- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Amid the horse-drawn plows, bottles of genuine snake oil and other 19th century artifacts, visitors to the Monroe County Historical Society this winter might notice a set of Star Wars action figures.

As anachronistic as it sounds, the toys aren’t out of place: They are part of a new exhibit of 1970s pop culture.

“A Very 1970s Christmas,” which opened Monday, takes visitors back four decades into a mock living room - complete with shag carpet and orange print curtains. An actual 1970-vintage Penncrest television plays a loop of ads from the era (“gobble ‘em down and the plate comes back for Hungry Jack!”)

There’s even a macramé Santa.

Museum director Jarrod Roll said the goal is to build audience - attracting both Gen X-ers and their kids - while sending the message that “history doesn’t have to be so long ago.”

“It’s not just dead people,” he said. “Our job is to make history relevant. We do that with history that is 100 years old or 140 years old. But we can also do that with history that’s 40 years old.”

Roll, 41, is a self-described toy nerd. The Star Wars figures in the display are from his collection, which he does not allow his own children to play with. (In his defense, Roll said he paid for his wedding with proceeds from toy sales.)

The idea for the display was hatched at a conference where panelists were talking about displays created to expand audiences by targeting young families, the La Crosse Tribune (https://bit.ly/117mV0w ) reported.

He decided to work off his own childhood memories of Christmas - “that day when you won the lottery as a kid,” he said.

Surrounding a Christmas tree - decorated with authentic 1970s ornaments - is an explosion of toys.

There are Barbie dolls and a GI Joe (with the Kung Fu grip) as well as his competitor, Big Jim. Holly Hobbie’s Old Fashioned General Store, a Chatty Cathy (with the Marsha Brady voice) and even a Cher doll. And no ‘70s toy party would be complete without an Easy-Bake Oven or miniature Evel Knievel on a windup motorcycle.

There are games, too: Emergency, a board game based on the TV show, and a Super Simon.

The only glaring omission is Legos. Roll said it’s nearly impossible to find intact sets from the 1970s, because most kids mixed the toy bricks as their collections grew.

Some of the toys will be recognizable to modern kids - Lincoln Logs haven’t changed that much in four decades - and superheroes are somewhat timeless. Others, well, you had to be there.

A few are frankly head-scratchers: Who knew there were action figures of Epstein and Horshack, from “Welcome Back Kotter.”

“It’s just too fun,” Roll said, handling the dolls. “Some kid got these.”

Visitors can even leaf through a notebook full of color pages from “wishbooks.” (For children of the Internet age, these were JC Penny and Sears catalogs that kids spent hours poring over on the shag carpets of their grandparents’ living rooms.)

Roll said patrons were engaging with the exhibit even before it was installed. One woman called out, “There’s my Velvet doll,” on spotting the friend of Crissy, the fashion doll with extendable hair.

“People in my age group get super excited right away,” he said. “They start telling me stories.”

Those in their 60s and 70s generally have two reactions: They remember giving those toys to their kids, or they wonder why anyone would want to exhibit the junk they threw out 10 years ago.

Museum volunteer Janet Hendersin, 78, said her daughters had moved on from toys by the 1970s, but she still enjoyed putting up the exhibit.

“It’s really going to be fun to hear the comments,” she said. “And what they pick out.”

About two thirds of the toys are on loan from the Fennimore Doll & Toy Museum in far southwestern Wisconsin, which closes for the winter. The rest came from local collections, including Roll‘s.

Decoration presented its own challenges.

He searched for a macramé owl but had to settle for a felt one made by his wife’s cousin. The curtains came from eBay.

Roll worried about finding carpet, but Leon Country Floors & More came through with a remarkably intact piece of original shag carpeting from a home the business was re-doing in Tomah.

“It’s usually in pretty rough shape when we find it that old,” said sales associate Cole Hackbarth. “They don’t make any new stuff like that.”

Hendersin advised Roll on the décor, cautioning him against making the room too gaudy.

“Just because it was that time - people did it tastefully,” she said. “We look at it now and it’s a little loud.”


Information from: La Crosse Tribune, https://www.lacrossetribune.com

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