. But there is potential argument in almost every possible inductee. Is Chatty Cathy more worthy than Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots? What about Mouse Trap versus chess? If the bicycle gets in, why not the tricycle?

Mr. Potato Head and Barbie There is potential argument in almost every possible inductee.

Not surprisingly, the Hall of Fame appeals more to seniors and aging baby boomers. But this is not a huge problem—the rest of the facility is made for kids.

Three brightly painted, Queen Anne-style houses make up the "Discovery Village." The backs of the houses open on a large playground with a two-story high spiral slide and a massive climbing structure ("The World’s Largest Erector Set") and huge sandbox. Inside the houses are the Hall of Fame, a gift shop, a glass beehive crawling with busy insects, and the museum itself—which meanders from bright room to bright room—full of puzzles and fun house mirrors and historical murals and things to touch and see and smell.

This would be just fine with Alfred Carlton Gilbert, the museum’s namesake and inspiration. Gilbert, who grew up in Salem, won the pole vaulting gold medal at the 1908 Olympics, and graduated from Yale medical school. Yet he dedicated his adult life to helping children learn through play. He started by marketing a child’s magic set and his best known invention was the Erector Set. When he died in 1964, he held more than 150 patents. His exceptional life is documented in a small room at the museum, which includes old photographs, athletic medals, and toys. Still, as in the Hall of Fame, young visitors aren’t much interested in old artifacts behind glass. There are too many other things to do, touch, play with elsewhere.

The bubble room—where kids can make giant soap bubbles—includes a contraption where a child can stand on a platform and pull a rope, engulfing the rope-puller in a bubble tube. Gravity, if not the inevitable shriek of delight, quickly breaks the soap film. Another room has dress-up clothes from around the world. Yet another has a fancy puppet show stage.

Clearly, the idea behind all of the exhibits is for kids to learn something, whether they know it or not. Signs on the walls ask encouraging, earnest, teacher-type questions: "Which square is bigger?" (an old optical illusion trick painted on the walls), or "Why are the shadows different colors?" And though they may be learning, it may not seem obvious. Kids pay as much attention to the signs as they would a big steaming bowl of spinach. They simply rush on to find something to pound or climb or hear or paint or wear.

Kids, of course, don’t even take time to read a small sign in the A.C. Gilbert room: "A.C.’s personal philosophy of life was that any undertaking, whether business, sport or hobby, should be fun." Which is only fitting in this place.

A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village is located at 116 Marion Street N.E. in Salem. Phone (503) 371-3631.

Photo by Bruce Strachan
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This article was first published in November 1999. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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