Trading in toys: Passion for plastic soldiers runs deep among collectors

Some of the soldiers for sale.
Some of the soldiers for sale. Miami Herald Staff

War did not break out here Sunday, despite a confrontation between several thousand grim-face men armed with everything from clubs to six-shooters to machine guns. Violence was averted principally due to the fact that none of them were more than two inches high and they were mostly made of plastic, tin or compressed sawdust.

In fact, aside from some spirited bidding and the occasional shout of “I had one of those when I was a kid!,” the 21st annual South Florida Toy Soldier Show — unlike its tiny wares —was downright peaceful.

Much too peaceful for some of the vendors. “Business has been slow,” admitted Alan McGhee, 54, of Pembroke Pines, looking sadly at the vast, undisturbed ranks of metal Civil War soldiers he had hoped to sell.

But then he brightened, thinking of the rapacious bargains he might be able to strike with other vendors at the end of the day.

“When it’s not going very well, for dealers, it’s going very well for collectors,” he reminded himself. “And I’m a collector, too.”

Toy soldiers date back at least to the early 18th century, and despite the modern onslaught of video games and cellphone apps, they still have their fans. Several hundred of them wandered through four labyrinthine and macabre rooms of the Scottish Rite Masonic Hall in Lake Worth on Sunday, savoring the good old days when toys were unapologetic in their bloodlust.

They saw displays of tin Napoleonic soldiers marching off to their doom on the Russian steppes and of plastic cavemen about to experience the digestive tract of a tyrannosaurus rex from the inside.

Zulu warriors battled the British army, and so did American revolutionary soldiers. Arab bandits shot it out with the French Foreign Legion, cowboys with Indians, spacemen with aliens.

There were other toys and collectibles, too, some of them suggesting Baby Boomers had stranger childhoods than they remember. A set of 66 Vietnam bubble-gum cards, bilingual in French and English because they were printed in Canada, conjured up images of little boys in mordant trading sessions: “I’ll give you three William Westmorelands for a Ho Chi Minh!”

Several dealers offered old metal lunch boxes. High end: a Beatles model, circa 1964, going for $850. There were even a few Barbie dolls, which caught the eye of Samantha Hooker of Palm Springs, who has a few herself, though at age 11 she’s far too sophisticated to play with them.

“They were fun when I was kid,” she allowed, and added politely that the Barbies at the show probably had historic significance: “Their clothes looked really, um, old.”

Samantha, who was tagging along with her dad, Thad, in hopes of finding some items associated with the Minecraft video game, cut an unusual figure at the show, where she lacked 50 years in age and one Y chromosome compared to most everybody else.

Most toy soldier collectors are Baby Boomers, pushing or past 60, and they cast a wary eye on females. Mothers notoriously threw away collections of toy soldiers by the zillions when the Boomers were kids (“You’re too old to play with that!”) and lately ex-wives have done the same — or, worse, demanded half the value in alimony. Or some even more malign combination of the two.

“My ex-wife got a lot of my stuff after the divorce,” said Craig Remington, a dealer of plastic soldiers who drove down from Plant City for the show. “And she was going to shows and selling my Johnny Ringo figures for 50 cents apiece, just to twist the knife.”

This drew a murmur of fear and loathing from a group of plastic-soldier collectors gathered around Remington’s table. They knew, as you probably do not, that Johnny Ringo is the holy grail of plastic toy soldiers. Or, to be technical, plastic cowboys.

Johnny Ringo was the hero of an early-1960s TV western. His gimmick was that he carried a seven-shooter pistol instead of the customary six-shooter. At the end of every shootout, the bad guy would emerge from hiding and shout, “Johnny, I got you now, because I know you fired all six of your bullets!” And Johnny would plug him with that seventh shot.

The creative possibilities of that were exhausted by about the third episode, and Johnny Ringo’s show quickly disappeared, along with the toy playset bearing his name and including his plastic figure. The rarity of those figures mean they sell among collectors for somewhere between $2,000 and $3,000, unless you get the Vengeful Ex-Wife Discount.

Remington appeared to be nicely recovered from his marital trauma on Sunday. While the market for metal toy soldiers wasn’t so hot, the plastic ones were selling like Johnny Ringo hotcakes. Remington sold three spaceman playsets for $250 to $450 apiece in the first 10 minutes of the show, and by lunch had cleared out about 90 percent of his inventory.

“I could sell anything today,” he exclaimed. “I should have brought my mint-in-box Johnny Ringo set!”

Yeah, he kept one hidden from the ex-wife. When he’s ready to sell, he’s going to ask $13,000 for it. Another dealer, Rick Keller of Indiana, blinked at the price.

“We call this a hobby,” he said. “But it’s more like an incurable disease.”