Toys in the Attic

There's something for the kid in all of us at the Austin Toy Museum


Photos by John Anderson

What's that old saying about having the most toys? If it's true, then the Austin Toy Museum is the ultimate victory.

The trigger for any museum is usually a private, donated collection, and at the heart of the Austin Toy Museum is Caleb Zammit's massive private stash of toys and collectibles. An autism specialist with Austin ISD, the collecting bug bit him in 2000. He started with Star Wars, then Transformers, and now his array of 20,000 figures, stuffed critters, games, rarities, designs, and prototypes, plus loans and donations from other collectors, has finally spilled out of his house and into a permanent home. That said, there's much more to come. "This is about one-twentieth of the collection," said Zammit.

It keeps growing. Days before the soft opening in March, someone gave over their collection of Playmates World of Springfield Simpsons playsets and figures. "Most of this stuff is from eBay," Zammit said, "but some of our stuff has been rescued from trash cans." One of those rescues is Teddy Ruxpin, the singing, storytelling bear. Cleaned up, wiring restored, he now sits by an equally well-loved Grubby, his caterpillar friend. After years in cupboards and a trip out on the street, they're back doing what they should: entertaining kids.


At the collection's new permanent home on Cesar Chavez, Zammit fires up a one-of-a-kind rarity: a prototype of the unreleased Alien vs. Predator for the Atari Lynx. It's a little glitchy. He said, "You'll be playing through it, and the Predator will disappear, and he's not trying to go invisible. Or he's walking through walls."

Building a museum like this is a never-ending hunt, and it's not just about finding individual toys. Take the centerpiece of the G.I. Joe display, the USS Flagg. Over seven feet long, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is the biggest toy set ever built, and it took Zammit years to piece together a museum-quality version, including finding a Canadian firm to provide replacement decals and stickers. He said, "It's all about finding the best example that you can, and trying to find all the pieces that you can."

It's been an equally long search for a permanent location. Three years ago, Zammit and his team started looking for donors and a site. An unsuccessful Kickstarter in 2014 could have derailed the plans, but it opened a lot of doors. Zammit said, "After the Kickstarter was finished with, we did displays in a bunch of places, like Dell Children's Hospital and the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Lots of people called us and said, 'Hey, where are you?'"


Last October, they finally found their Cesar Chavez site and called on friends and volunteers to help build it out. Zammit said, "If you say 'You can play with toys,' people show up."

Together, they built a permanent home for these plastic and fur artifacts of pop culture. Now Transformers: Generation One robots rub jointed shoulders with Care Bears, Kewpie Dolls, Masters of the Universe, and DC's Super Powers Collection. Then there are massive custom dioramas, hand-built by Zammit and his team: like the battle of Hoth from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, with the massive Kenner Imperial Walkers looming over the Rebellion's forces, with red plastic blaster bolts erupting puffs of cotton wool snow. "We also have a couple of add-ons, like Tatooine and Endor," said Zammit, which will be built as space allows. And, for those mint-in-box purists, there's a whole wall of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles figures, still on the cards, gazing out from their plastic bubbles.

But what use is a toy if you can't play with it? Since day one, Zammit has always planned a hands-on component for the museum. There are arcade video games, a special play area, and a Hot Wheels setup, so kids and big kids can race. There's even a button to make Teddy Ruxpin and Grubby sing. Zammit said, "Because when I go to a museum, I want to press buttons."


Austin Toy Museum, 1108 E. Cesar Chavez, Wed.-Sun., 11am-7pm. Grand opening party, sponsored by Hero Con, Saturday, April 16, 10am-7pm. Tickets and info at www.austintoymuseum.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Toy Museum, Caleb Zammit

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