10 Monstrously Fun Christmas Toys from Yesteryear

Monster Soakies

Long before the Internet, CGI, smartphones, and other tech colored our world, we enjoyed simple pleasures – like looking through the Sears Wish Book to pick out our dream Christmas or Hanukah toys. Among the coolest toys were monsters – classics inspired by film and television. No computer-generated imagery, 200+ million movie budgets, or product tie-ins needed – just old-fashioned creativity with a healthy dose of camp. With all girls in our house, monster toys were not on our list, but as an artist, I’ve always found them visually delightful. Here are 10 awesome monster toys from yesteryear. This is for all you late Baby Boomers who grew up watching Creature Features (if you lived in Chicago it aired on WGN and WFLD), The Munsters, Addams Family, or any other classics. Many of these toys command high prices at auction, scooped up by people like you and me trying to recreate carefree days of youth (or at least we remember them that way).     The Great Garloo – 1960 One of the greatest toymakers of all time, Louis Marx and Company was in business from 1919 to 1980. The Great Garloo, released in 1960, was a battery-operated robot that looked a little like the Incredible Hulk and Jolly Great Giant’s son. It was $17.98 according to the 1961 commercial – quite a chunk of change for that time. The remote control toy moved forward and backwards, bent over, and could pick up objects, with a little steering wheel to control direction. A near mint one in the box sold on ebay recently for about $500, while others not as pristine have sold in the $135-$200.00 range.     Universal Monsters Soaky Bubble Bath Containers – 1963 Made by Colgate-Palmolive in 1963 for 59 cents each, a mint set of…

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One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words … or a Little Less

  Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, or at the very least, a few hours of sleuth work. When I saw this wonderful Vivian Maier photograph, circa August 1960, the first thing I saw was Donald Koehler, once billed the world’s tallest man at 8 ft. 2 inches tall. I love the two ladies standing in the middle of the sidewalk – both appear to be looking at and talking about Koehler. I can almost hear them clucking their tongues in amazement. A fellow standing against the light post also appears to be looking at him from afar. Koehler was days away from his 35th birthday when Maier took this photo and she had turned 34 on February 1. Photographer and subject were exactly 5 months apart in age to the day.     I wrote briefly about Koehler in my first Lincolnwood blog. I remember seeing him get up after dining and walk through the aisle past my table at a little coffee shop on Cicero just north of Devon. I was very young, but an incredible visual sight like that tends to stay with you forever. His dad owned the card shop on Cicero, just north of Devon, in the same little strip mall as the coffee shop. The Koehlers didn’t live in Lincolnwood, but close enough in West Rogers Park. Believe it or not, Koehler had a twin sister who at a mere 5 ft. 9 inches tall was 29 inches shorter than her famous brother. He started growing abnormally at age 10, although it’s unclear when he was diagnosed with acromegaly, the pituitary disorder that results from excess growth hormone. This is the same disease that afflicted Sam Kappel, owner of Howard Clothes, who I wrote about in this blog.     Koehler won…

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A Walk Across The Brooklyn Bridge

For eons, the iconic Brooklyn Bridge has symbolized New York City in much the same way as the Statue of Liberty. Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1869 and it officially opened to the public on May 24, 1883. It has special meaning to me because my dad was born and bred in Brooklyn and is a true New Yorker through and through. He regaled us with tales of growing up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has been rough since the 1960s. He and his pal Bernie started the Osborn Street Camera Club, played stickball in the streets, cooked potatoes in the dirt at the local playground, and frequented the local candy shop called Jake’s. I always wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and finally did with my daughter on September 3, 2018, which was Labor Day, so it was quite crowded. Right before we walked across, we rode on the delightfully charming Jane’s Carousel, which made me feel like a kid again. It was just after Noon and boiling hot – I was so glad when we reached the Manhattan side. The pedestrian walkway across the bridge is 1.1 miles (1.6 kilometers). I didn’t much care for the crowds, bicycles, or the sound of a few loose wooden planks under my feet. Still, I’m glad I did it because the views were magnificent and almost surreal. As I was walking, I remembered the searing images of people fleeing across the bridge on 9/11. Of course, they were going in the opposite direction.   Brooklyn Bridge Mishaps   John A. Roebling started designing what would become the Brooklyn Bridge in 1867. On June 28, 1869, he was surveying the area for the bridge when a ghastly accident occurred. While standing on the edge of the dock at…

