By Dave Woods
Digital market development manager
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Paul Lawrence has spent the past six years taking tickets, answering questions and guiding visitors through the World's Largest Toy Museum.
He stumbled into the job, but said he doesn't really consider it work. The massive collection of toys, books, board games and exhibits elicits different reactions, depending on the age of the guest, he explained.
"I see two different things," said the 61-year-old museum docent. "In the eyes of adults I see a lot of memories. Toys that they had; toys that they wished they had; toys they didn't have, but other kids did and they wished they had them. Occasionally they find toys they didn't even know existed."
Children and younger tourists have a different reaction to the colorful building's massive variety of antique toys.
"Especially in younger ones and pre-teens, I see amazement," he said. "They didn't know there were this many toys (made) in the years before they were born. We tend to be self-centered and don't realize how much to the world there was before we were born."
The World's Largest Toy Museum and Attraction opened in 2001. Tom and Wendy Beck's over-the-top collection of rare toys has been a Branson staple ever since.
"It took a lot of work," Lawrence said of the playfully decorated museum, which is guarded by oversized toy soldiers. "The building had to be totally cleaned and remodeled to house the museum. (Tom and Wendy) are active daily in the management of the museum, and they are good folks to work for. After more than two decades, Tom still opens the museum almost every day."
Six shooters to Star Trek
Lawrence said he never imagined he would learn so much about people's playful obsession with playthings.
"I wasn't much of a toy fan before I came to work here," he said, sounding a little apologetic. "Then, after seeing people's reactions to old Tonka trucks and road graders that I grew up with, I became a little bit more of a toy fan. I think a lot of kids like Star Wars and Star Trek."
Lawrence said he is a "Star Trek" fan. But during his childhood, in a time before the members of the Starship Enterprise used their fabled phasers to stun their first Klingons, he had a hankering for simpler toys.
"We have old (toy) guns like I used to have," he said. "It brought out a nostalgia I didn't know I had."
Nostalgia and multigenerational appeal make the museum an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, said Lawrence.
"I thinks the older folks, 50-years-old and on up, remember toys they had as kids," he said. "It often touches happy memories of times gone by."
The toy museum's trip down memory lane isn't lost on the under-50 crowd, either. Modern action figures are many visitors' favorite toys at the museum.
"The action figures bring a lot of interest in Batman, Superman and Spider-Man," he said. "We get a lot of questions on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures and Masters of the Universe."
Many of the action figures in the museum appeal to younger people, but several others are timeless. The museum's collection includes dream girl Barbie, her friend, Skipper, and boyfriend, Ken. There is also G.I. Joe, a classic military hero.
"We've been fortunate that Tom has done a lot of diligent collecting of those figures," he said. "We have been very fortunate that he has come across the right things at the right time."
Tom has amassed the great display, but Wendy has influence on the collection's content, too.
"Wendy tends to be more interested in the dolls," Lawrence said. "Tom tends to be more interested in the guy stuff."
Lawrence said he believes it's important to preserve the historical toys for posterity. His propensity for doing so may be linked to an unfortunate event during his childhood.
"I think that many of (my generation's) toys were considerably more durable then than they are today," Lawrence said. "In my case, my mother kept all of the toys me and my brother didn't tear up. Years ago, a flood destroyed our basement where all the old toys were stored."
Cold water and snakes kept the brothers from attempting to rescue their childhood toys.
"We figured the snakes could have them," Lawrence said, laughing. "By the time we discovered it, it was too late. A lot of times toys get lost or destroyed by accident in fires or floods or disasters. In many cases, parents just want to decrease clutter, so they will give them away. It depends on the family whether they are passed on or not."
Want to go?
World's Largest Toy Museum and Attraction is located at 3609 West Highway 76 Country Boulevard in Branson. It's open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Details: 417-332-1499 or www.worldslargesttoymuseum.com.