January 2007 and counting...

I have had the luxury of spending the first week of the new year focusing on LATDA and our upcoming exhibit with the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Artifact lists are being generated, fundraising has begun, and a catalogue may be in the works. The exhibition space is now expanded to 6,000 square feet, and after a recent site visit, I could actually visualize the show falling in place and I started getting very excited.

The new year also brought an early Christmas of sorts. LATDA received nine cartons of toys from Alex Dong of Lexin Toys. Lexin was one of the main distributors of tin wind-up toys in the U.S. With the changing toy market, tin toys have been a harder sell. For one thing, they are not able to be marketed as toys, but have to be marked as 'collectibles'. We who grew up in the days before safety laws would naturally be careful with the hard-edges of metal toys and could be reasonably safe from swallowing metal keys, but toy manufacturers today need to adhere to higher safety standards. Tin toys are being made with more plastic parts than before, and in fact most wind-up toys are made with all plastic parts.

When I play with these toys I try to imagine a time when these would have inspired wonderment and delight to children. It is hard to imagine a child of the 21st century spending more than a cursory A.D.D. minute on a hopping frog or a pecking chicken. And what were the inventors of these toys thinking?

There is something charming and simple about a tin wind-up toy. I don't think it is just nostalgia for the cheap lithographics or subject matter that makes them so appealing. There is something so comprehensible about knowing that there is a key that tightens up a mainspring which in turn expands to cause gears to turn and consequently limbs or wheels to move. The sound of it is real. The motion so obviously mechanical. And by having to turn the key, you become an important part of the process.

The contents of the nine cartons are so vast that cataloging is going to take a few more woman-hours, but a cursory search through the boxes revealed a few treasures. Many of the toys are Lexin's display samples, so it is like having one of every tin toy, precious and profane, I've ever coveted in a store. In addition to these samples there is the occasional odd piece that looks like very old stock or something purchased as R&D.

There is a chicken in a box with Russian writing that has some of the finest pecking action I've seen in a tin wind-up. Many of the toys haven't been wound in a long time so they are sticky at first and get a little better with repeated windings. But this Russian chicken took off immediately and ran around for quite awhile on just s few turns of the key.

There are some robots that have some serious balance problems, so despite their colorful appearance, they are not very efficient robots. One of them seems to be doing a Michael Jackson imitation of a moon walk - I wonder if someone in China was inspired by his music. There is an army of hopping frogs, a battalion of jumping orioles, and a contingent of Hong Kong trolleys. Many of the spacemen have distinctively Asian features - I wonder if at this very moment someone is rescreening a tin form to look like Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut?

Another inspiring find was a large number of wind-up white mice. 2008 is going to be the Year of the Rat - I see an artist event in LATDA's future - customized mechanical mice!

Happy New Year to all!