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Get Your Skee-Ball On

Outdoor Skee Ball

When I was a kid, I was particularly good at Skee Ball. I remember one family vacation to N.J. to visit my Aunt Ella, stopping at some run-down arcade with Skee-Ball and rolling a high score. This talent continued through my teen years and early adulthood. When I visited NYC in the mid- to-late 1970s, I always made it a point to stop at the Playland at 1565 or 1580 Broadway and play Skee-Ball. As I recall, I accumulated enough tickets to win a metal Statue of Liberty souvenir. Back then, every neighborhood carnival seemed to have a few Skee-Ball lanes, but these dwindled over the years until you could no longer find them. Skee Ball was relegated to a a few old school game arcades and later to party venues like Chuck E. Cheese, GameWorks, Dave & Buster’s, and the like. The balls at GameWorks are made of cheap white plastic and simply don’t have the same “roll” as the originals or well-made new balls. Furthermore, one game costs four credits which is $1.00!

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That Great Street – Not State Street – Randolph, Once Upon a Time

Vivian Maier 1961 Chicago

  The summer after 8th grade, I went downtown a few times a week to take classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Young Artist’s Studio program. The photo silk screening class was in the Pakula building at 218 S. Wabash. The painting class was in a studio on the campus building behind the Art Institute. On occasion, I would shop at the Woolworth’s on State Street and the Stop & Shop at 16 W. Washington. When I was about 18, I summoned the courage to walk into an X-rated book store located on Dearborn at Randolph, if memory serves me right. I hightailed it out of there when a freaky guy in a trench coat leered at me. Perhaps he would have flashed me, or my vivid imagination got the better of me. I was fascinated by Randolph Street, in particular the block between State and Dearborn. It had a similar kind of sleazy charm as Times Square in the 1970s, albeit on a tiny scale. The photographs featured in this blog provided inspiration for businesses to include and a search for materials such as matchbooks, postcards, and menus. This ephemera offers a glimpse at a street that was once vibrant and thriving with an incredibly cool and eclectic array of businesses. Sadly, by the time I ventured downtown, most of these businesses were long gone or had lost their luster. I primarily researched businesses between State and Randolph, west to LaSalle. Of course the beautiful Chicago Cultural Center’s north lobby is on Randolph at Michigan.

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Recollections of Days that Changed History – Where Were You When…?

Recently, I was thinking about what I was doing or where I was when I heard life-changing historical news. I’m certain many people remember what others told them about a specific day, or what they read in ensuing years – perhaps on the event anniversary. This sparked the idea of writing about events for which I could remember something distinctively unique and worth sharing when I heard or watched history playing out. I decided to broaden the stipulation slightly to encompass what I was doing within a 2-hour time frame of hearing the news. I have a visual memory, so my recollections of events and associated emotional reactions are retrieved from the recesses of my brain via images. Within these parameters, I could only come up with 11 events, listed here in chronological order. Other memories were a little too vague to include (e.g. when John Lennon was shot) or too commonplace. I believe certain factors influence how a person recalls events, including one’s own memory aptitude, age at the time of the event, and the event’s magnitude, which most certainly is impacted by personal factors. For instance, countless movie and rock stars have died during my lifetime, but I can only recall the unique circumstances of what I was doing for three, as you’ll read below.     I was 5-years-old when JFK was assassinated on Friday, November 22, 1963. I was sitting at the top of the slide in my kindergarten classroom at Todd Hall in Lincolnwood, Illinois when an announcement was made on the school intercom. A full-size slide in a school classroom is pretty remarkable – perhaps that helped engrave this tragic event in my visual memory. Of course as a 5-year-old, I hardly understood the magnitude of this tragedy.

