Character Buildings

I f you’re a pop culture fanatic, the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum in Cheshire could be your Mecca. Think of any fictional (and many real-life) characters you’ve ever loved—Mickey Mouse, Popeye, Darth Vader, Betty Boop, SpongeBob, Superman, the Peanuts gang, the Beatles, Charlie McCarthy, Barbie, the Seven Dwarves, the Simpsons, the Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, Elvis, Wall-E, Freddy Krueger—and chances are good they’re represented here, somewhere among more than 80,000 toys, games and countless other promotional items. The scope of the collection is actually far greater than our lifetimes, ranging from the 1870s to the present. It represents the collections of not only founders Gloria and Herb Barker but also a large group of enthusiastic donors who wanted their treasures to find a home that would share them with the world.

Herb Barker (1929-2019), who established the brand enhancement business Barker Specialty Co. in 1951, was something of a visionary. In the early 1960s, long before anyone thought their kids’ PEZ dispensers or Disney wind-up toys might be historically or financially valuable, he tirelessly trolled tag and estate sales, picking up vintage items for pennies on the dollar. This quest began as a personal passion: As a child in a Depression-stricken family, he’d never had many toys. By the early ’90s, his collection had gotten so large that a horse barn he found in Cheshire, just off Route 10, seemed like the best place to store (and ultimately display) it. In 1994, he also relocated a new business—Barker Animation, reportedly the largest gallery of its kind in the world—to a neighboring building on the barn’s property. The museum opened to the public three years later.

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His first acquisition was an automaton (self-propelled toy) called The Zilotone Clown. Kids would wind the clown up, put a record in place behind him—one of six, each with a different tune—and watch him play his xylophone. Though a true rarity, this isn’t the oldest toy in the museum. That distinction belongs to a cast-iron elephant ramp-walker (the first one ever made, in 1873) produced by the Ives Company of Bridgeport, which only needs gravity and a smooth downward slope to work. Neither of these items is the most valuable or the rarest: Say hello, very nicely, to the 8-foot, 6-inch model of the Incredible Hulk, created as a lobby attraction upon the release of the 2008 movie The Incredible Hulk starring Edward Norton. Only 15 of the models were produced for theaters, with this one currently valued at $18,000.

As I toured the museum, I found many more superlatives—some factual, others more subjective—that can be attached to certain items and displays. The most dangerous toys I saw include a 1934 tube of Mickey Mouse toothpaste (the tube was made of lead and the paste was milk of magnesia-flavored); a Disney “casting set” (“Hey kids! Melt some lead ingots on Mom’s stove and pour the liquid into lead molds to make your own Disney characters!”); and an infamous PEZ shooter (a toy gun the company introduced in the 1950s only to see it removed from the market as a choking hazard—whereupon they rereleased it in the ’70s and ’80s with similar results). Honorable mention goes to a Red Ryder BB Gun—you know, the toy that nearly did take Ralphie’s eye out in A Christmas Story.

The most dizzying objects were a comprehensive collection of lunchboxes produced to cash in on every TV/movie/fictional character under the sun. Hanging over your head on the museum’s second floor is an alphabetically arranged assortment from A to Z, including two produced for fans of the 1970s and ’80s TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. The first design features stars Tom Wopat and John Schneider; the second substitutes the actors hired to replace them in 1982 after they walked out during a contract dispute, one big bone of contention being that they weren’t seeing any profit from the show’s endless merchandising.

The most over-the-top object—and the one I most coveted—was a Disney statement necklace made by the well-known jewelry company Napier, gold-plated with crystal pavé and a Mickey Mouse hat clasp, custom-made for Gloria Barker. It’s paired with her vintage “Mickey and Minnie” faux fur coat, produced in France to celebrate the 1992 opening of Euro Disney Theme Park in Paris. Many such coats were offered for sale by Disney Boutiques, but this one stands out due to its length and style.

As for Herb Barker, he apparently loved anything having to do with Popeye, as they were both born in January 1929. Plus, “Mr. Barker also sort of looked like Popeye,” general manager Karen St. Clair says. The most distinctive of these toys in the collection include “Popeye and the Mean Man”—turn a key and watch Popeye and Bluto do battle—and “Popeye Heavy Hitter,” from 1932, in which Popeye takes on a carnival high striker.

You might think that the Barker Museum would appeal mostly to nostalgic adults, but St. Clair finds that contemporary kids love it too. She’s seen more than a few little faces fall when parents buy a collectible from the site’s well-appointed gift shop (located in the Barker Animation gallery building), which sells some antiques that are museum duplicates. “The kids are told, ‘These are not the kind of toys you play with,’” she says. “That doesn’t go over well.” Fortunately for the young ones, there are plenty of hands-on options in the shop, including a new collection of Barbies celebrating the iconic doll’s blockbuster movie.

St. Clair estimates that it takes a good two hours to absorb everything the museum has to offer. I would double that. It seems to me you could tour the entire barn multiple times and still not see all its little gems. You’ll also want to take in the beautiful art gallery and explore the complex’s grounds, which are dotted with photo-op character cutouts, statues and murals honoring the likes of Blondie and Dagwood, the Jetson family and Po from Kung Fu Panda, to name a few. You can even fit in a 5-cent therapy session with Peanuts’s Lucy Van Pelt, though it’s likely the nostalgia and sheer spectacle of the museum are therapeutic enough.

Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum
1188 Highland Ave, Cheshire (map)
Wed-Sat 11am-5pm
(203) 272-2357

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1 photographed by Karen St. Clair. Images 2, 3 and 5 photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Image 4 photographed by Dan Mims.

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A former senior editor at Connecticut Magazine, Pat Grandjean is a cultural omnivore who loves everything from Beck and “Doc Martin” to Shakespeare and Quentin Tarantino. She currently spends much of her free time volunteering at the New Haven Animal Shelter and cleaning apartment closets.

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