Day Tripping / Cartoon museum offers trip down memory lane
Editor’s Note: This is part of a summer-long series of day trips the staff of Hearst Connecticut Media will be taking and sharing their firsthand accounts of. To find trips from last year’s installment of the series, visit our website and type “Day Tripping” into the search bar.
Remember the days when life was full of simple pleasures like waking up to watch your favorite Saturday morning cartoons or cracking open that new action figure and showing it off to your friends?
Neither did I, until a trip to the state’s largest collection of toys, tchotchkes and all things pop culture sent me reeling down memory lane.
From the outside, the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum in Cheshire could be mistaken for a child care center, with colorful cutouts of cartoon characters strewn across its lawn. The museum itself is tucked away behind a yellow building that looks more home than art gallery, with only a small sign out front to draw interested tourists.
While you may miss the museum driving by the first time, once you step foot inside, you likely won’t drive by it again.
The Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum
The museum captures nearly 150 years of childhood memories inside its halls — from original Betty Boop, Felix the Cat and Charlie McCarthy toys from a bygone era to Cartoon Network, Marvel Comics and Star Wars memorabilia of today.
The collection may span only four rooms and two stories, but every nook and cranny of the building conceals a tribute to some childhood classic. In fact, the sheer volume of items crammed into the small space means that five trips down the same aisle could elicit a new discovery each time.
Walking through the museum is like traveling back in time, with toys and knickknacks dating back as far as 1873. The collection’s oldest toys are original tin automatons called Ramp Walkers that, as the name suggests, can walk down slopes by themselves.
As the tour guide gave the history behind its near-complete collection of Popeye memorabilia, a tiny Dean Martin belted out “That’s Amore” nearby. Around the corner was a case dedicated to the western craze of the late 1950s, with every type of Bonanza-themed object you could imagine, from board games to belt buckles with toy guns hidden inside.
Then there are the collection’s quirkier items, like a tube of Mickey Mouse toothpaste dating back to the 1930s. Though the toothpaste was not too popular (it was made of milk of magnesia and contained in a lead tube), it has since become a highly sought after collector’s item. There were also reminders of a less savory time, such as dolls portraying Amos ‘n’ Andy, a radio and television sitcom that ran from 1928 to 1960 and featured two white characters in black-face.
A single item among the dozens of exhibits could set off a cascade of memories leaving you mesmerized and reminiscing for hours (yes, hours).
“I think that we all tend to become jaded as we grow older, but when people come here they rediscover that joy and wonder they felt as a child. Our collection reminds people of that feeling you got when you watched something new or you got a new toy,” said Judy Fuerst, the museum’s curator.
Since its founding in 1997, the museum’s sole mission has been to preserve cherished childhood memories. With more than 80,000 items in the collection, nobody could make it through there without dusting off long-forgotten memories.
That moment hit me when I stumbled on their collection of Star Trek figurines, the same ones my father once treasured. They were “collector’s items,” I remember him explaining to me, and could one day “be worth a lot of money.” The sight reminded me of the glorious day his prized Capt. Jean-Luc Picard action figure took a place in my own collection, and the less glorious bruises my bottom and ego later received as a result.
For others, the hundreds of lunchboxes dangling from the ceiling strike at a deep, embedded childhood memory. The patterns, figures and comical characters — once a ubiquitous schoolhouse presence in children’s lives — re-surge in a way that leaves adults in nostalgic awe.
Ursula Vinke, now a tour guide at the museum, can still remember her first time there. When she spotted a familiar red-and-white striped lunchbox hanging from the second floor of the museum during a 1996 trip with her children, she could barely believe it.
“I got very emotional,” Vinke said, her voice cracking slightly. “When I saw it, it brought back the memories and I didn’t think I’d be that excited. People give that reaction when they connect on that level for everything in here.”
Behind each piece is an interesting tidbit of pop culture trivia that even the most uninterested tourist can appreciate.
For instance, did you know the first Mickey Mouse animation was not “Steamboat Willie,” but a short based on Charles Lindbergh called “Plane Crazy”? Or that before he hit it big, Dr. Seuss would use actual animal parts for unorthodox taxidermy of fictional characters like the Mulberry Street Unicorn or the Goo-Goo-Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast?
Children too young to get sentimental can also join in on the fun with a challenging scavenger hunt that can keep them occupied while mom and dad pore over the collection for their old toys.
For those looking to take a bit of that nostalgia home with them, there is an art gallery next door. Fans of famed franchises like Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and Disney can buy art signed by original artists or high-quality fan art. Whether its 3D depictions of famous Star Wars characters from famed artist Charles Fazzino or Bugs Bunny transposed into famous sports pictures, there is a little something for every pop culture connoisseur.
Collectors with deeper pockets could go one step further and purchase original production cells which were used to film original classic Disney cartoons, such as “Peter Pan” and “The Rescuers.”
“It’s pretty cool to think you could own a piece of something that was used in your favorite childhood films,” said Maddy McGrail, who works in the gallery.