Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Museum With Character

Last week, I had the long-overdue pleasure of visiting the Barker Character, Comic, and Cartoon Museum in Cheshire, CT. The museum has been in existence since 1997, but I only learned about it a few months ago.

The Museum consists of two buildings: the Gallery, where hundreds of animation cels and cartoon-themed paintings are on display; and the Museum itself, which contains two stories of glass-enclosed toys, books, magazines, lunchboxes, Pez dispensers, and other products that should have anyone over the age of thirty muttering "I used to have one of those" more than once.

No photography is allowed inside either building, but the grounds outside are decorated with over two dozen murals and life-sized cutouts of cartoon characters that you can pose alongside.

I used to enjoy visiting the National Cartoon Museum in Rye Brook, NY, before it relocated to Boca Raton, FL, and later closed. The Barker Museum is a different, though equally enjoyable, experience. The NCM was comic strip and comic book oriented, with a huge collection of original artwork. The Barker Museum focuses more on toys and products based on comic and cartoon characters. It has no original comic-strip or -book artwork on display, though the Gallery does include a few framed prints of Peanuts strips by Charles Schulz. There are perhaps a half-dozen comic books on display in the Museum, notably a Famous First Edition reprint of Action Comics #1, which I discussed in a previous post.

Not only fictional characters are recognized here. There is also a large number of toys and items depicting real-life characters, like George Burns, Carol Channing, Dean Martin, and others. The Museum also boasts of its exhibits on the California Raisins and Celebriducks (a line of rubber ducks caricaturing familar faces from show business and politics), which I'd never heard of before.

I especially enjoyed seeing a corner devoted to Myron Waldman, an animator for the Fleischer Studios in the 1930s and '40s, who worked on the Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons, as well as a newspaper comic strip called Happy the Humbug. Myron used to live three miles away from me on Long Island, and was the subject of my first column in Hogan's Alley Magazine #12 in 2004.

The closest thing that I have to a criticism of the Barker Museum is that it's too tightly packed. Herb and Gloria Barker could spread their collection over twice the floor space, and it would still feel crowded. The story I was told is that Herb was a nostalgia buff whose collection grew too big for the house, so at Gloria's urging, he moved it out and put it on display. (Now I have an idea about what to do with my collection when it outgrows the basement.) The Barkers also own a company that manufactures promotional products. My friend, Merrill, works for a company that does business with them, and I found out about the Museum from her.

The museum is located on 1188 Highland Ave. in Cheshire, CT, about midway between Hartford and New Haven, six miles west of Route 91. You can take a virtual tour by watching the video on their website, but it's not as good as being there.

On the right, Bugs Bunny faces down Yosemite Sam; on the left, Baba Looey watches as Quick Draw McGraw faces down himself.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto, with their horses, Silver and Scout

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