A Baltimore Toyland From Yesteryear

Jerry Carpenter, left, John Fairbank, Helen Carpenter and Lee Fairbank at the Baltimore museum.
Jerry Carpenter, left, John Fairbank, Helen Carpenter and Lee Fairbank at the Baltimore museum. (Photos By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Mary K. Feeney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 8, 2006

Who could blame Ralphie Parker for being disappointed? The charming hero of the film "A Christmas Story" was devoted to the "Little Orphan Annie" radio show, and one day his long-awaited "Annie" decoder pin arrived in the mail. The secret message -- "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine" -- turned out to be, in his words, "a crummy commercial."

In the 1930s and '40s, thousands of young radio fans were unraveling the mysteries of decoder pins. But how many people kept them? Who was prescient enough to save a "Get Smart" lunchbox, a "Winky Dink and You" TV screen or a "Howdy Doody" record player?

A new museum in Baltimore, which is well-suited for a family holiday outing, has all those things and more. Geppi's Entertainment Museum, which opened in September, showcases about 7,000 pop-culture artifacts, from rare comic books to the prototype for the first G.I. Joe.

Just a very long baseball throw from Camden Yards in the historic Camden train station, Baltimore businessman Stephen A. Geppi has created the 17,000-square-foot Wonkaland of toys. Geppi owns Baltimore magazine, along with other businesses, including the world's largest distributor of English-language comics.

Geppi (pronounced "JEH-pee"), who grew up in Baltimore's Little Italy neighborhood, learned to read at age 5 using comic books from corner stores. The museum, he says, has been a 30-year dream, and he often hears that visitors are overwhelmed by the depth and quality of the collection.

"I've had the same reaction from people of all ages, 8 to 80. Selfishly, I knew it would be good, but I didn't think it would recall everybody's childhood," said Geppi, 56, who has six children, including a 35-year-old daughter who works for the museum.

One recent Saturday, families roamed the high-ceilinged galleries, the adults reminiscing about childhood toys and their kids discovering them for the first time.

Doris Everhart of Atlanta, visiting with her son, Luke James, said her preteen son loved the museum's Spider-Man toys but also liked seeing toys she played with as a girl.

"The Barbie doll, the Ken doll. I gave mine away," Everhart said with a note of regret.

With Geppi's comic-book connections, a display of notable titles -- including the first "Superman" -- is no surprise. But this is more like a shrine.

The vibrantly drawn covers, behind glass in the exhibit "A Story in Four Colors," transform the room into a shining jewel box of superheroes, ghouls and campus cuties. A middle-aged man stared at the array and started to laugh to himself. "There are some [comic books] here I haven't ever seen!" he said in amazement.

Although the comic books can't be physically handled, the museum offers two interactive screens -- including an oversize one with nine large overhead panels -- that offer a page-by-page look at selected comic books of the past. Even the tacky black-and-white ads on the inside covers are there, with ads for X-ray glasses and help for skinny guys who need muscles.

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