From dolls to toy guns and firetrucks, Gazette staff recalls favorite toys
A few weeks back, somebody at the office mentioned Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots, or something like that, and it got us all reminiscing about toys from childhood.
It was a brief but wonderful trip down Memory Lane. We thought it would be fun to share our recollections of a special present from Christmases long ago. Hopefully our stories will spark pleasant memories in you.
Giant with the golden locks
I found Debbie in the attic.
She was naked, her hair was dingy and matted.
I had forgotten all about her.
When a Gazette editor asked us to write stories about a favorite Christmas present from our childhood, Debbie came downstairs.
As I remember, she came into my life in December 1960, when Santa still lived at the North Pole and not at the mall.
I was 5 years old and in a letter that my mom helped me to write, I asked St. Nick for “a big doll.”
As Christmas drew near, Dad went up to the attic and brought down our tree.
Artificial trees were all the rage, and this one was as unnatural as could be. The branches were white and poked out at odd angles, like the bristles of a worn-out toothbrush. The ornaments were permanently attached.
Every December, the tree was sprayed with fake snow, which gave it a crusty coating, much like Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.
That Christmas Eve, under the terrible tannenbaum, Debbie appeared in a big box.
She was “a walking doll,” and she was a giant, more than 2 feet tall. If you held her by the arms and scooted her feet along the floor, her legs, jointed at the hip, would do a Frankenstein-like walk.
But it was Debbie’s golden locks that I really admired.
Like many girls of that era, my wavy hair was cut short, in a Pixie style. There wasn’t much to comb or primp on my head, but Debbie’s tresses were long and silky.
My other dolly, Betsy Wetsy, could pee in her diaper, but she had no hair to comb.
Debbie is a new little woman since I rescued her from the land of dust and cardboard.
I washed her hair with Woolite and slathered it with conditioner. I found some baby clothes for her at the City Mission thrift store in Glenville.
Then Debbie got a ride to The Gazette so we could take her picture.
Debbie is no longer my darling dolly, but I won’t mistreat her anymore. Besides, she really looks too nice to go back up to the attic.
— Karen Bjornland, reporter
Little drummer boy
I don’t know what prompted my parents to give me a toy drum set one Christmas many years ago, when I was around 4 or 5 years old. They were both music lovers, so perhaps drums were the only thing they thought I could manage.
So there the drums were, under the tree on Christmas morning. It was a little toy set, with a bass drum and two smaller drums about the size of a small skillet.
The cheap heads on the drums were made of some kind of fabric, or maybe even a heavy paper (there was a war on, you know).
In those days before television, there were lots of radio broadcasts featuring the big bands, and my father used to tune in to the programs that featured drummer Gene Krupa’s band, which he encouraged me to listen to.
Anyway, I spent that Christmas banging away, not knowing that I would wind up in later years getting a real set of drums and actually getting to play with some of the musicians I grew to admire as a jazz record collector, such as Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson and Buddy Tate.
And I even got to meet Gene Krupa.
— Tim Coakley, copy editor
Dawn of fashion
My favorite Christmas toy was not a clothespin, contrary to my niece Jenny’s recollection of the events from our childhood.
Jenny and I, born just 13 months apart, are more like sisters than aunt and niece. She is the daughter of my second oldest sister (there were nine of us). They lived within walking distance prior to and after my sister’s divorce, and Jenny and I were together nearly every day.
Naturally, when given the assignment to write about my favorite toy I had to tell her about it.
“Clothespins. Remember? We used to pretend they were chicken wings,” Jenny exclaimed, getting some odd looks from the people at the next table. “Oh, and the swing set. We played that game about going back in time.”
After some talk about my Barbie house and the really cool Barbie camper she got one Christmas, we came to a consensus . . . Dawn and the Dawn Fashion Show.
Dawn and her friends were smaller versions of Barbie (61⁄2 inches tall). They had real eyelashes, some had flexible knees that made a popping sound when you bent them, and they were easy for little hands to dress and accessorize.
The ultimate fashionista, Dawn was on-trend from head to toe. Her wardrobe included groovy mini dresses, bell-bottoms and elaborate gowns. She even had holes in the bottom of her shoes that matched the holes in the bottom of her feet, which enabled her to stand securely on the Dawn Fashion Show runway.
With a turn of a lever (no batteries needed) she would glide onto the runway from backstage. You could spin her to show all angles of her costume, then circle her backstage for a quick change.
In the meantime, one of us would be dressing Dawn’s friends, Dale or Angie, for their turn on the runway. At least that’s what Jenny and I remember.
We also both remember sifting through my grandmother’s sewing kit for straight pins with tiny colorful balls on top. Our moms said we were too young to get our ears pierced, so Dawn and her friends became our surrogates. We learned quickly that the pin would come out the other side of Dawn’s head leaving a sharp point that could rip little outfits or poke our little fingers. Undaunted, we bent the pins and angled the point downward, safely inside Dawn’s head.
We had crayons, coloring books and Play-Doh, but styling the hair on our little dolls was a real test of our fine motor skills. We gave our dolls ponytails, braids and up-dos, secured with thick rubber bands. bobby pins and barrettes protruded from the hair on their little heads.
Eventually we got hold of some scissors and there was a hair cutting incident. Yeah, we cut the dolls’ hair too, and were very disappointed that it didn’t grow back like ours did.
— Andrea Cramer, editoral assistant
Hard hat not required
Video games are a gazillion-dollar industry, and I understand their appeal.
But whenever our sons would put video games on their Christmas lists, a certain sadness would come over me.
That’s because I grew up in the pre-video game era, with its wonderful assortment of toys and games that involved more than pressing buttons on a controller until your thumbs ached.
