Selected by Time magazine earlier this year as one of its 50 Authentic American Experiences, Oklahoma's very own Toy & Action Figure Museum turns four on Saturday.
Just don't call it an anniversary. As museum curator Kevin Stark is quick to point out, "birthday" sounds more appropriate when dealing with a museum full of toys.
Born and raised in Pauls Valley, Stark is more than just a small-town eccentric "? he's a successful artist and a veritable renaissance man. His artistic endeavors cover fine art, commercial art and advertising. That's when he's not drawing his syndicated comic, "Geezer," which follows the first geriatric superhero, or playing and recording music with his band, Squeaky Burger. He also owns his own gallery and represents four other Oklahoma artists and two other musicians.
"I don't think I've ever been bored a moment in my life. I've never understood people that say that they're bored. What's that like?" Stark said. "I think that stemmed from my father, because once as a kid, I said I was bored and he proceeded to give me chores to do. So I learned never to be bored again."
He has also designed a number of toys for "The Simpsons," "Toonsylvania" and "The Mummy." He got his industry start in 1990 while working on the action figures for "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
"It got the point where there were so many of them that I had to stop telling people I worked on it, because they'd say, 'I hate those things! They're everywhere!'" he said.
After years of commuting to work in Los Angeles for weeks at a time, Stark considered moving his family. Thinking it through, he and his wife decided that living in a small town in Oklahoma was what they really wanted. After deciding on Pauls Valley, he thought it was time to get more involved in the community.
He joined a number of boards and committees, including one working on a 10-year plan for the city. Among the projects proposed was the creation of unique tourist attractions in the downtown area. It just so happened that Stark was already attracting tourists to his downtown studio to see his already sizable action-figure collection.
"Every time a story ran about my collection and that I designed action figures, total strangers would show up at my door asking, 'Can we see the toys?' So I joked with someone on the committee, that if you wanted tourist attractions that I was already the unofficial tourist attraction. 'We could just make it official and make a real museum,' and they took me seriously," he said.
After years of preparation, the world's first Toy & Action Figure Museum opened on Oct. 15, 2005. The very next year, it was awarded the Redbud Award for Best New Attraction by the Governor's Conference on Tourism. Since then, the site has become known around the world for showcasing action figures as both cultural artifacts and works of art.
"We try to show people the process of how these things are created "? that they're not just imagined and appeared," Stark said. "What used to be children's playthings really are now works of art for the masses."
He said the best part about the museum for him has been meeting people from all over the world who share a common love of toys and pop culture. When a film company from London doing a documentary on the collector culture surrounding the "Alien" character showed up with a nearly 7-foot-tall man in a highly detailed costume, Stark decided to take him for a walk around downtown Pauls Valley.
"He had this big, spiked collar with a chain that you could pull him around with, so I took him to the Chamber of Commerce meeting," Stark said. "I get a lot of latitude. They're used to that kind of thing."
It hasn't all been fun and games, however. He said that the biggest challenge for the museum, as with all nonprofits, is money.
"We're always writing grants and seeking sponsorships, but we're looking for that one guy "? like the guy that gave $3 million to the banjo museum (in Bricktown), that one action figure guy that's got millions who needs a major tax write-off," Stark said. "I know he's out there somewhere. Give me a call!"
This Saturday's celebration will feature free admission, with contests, giveaways and scavenger hunts to find certain figures among the museum's 11,000 currently on display. The birthday dinner fund-raiser and awards ceremony will start at 7 p.m. and costs $50 per person or $75 for a couple, and includes a strict dress code.
"You're not allowed into the dinner without a costume," Stark said. "If you don't have a costume, we'll dress you up at the door!"
The dinner, catered by local restaurants, will include an overview of the last year, entertainment from comedy duo Twinprov and others, a costume contest, a giant birthday cake and a ceremony to induct two toy lines into the Action Figure Hall of Fame. The museum will also announce its picks for sculptor and designer of the year, and the Oklahoma Cartoonist Collection will also induct four new members into its ranks.
For those who can't make it out Saturday, normal admission is $6. However, if you're feeling the pinch of the recession, you can visit the museum for free the second Sunday of every month. To that end, Stark has given tours to those who show up when the museum is closed. Recently, he kept the place open late for a young couple from Texas that arrived right at closing time.
"We look at ourselves as ambassadors of Oklahoma and Pauls Valley. If you come here, you'll get treated right. It's a great town to live in and be part of," he said. "You know, Disneyland has their Main Street USA, but that's fake. We've got the real thing right here."
The Toy & Action Figure Museum 4th Birthday Party Celebration takes place 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at The Toy & Action Figure Museum, 111 S. Chickasaw in Pauls Valley.