Imagination Destination Rocket at the Strong National Museum of Play

Imagination Destination Rocket at the Strong National Museum of Play

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Impossible, I thought, as I hung up the phone.

I was a young Chicago Tribune reporter and had just fielded a call about a new doll company in Wisconsin that was touting expensive historic dolls to little girls and their parents.

That will never fly, I told colleagues. No story here. Boy was I wrong. Not only did American Girl dolls and books become a runaway success, ultimately bought out by Mattel, but I saw the success firsthand a few years later as my daughters and their friends spent umpteen hours — and I umpteen dollars — on those dolls with their oh-so-tiny accessories — eyeglasses, a necklace, a straw bonnet, a ski boot (which came later with the modern dolls designed to match their young owners’ passions). I have to say reading the stories that accompanied the dolls helped my girls see what life might have been like for girls like during the time of the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression, etc.

Now American Girl is among the 12 finalists for the prestigious National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong National Museum of Play, a top draw for not only visitors to Rochester, N,Y., but for all of upper New York state.

It seems fitting as the museum’s huge collection — the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of toys, dolls, games, electronic games and other historical materials related to play — more than 480,000 items — was started with one doll.

That much-loved doll named Mabel accompanied a little girl named Margaret Woodbury Strong as she traveled around the world with her wealthy parents from their home in Rochester in the early 20th century. Margaret began collecting dolls and toys on those trips and continued to be a prodigious collector throughout her life — that collection started the museum and, before she died in 1969, she bequeathed her estate to support the museum which today includes many interactive areas for young children, the most comprehensive public collection of video and electronic games, the World Video Game Hall of Fame, a lending public library, a preschool, a 300-seat theater and a much-loved interactive Wegmans Super Kids Market where young shoppers can scan store items themselves. Sushi, anyone? Or maybe a stop at the authentic diner that offers milkshake happy hours?

“It’s fun for parents, too,” said Mary Canti, taking a lunch break at the diner. “I like to find out about all the old toys and they like the interactive areas — the sand play, the spaceship and Wegmans grocery are big hits.”

“I like seeing all the toys I played with — GI Joe, all of the action figures and, of course, the arcade games I played as a teenager,” said Greg Karalias, who added the best part is watching and playing with his young daughter. “We are lucky to have this in our backyard,” he said.

The Strong’s backyard, meanwhile, is about to get a lot bigger. The museum is adding another 100,000 square feet, including a themed parking garage, that is to be the centerpiece of the Neighborhood of Play, a walkable green urban development that is expected to be completed in 2020.

I couldn’t help but smile at the Barbie collections — the museum’s Barbie collection includes more than 2,500 dolls and Barbie-related items from clothing and dollhouses to toy vehicles and pets, including the first Barbie and examples of the Bild Lilli (the German doll that inspired the Barbie concept).

Just as my daughters spent hours constructing an elaborate world for their American Girl dolls, and my son with his G.I. Joes and action figures, my friends and I did the same with our Barbie dolls. (We didn’t know or care if they presented an unrealistic image of a woman’s physique.)

The first Monopoly game at the Strong Museum of Play

The first Monopoly game at the Strong Museum of Play

There are elaborate dollhouses, some were Margaret Strong’s, and there’s even a kid-sized doll house to play in. There are LEGO collections and a huge LEGO board; the first Monopoly game (who knew it was round) and the popular “Build Drive Go exhibit where kids and their parents can create skyscrapers with oversized blocks, move “rocks” in a big pit and manipulate a dump truck — while also checking out the original Hot Wheels toy trucks and airplanes. The museum’s newest permanent exhibit, Imagination Destination, encourages kids to role-play on a futuristic spaceship, a construction worksite, a Broadway theater, etc.

Barbie, incidentally, was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame 10 years ago; the Teddy Bear and TINKERTOY 20 years ago. Inductees range from the Cardboard Box and blanket (ideal for superhero cape!) to board games, including Monopoly and Clue, as well as skateboards and bicycles.

The American Girl doll has tough competition for the National Toy Hall of Fame this year. It’s up against chalk, Chutes & Ladders, Magic 8 Ball, Fisher-Price Corn Popper, Masters of the Universe, pinball, sled, tic-tac-toe, Tickle Me Elmo, Tudor Electric Football and Uno. However, they’re all good bets if you are doing any early holiday shopping. For the first time, the public has been asked to weigh in; the winners will be announced in November.

“They all share an undeniable ability to inspire people of all ages to learn, create and discover through play,” said Christopher Bensch, the Strong’s vice president for collections.

Lorraine Giessert would agree. She, her daughter and grandson had driven in from Buffalo — a 90-minute drive — to celebrate her grandson’s fourth birthday. “I like playing, too,” she said.