My friends would come over to the house and we’d hurry down to the basement and pull out a game from the shelves my father had built under the stairs.
We’d place one on the ping-pong table and play for hours, choosing from board games (“Careers” and “Battle Cry” were favorites), sports games (was anything more fun than table-top hockey?) and the old stand-by, an electric race car set. If your car went too fast around a curve, it would fly off the track and hit the wall.
When I was even younger, toy guns were the thing. Best of all was a bazooka that shot plastic balls. I got that one at a GE Christmas party for kids of employees. I think my sister was on the receiving end of a few long-range shells.
But probably the one Christmas present I recall most fondly wasn’t really a toy or a game. It was a building set.
The “Girder and Panel Building Set” was one of many construction sets made by the Kenner company.
I remember sitting on the floor, piecing together buildings of all different shapes (and hoping our dachshund wouldn’t barrel into them).
You placed polyethylene girders into a pegboard base to build the frame and then snapped plastic windows and roof pieces into place. You could build office buildings, airports, train stations.
I was the Donald Trump of our neighborhood.
I don’t have the set anymore, but it can be found for sale on websites like eBay. Gee, maybe I should . . .
— Jeffrey Haff, copy editor
Firehouse under the tree
He’s making a list and checking it twice. That Santa — he’s not only jolly, he’s thorough too.
Christmas was always special in my family growing up. Midnight Mass at St. Luke’s Church in Mechanicville and then off to bed to wonder what might be under the tree in the morning.
We all know that Santa and his reindeer come in the middle of the night. Sometimes, some of us little McBrides would try to fight off sleep to witness the magical arrival, but we could never do it. Whoever among us was first to get up in the morning would wake the others, and we ran downstairs with excitement and anticipation. (But patience is anticipation’s companion, and we had to wait for Mom and Dad to get done milking the cows and return to the house around 8 o’clock. The build-up only added to the fun.)
We always seemed to get what we wanted, within reason of course. But Santa was pretty smart giving us things we needed or things we didn’t ask for that he knew we’d like. It always seemed to be that way. There were many, many presents over the years that were special.
There is one that still stands out, not that I have a clear memory of it. After all, I was not yet 5 that Christmas. The “memory” is the result of a photo, one that shows just how thoughtful Santa was. The toys, more accurately gadgets, that kids get today are much different than in the ’60s and early ’70s. Small boys back then were delighted to get GI Joes and toy trains, Mack trucks and firetrucks.
Firetrucks. That’s what my brothers and I got, among other things, in 1967. It was particularly cool because Dad was a volunteer fireman and Hillcrest Firehouse was just a stone’s throw from our house. In fact, Mom was saying the other day how excited we kids were every time the fire siren went off and Dad headed to the firehouse. The times the call brought the trucks past the house were thrilling, especially when Dad was driving one.
But Santa didn’t just bring the trucks. No, he and those North Pole elves really outdid themselves. They created a replica Hillcrest Firehouse to park those trucks in. Other kids may have gotten GI Joes and firetrucks, too. But we had our own wooden version of Hillcrest Firehouse. And that was special.
My Dad doesn’t drive firetrucks anymore, but he spends a lot of time in his wood shop. He’s pretty creative, too, just like Santa and his elves. Hmmm.
— Tom McBride, assistant features editor
Cars and guns
This holiday assignment required one favorite present from a Christmas past.
I’ll risk coal in my stocking and cheat — this story includes two gifts I’ll always remember.
The first came during the late 1950s, and remains a vivid yuletide memory. My brother Tim and I weren’t even in school yet, but senior members of the family decided we should have our own transportation for those long trips to the living room, dining room and kitchen.
We both received pedal-powered metal cars. They seemed like the real deal, especially to drivers who were only about three feet tall. I received the powder blue sports car, and I’m pretty sure working headlights were standard equipment. Tim got a red fire truck — the featured accessory was the small wooden ladder attached to the side.
The cars must have made great impressions on the Wilkin brothers. My first car — for real — was a blue AMC Gremlin. Tim’s first wheels were attached to a red car — neither of us can remember the model.
The second part of my holiday double feature takes place around 1965 — and I can still tear up just thinking about it.
I was 10, and a major fan of the spy boom then part of American pop culture. The James Bond movies had started it all, and television followed with several interpretations.
My favorite was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and while I was rarely allowed to stay up late enough to watch the show, I knew all about the characters and gadgets.
This was the Christmas I received gifts every kid hated — clothes — and about four or five board games. I had no passion for games because they weren’t really yours; you needed friends or siblings for a couple of hours with “Monopoly” or “Aggravation.”
The only gift that thrilled me was an “U.N.C.L.E.” cane “gun” that fired plastic “bullets.” I had finally received equipment that would help me keep agents of THRUSH — or at least pesky squirrels — out of our neighborhood.
I should have started “The Christmas Day Affair” as soon as I liberated the gun from its cardboard backing. But there were stockings to check and assorted gifts to open from grandparents. My father — as was his custom — quickly gathered all wrapping paper and scheduled it for fireplace incineration. A short time later, as I decided to begin my career as an “U.N.C.L.E.” junior operative, I couldn’t find the instructions for my spy weapon.
We looked everywhere, and finally determined Dad had burned up the directions. A lesser agent would have cracked. I was just depressed about the whole thing. I could never figure out how to load and fire this obviously high-tech toy.
I forgave my father. And while I knew Dad spent his days working at Rochester’s Eastman Kodak Co., that Christmas was the day I realized he was also a seasonal employee for THRUSH.
— Jeff Wilkin, reporter