Telling Stories through Toys: A Conversation with Collector and Filmmaker Brian Levant

The Collector and the Collection

Brian Levant is a super star film and TV writer, producer, and director. Regardless of whether or not you’ve heard of him, you’re probably familiar with his work, which includes titles like “The Flintstones” live action movie that was released in theaters in 1994, the beloved “Beethoven” and “Jingle All the Way” which has become a Christmas cult classic. But at WAX, as collectors, what impresses us more than his IMDb profile is his immense toy collection, the product of a habit that originates from the same influences as his career.

“I was a TV junkie, truly, my nursery school teacher said I was going to be a TV impresario like Sol Hurok…that’s pretty weird for a four year old but I was a child of the first generation of TV, I was marinated in the stuff and by the time I was eight I was submitting jokes to local kids shows. I was writing skits for cub scouts and the talent paper, I was making movies when I was ten. I was that guy in the 60s with the Super 8 camera.”

Like most children do, Levant started collecting toys from a very young age, “I was a big toy guy” he says, “In every childhood picture I’m holding Bozo or I’m holding Morgan which is a droopy dog doll, I even have one now. I also have my Pluto clock that sat on your dresser and the hands were bones that glow in the dark, and I also have my Robert the Robot that was under a Christmas tree in 1956.”

But unlike most kids that grow out of their toy collecting habit when they become teenagers, Levant circled back and his collecting got more serious in adulthood.

“My last year of college when my then girlfriend, now wife, and I moved in together we began to acquire a lot more. And one thing she brought was a really nice old plaster pair of salt and pepper shakers that a friend who was working on Andy Warhol’s auction gifted her. That inspired us. We would go to the state fairgrounds on Sunday for the big flea market — back in those days we had no money — but salt and pepper shakers were a quarter and pretty soon we were building a shelf and we had 100 pairs of salt and pepper shakers. One of those pairs happened to be a Mr. Peanut set, and I started to see and collect more Mr. Peanut, and Mr. Peanut led to Mickey Mouse, and Mickey Mouse led to Popeye…and then I started working on shows and movies that had long histories and massive amounts of merchandising and toys, board games, figures, lunch boxes, vehicles, and so collecting became as much about the influences from the things I was doing in my career as the pop culture that spawned the rest of my collecting.”

An assortment of vintage toys from the collection. Photo by Joe Pellegrini.

Fast forward about 45 years and Levant’s collection is practically causing the walls of his Southern California home to buckle. He has amassed a collection of an astounding seven or eight thousand pieces, too many to count.

“I’m not going to live in a place this size for the rest of my life, and there is never going to be room for all this again, even last night my wife looked at me and jokingly said, “I want to sell everything.” It would be great to give it to a children’s museum but the collection has gotten so big over the years that for a children’s museum to house the collection someone would have to underwrite the building of a building to put it in, which is beyond my pay-grade.”

The Book

While he is unsure about what the future holds for his collection, Levant has his focus set elsewhere. “I’m just trying to keep it together long enough to get this book out,” said Levant.

“Well for the last 10 years I’ve had a part time job. People always told me I should do a book, and when I would look around I realized there were so few books that actually completely chronicled someone’s collection.”

Levant’s book, “My Life and Toys,” is close to completion but it has been a very long journey to get the book to where it is now, a ten year long journey in fact. His brother-in-law, Joe Pellegrini, who lives in Chicago is Levant’s collaborator and has shot all the imagery for the book.

An outtake from “My Life and Toys.” Photo by Joe Pellegrini.

“Whenever I go to Chicago I bring a box of toys and we will spend a day feverishly cleaning and shooting. So you can imagine that it has taken a long time, but I think the other thing that has taken a long time for me is the writing that accompanies the hundreds of photos in the book, interestingly enough, over all these years I’ve never written in my own voice because I’ve always written for characters. It took me a long time to find out who I was on paper and to give people a look at the back stage of my career.”

The TV and film triple threat is an incredible story teller, and from what we have seen so far, the images in the book are stunning, so we are more than eager to get our hands on a copy when it comes out — which will most likely be in June 2021.

“Im hopeful that people will find it and enjoy it, and I hope younger collectors will pick it up and discover some of the things from when their parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents were kids that bring them the same satisfaction as a Kaws figure”

We know you aren’t usually supposed to judge a book by its cover, but after a preview of the book’s contents we think it’s safe to say with this one you can…P.S. The cover is incredible.