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Products Then and Now … From 1960 to 2017

I recently found a 1960 wholesale catalog from First Distributors at 4204 W. North Ave, Chicago at a garage sale. I have no idea how long they were in business, but I became fascinated with the pictures and ads in this quaint catalog. They sold practically everything and also had a showroom! It’s hard to tell from the catalog whether anyone could buy wholesale from First Distributors or whether it was intended for retailers – this is not explicitly stated. The catalog is reminiscent of Sears and Wards vintage catalogs, with less clothing and the added feature of wholesale pricing. They sold everything from lawn mowers to patio furniture, sporting goods to humidifiers, toys to scuba equipment, tires, jewelry, vitamins specifically for teenagers, lingerie, clothes, and yes, even the kitchen sink. In this catalog, they offered two nifty all-in-one refrigerator, range, and sink models – a great solution for tiny apartments! I thought it would be intriguing to select a few products from this catalog, circa 1960 and see how they compare to modern products, circa 2017.

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Don’t Let Preventable Injuries Ruin Your Winter Holidays!

Remember the beloved film, A Christmas Story? Nine-year old Ralphie only wants one gift for Christmas – a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass and sundial. The very last present his parents give him is the beloved Red Ryder. Ralphie takes the gun outside, firing at a target perched on a metal sign in the backyard. Unfortunately, the BB ricochets back at him, knocking his glasses off. Ralphie actually thinks he shot his eye out since he cannot see without his glasses. He steps on the glasses while searching for them and they break. He tearfully conceals this fact from his mom, telling her an icicle fell on his face. Every year, thousands of people including children younger than Ralphie suffer injuries from BB and air guns. These aren’t toys, although I’m certain thousands of people will disagree with me on that. I did not have a BB gun as a kid, but I played with a cool, tooled toy cap gun that used a minuscule amount of gunpowder in the caps. I remember loving the way it smelled.

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The Village Next to Lincolnwood – Greetings From Skokie, Illinois

Skokie, as it is known today was incorporated as Niles Centre in 1888. Around 1910, the spelling was Americanized to Niles Center. A village-renaming campaign began in the 1930s and residents chose the Indian name Skokie over Devonshire in a November 15, 1940 referendum. Its population today hovers around 65,000, but it’s been higher. In the mid-1960s, 58% of the population was Jewish, the largest percentage of any Chicago suburb. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 pf those residents were Holocaust survivors who started life anew after suffering immeasurable pain. Infamous History   In a November 27, 1934 shootout dubbed the Battle of Barrington, infamous bank robber Baby Face Nelson and his gang killed two FBI agents. Nelson was severely injured and his body was brought to Winnetka where he died. According to history, his accomplices either dumped his bullet-riddled body at the north end of St. Paul Lutheran Church Cemetery on Harms Road or in a ditch adjacent to St. Peter Catholic Cemetery in downtown Skokie. In 1977, a neo-Nazi group led by Frank Collin announced plans to march in Skokie. The news set off a rhetorical firestorm and residents filed a court order to prevent this on the grounds it would “incite or promote hatred against persons of Jewish faith or ancestry.” This Skokie controversy triggered a rare, remarkable moment in American history when citizens throughout the nation vigorously debated the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the First Amendment rights of the neo-Nazi group. The Supreme Court ruling on June 14, 1977 stated the group could march wearing uniforms with swastikas under the constitutional protections of freedom of speech and assembly. Ultimately, they decided to march in Chicago, which was met by derision and little turnout. In the summer of 1978, in response…

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Amazing Tales From the World of Vintage Underground

As a lifelong lover of history and unique vintage goods, I often write about the past. On occasion, I discuss and analyze unusual objects that strike my fancy visually. The idea of interviewing a vintage shop owner never crossed my mind until I met the remarkable Carlos Pascoll, owner of Vintage Underground. The first Vintage Underground opened in 2007 at 1834 W. North Ave. in a 3,500 sq. foot basement space. I cannot speak firsthand about that location, however, the current store at 1507 N. Milwaukee Ave. is a fantasy come true. I was surrounded by so many beautiful, eclectic treasures I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! Trust me – you won’t find a more impressive, lovingly curated collection of vintage goodies anywhere. The spacious shop is filled with an amazing array of red-carpet worthy jewelry, as well as vintage cameras, hats, purses, clothing and unusual artwork. A big thank you to Carlos and Ellen Sax, Vintage Underground manager and partner extraordinaire for doing this interview.

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