Art kits, old toys bring back many memories

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 4, 2013

SALISBURY — There are so many infomercials around now that one of them is probably always in play (the same being said of Andy Griffith reruns). One show which I remember from the late 1950s into the early 1960s was sort of like an early “infomercial,” because along with the show’s entertainment, it offered something to sell. That show was “Learn to Draw,” and what it sold was the “Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw Kit.” I couldn’t figure out whether the purpose of the show was the kit or the purpose of the kit was the show, but I watched and enjoyed, whatever the reason.
The goateed Mr. Gnagy visually reminded me a little bit of a “beatnik” of the day, Maynard G. Krebs of the “Dobie Gillis Show,” although Mr. Gnagy was better-dressed. He also bore a certain resemblance to the famous clarinettist, Pete Fountain. Mr. Gnagy promoted the enjoyment of drawing and also billed his kit as a possible aid to one’s “breaking into the business” to become an artist or cartoonist. I wonder how many budding artists may have been inspired by watching his show and using his kit.
I recall him drawing still life subjects pretty much as they are, but sketching human faces with a little bit of caricature. I also remember Mr. Gnagy drawing a bird sitting on the branch of a tree, the rest of the tree out of sight. The bird had such a look of happiness which spilled over to the whole scene, including (in a way) the branch on which it was sitting, so I guess it could have been said (even some years before Bob Ross) that Jon Gnagy’s “happy little bird” seemed to be sitting on a “happy little branch,” of a mostly unseen, “happy little tree” (bringing to mind mountain man Jim Bridger’s early recounting of his journey into the Petrified Forest, where he saw (in his dialect): “A peetrified bird, a sittin’ on a peetrified limb, singin’ a peetrified song, in the peetrified air.”
I never got the “Jon Gnagy learn to Draw Kit,” contenting myself with the little colored pencil sets which could be had at Salisbury’s W.T. Grant, Woolworth’s or Kress.
I remember another art-related item advertised on television back then, but it was really more related to geometry than art, the “Spirograph.” Nothing “free-style” was to be had with it, for it consisted of a fixed pencil operated by a series of wheels and a crank. To be more precise, it was a “mechanism” which produced art. There was spinning involved, but it was a lot more precise than the artist Jackson Pollock’s spinning canvas upon which his paint was thrown, then hailed as art. I did have a Spirograph, but after a while, its not being willing to veer from its inherent “structure” made it a little boring.
There was a toy back then which could replicate comic book art as well as bounce like a ball, and that was, of course, “Silly Putty.” Like potato chips, it was an accident of industry, but unlike them, it was inedible. There seemed to be a lot of advertisement about it in those days, but I stumbled onto it at Dollar General the other day just by chance, with no attention-getting signage (as back then) announcing its presence in a tucked-away little bin.
When I was a child, the stores in which Silly Putty could be found were called “dime” stores, but now it is found in such places as “Dollar General” and “Super Dollar.” With this potential play on words fresh in my mind, just now I started to mistakenly say that the dime has swelled to the dollar, but realized that it is much more correct to say that the dollar has shrunk to the dime.
Another toy back then which resembled an accident of industry was “Slinky.” The ends of the metal coil were held in each palm, and with synchronized heaving of the hands an oscillation was sent from one end to the other (kind of resembling the sports spectators’ “wave”). In addition to this, Slinky had the capability of descending steps. All that was required was the proper starting of Slinky at the top of the stairs and a faith in the continuing operation of the force of gravity. The later, plastic version of Slinky doesn’t measure up to the original.
The plastic coils rubbing together just don’t produce the treble metallic sound which was one of the things which made Slinky what it was. Only those metal coils provided the proper percussive instrumental accompaniment to the singing of the “Slinky Song.”
One strange toy which I saved to last was very much advertised then and very popular. It wasn’t just a toy though, it was a game, the “Cootie Game.” It was basically a roll-of-the-dice game to determine who would be the first to assemble a “Cootie Bug” in its entirety. All of the appropriate insect parts were there: head, thorax, abdomen, legs, eyes, antennae, proboscis, etc. The thorax and abdomen were already made into a single piece, but it was clear where one left off and the other began. Just as I now wonder about the number of children inspired by Jon Gnagy to become artists, I also find myself speculating on how many budding entomologists were inspired by the assembling of their Cooties.
The job from which I retired in 2002, after 27 years, was that of social worker. Sometimes, in that job, there were situations in which I found myself reflecting back on my old six-legged, plastic toy. Every now and then, I would be called upon to investigate certain insect infestations (often recurring) in children’s scalps, either at school or in the home. That particular species of insect for which I was looking has its proper Latin name, but also possesses a common name, which of course, exactly replicates the spelling and pronunciation of the name of my childhood insect toy.
Although both names have the exact same sound and spelling, in my social work investigations involving peering into those unfortunate children’s scalps, I never came across anything even remotely approaching the cuteness of my old “Cootie.”