Thursday, July 11, 2013

Play Family Memories

Saw this Kentucky Fried Chicken set from the 1970s on a friend's Facebook wall yesterday and was immediately taken back to my childhood, where my brothers and I built an entire city -- Winter Springs, Florida -- using mostly structures created for Play Family People (later renamed "Little People"). Fisher-Price was the gold standard of this type of toy, but many other companies tried to jump on the bandwagon. The trick was knowing which knockoffs were acceptable and which were not. 

Child Guidance made great stuff. They also created the Brunswick Bowling Center -- complete with snack bar, working pins that reset and (drawn-on) pro shop -- which is still at my mom's house today. Yet somehow I never got the company's Kentucky Fried Chicken, which looks fantastic. I'm guessing my parents didn't buy it for me out of loyalty to my stepfather's cousin Kenny, whose wife worked for Colonel Sanders and said he used to come by the corporate office once a year and was a "total asshole." Just seeing it again makes me want to bid for one on eBay, 

I did have the McDonald's, which was made my Playskool. Their "little people" were blockheads -- as we called them -- but the attention to detail in the buildings they made more than made up for it. The McDonald's had a drive-thru window, little trays (with food drawn on them), a shake machine and a "working" cash register.

And the Playskool Holiday Inn, which my brother Terence got one year, was equally great, complete with realistic sign that could be changed from "Vacancies" to "No Vacancies," uniformed maids with carts, a formal restaurant (which my brother Bill converted into the Winners Circle with an El Marko), and a revolving door in the lobby. 

Around the same time, 1974 or so, I also got this beautifully designed apartment building made by Samsonite, the luggage manufacturer. Although it was intended for residential living, my entrepreneurial spirit immediately kicked into overdrive, and I converted it into a luxury hotel dubbed the Corolando (spelling?), a place for the well-to-do guests of Winter Springs to stay instead of a chain motel. I believe my mom and stepfather stayed at a hotel by that name in Orlando on their (inexplicable) Disney World honeymoon, so being a kid in Michigan, anyplace where it was sunny seemed like paradise, hence the inspiration. Although the building had just about everything you could ask for -- including an elevator, a parking garage, modern furniture, balconies and a rooftop pool with privacy fence -- I worked hard to make it more like a hotel, incorporating toothpaste caps as ice buckets and a converted bird house as the lobby and reception area, giving it a certain tiki ambiance. 

Samsonite also made a zoo and a few other things, but my mom always hated zoos, so probably didn't want to encourage us to want to visit one by getting it for us. We each got one -- and only one -- trip to the zoo as kids and that was it. Fortunately, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing were recent additions to the National Zoo in Washington when we made our sole appearance, so at least we got to see celebrity animals. (My 1974-model sister's first bedroom was covered in pandas from wall to wall.) 

One of my other all-time favorite "finds" was this Magnetic-Action Super Market. made by Sears. (Kudos on the hyphen, guys!) 

Although the people were a bit off -- Heaven's Gate bald and with magnets as feet so they could move around the store on a "track" that worked when you turned the yellow crank.

The shopping carts were adorable, as was the cardboard food, checkout counter and working register. 

One thing we did not permit was Weebles, who wobbled but they didn't fall down. Perhaps it was an early sign of my aversion to round people, but they just didn't "go" with Fisher-Price people. And I remember my brothers and me thinking our childhood friends Lisa, Cindy and Eric were so declasse for mixing Weebles in with their other Fisher-Price stuff, while we kept things more authentic. 

 So real, in fact, that Winter Springs even had rival crime families-- the Gurneys and the Raviolis -- and a bad part of town, thanks to my converting my sister's Sesame Street play set into the ghetto. (Naturally, no Muppet characters were allowed in the city unless they were human beings.) 

Lisa, Cindy and Eric may have had those cool streets their dad drew on a giant piece of drywall, and stop lights they borrowed from an expensive train set, but our town still ruled ... although this Weebles haunted house looks awfully fun in retrospect! 

And don't get me started about our friends having a Fisher-Price Castle in the middle of their town as if it were totally normal for there to be royalty living in America. (If you want to talk about titles, the mother of my family was the mayor, iand she maintained a pied-a-terre downtown in case she got caught late at a City Council meeting.) Sure, my brothers and I had the castle, too. (That moat ruled!) But at least we had the good sense to turn ours into a theme restaurant.

The Play Family Village in the 1970s

 My brother Bill writes: 
Has anyone seen the Village recently? It's like all nail salons and cellphone stores.


TCD said...

Did you ever see the Antiques Roadshow episode with the owner of one of Col. H. Sanders suit? Sanders and his wife lived in their basement while the family house was being built. Kid even wore one Sanders' white suits to Halloween party in high school.

Larry said...

OMG, I love this post! I was a die-hard Fisher-Price devotee growing up. I think I had everything--the castle, the farm, the school bus, the house, the A-frame ski chalet (growing up in NJ, I had no idea what a "chal-ette" was), etc. But I will admit I had some Weebles, too.

Anonymous said...

OMG! I had the Kentucky Fried Chicken play set!

PBO said...

Toothpaste caps as ice buckets is a stroke of genius! If Jonathan Adler reads this post, I have a feeling we'll see a version in one of his stores soon for only $280.

DQ said...

I remember that Holiday Inn! It was so cruisy!

Rob said...

I'm smiling from ear to ear. God, you must have been a fun kid to play with.

Billy said...

This is so great! I was a HUGE Fisher-Price little people fan. I had Sesame Street but it was different, there must have been a couple of versions. I had the plane too, LOVED the plane! Your town sounds amazing!

BW said...

Toothpaste caps for ice buckets and what else? I remember the plastic dividers from Mom's cigarette cartons serving as G.I. Joe cots ...

Anonymous said...

Love it! I had the village, the castle, the farm, I think a houseboat, and the circus train. Of the little people, there were identical men, one white and one black - I referred to the white one as vanilla and the black one as chocolate.

Anonymous said...

I was OBSESSED with the trap door in the FP Castle from 3-6; couldn't get enough of dropping those little people thru it! I'm sure my parents would have spent $ on therapy for me if they could have afforded it.

Also, like other people have mentioned, had and loved the plane. It has managed to disappear, but my folks still have the school, hospital, house boat, and Sesame Street.

My brother had a Tree House, which I think was also FP. It was spring-activated in that one could kind of close it and carry it around with the people and other things inside it.

My Dad is very much a throw-it-away type, so it amazes me that any of my toys are still there for their grandkids to play with.