Cover of “My Life and Toys”

“We designed and produced the cover together, that alone took days and days. Every person is an exact look alike to the person on the cover of the Beatles 1968 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For instance in the front of The Beatles there’s a bust of Aubrey Beardsley, the english deco artist of the early 20th century, who had a long face and flat head so for him we substituted my Herman Munster cookie jar. And then there is Johnny Weissmuller, for him we put in Hulk Hogan and posed him and lit him in the exact same way. Instead of Marlon Brando we have Popeye wearing the same kind of hat and so on.”

The Drive

All collectors have different priorities with their collectibles and have different intentions when acquiring new pieces. Levant is a romantic collector, he prioritizes the sentiment and history behind a piece before anything else. “My collection has nothing to do with business. In a lot of ways I’m painting with toys and collectibles, and telling stories, so it’s really all about displays for me,” said Levant.

Speculative value isn’t a thought that crosses his mind and oftentimes he prefers pieces to be in less than perfect condition.

“I love something that looks like it was loved and cherished, and a lot of my stuff is, there is nothing I love more than a beat up old Superman figure where you know there was a little boy sitting in his room with Superman in one hand and Luther in the other and that cheap decal on his chest has worn off, and he’s been stuffed in a drawer for 6 years and eventually ends up at a garage sale to be picked over by someone and eventually finds its way to me. There’s a charm to that, and in my mind that is what makes each item unique.”

A collage of Levant’s Superman memorabilia.

Collecting in the Modern Era

The world has changed a lot since Levant started collecting. Most of his collection comes from a time when you actually had to go hunt objects down or hope to stumble across hidden gems in an antique store or flea market.

A stack of vintage lunchboxes from Levant’s collection.

“In LA twice a year there is the American Collector’s show at the Glendale civic auditorium that started in 1975. It has people from all over the country bringing their best stuff. It was a toy and pop culture junkie Nirvana, I mean you’ve never seen stuff like this and not all in one place and way back when that almost seemed too easy. But now what the internet has done is turned toy collecting into hunting buffalo. Before you would be in the mildewy basement of an antique shop in Wisconsin and and come across a 1959 The Creature of the Black Lagoon Pez dispenser for 5 dollars and it was like fighting through a thick jungle with a machete and finding something in the bottom of a drawer, and that kind of delight and surprise is gone.”

To put this into perspective, Levant shows us a prized Dino toy from his Flintstone collection and lets us know that when he came across it, “finding one in its condition in the box was unheard of and you used to have to search forever and ever to find one, but now you can Google and find six of them.”

To Levant, some of the soul has been taken out of toy collecting, but he also acknowledges and appreciates the fact that the age of online marketplaces and auctions has further democratized toy collecting and has inspired people who otherwise may not have to share his passion.

The Toy of a Century

Being the toy expert that he is, with a collection so vast, we were curious to know if there is a toy that Levant thinks is the cornerstone of American toy history — he didn’t hesitate to answer.

“I would say the 1933 Ingersoll Mickey Mouse Watch, although there had been other characters in comic timepieces before then, it was a beautiful piece of work with gorgeous packaging, a die cut metal band, mickey’s hands as the hands of the watch, and it counted out the seconds with a little circular thing at the bottom with Mickey running around in circles. It was brilliantly marketed and executed, in the middle of the depression it was $2.95 (almost $60 when adjusted for inflation) and people would pay for it to make their kid happy.”

1933 Ingersoll Mickey Mouse Watch - source

The Mickey Mouse Watch was and is an incredible piece of Americana. It is also special to Levant at a personal level, in a way that comes with mixed emotions. To Levant, “putting a watch on officially makes you a slave to time which is an unfortunate part of growing up,” but for him the tradeoff was being able to know when his favorite TV shows were on.

Closest to Home

When it comes to Levant’s collection, what he cherishes most is his Flintstones collection, and for good reason. The Flintstones was a major moment in his career and was a subject that was close to home.

“My oldest kid was 12 at the time that it came out. You talk about the things that bring your youth to you, and in my house it was about the shows and movies that extended beyond the screen and into our home.”

Flintstones bowling set. Photo by Joe Pellegrini.

Levant reminds us that what we collect symbolizes ourselves and the world we choose to surround ourselves with. Through collecting, “I’ve been able to funnel my passions into single sources and like I said to be surrounded by the influences I had like the TV shows that I grew up with” said Levant, “it’s a mural of the last almost seventy years of American life and our fixation, friends, and where we are as a society.”

Don’t forget to keep an eye out for “My Life and Toys” in June 2021 to see Levant’s extensive Flintstones collection and other beautifully composed assortments of toys.

WAX is on a mission to cultivate a community of collectors and to make insuring your valuables easier.

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