Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sam Cobra, Johhny West and the Circle X Ranch

I have a new obsession.

And his name is Sam Cobra.

A couple of months ago I was talking toys with a friend who was telling me about the toys he and his brother grew up with in the 1960s. He mentioned various 12 inch GI Joe toys I was familiar with but then mentioned some all-plastic Cowboy figures about the same size. I was intrigued, I had never heard of these toys before.

I vaguely remember seeing something similar in the Gene Autry Museum, but had never come across large plastic cowboys in collecting circles.

After my friend did some poking around online, and a few clicks myself I found myself face to face with the Outlaw Sam Cobra, part of the Best of the West or Johnny West action figure lines created in 1964 by Louis Marx & Co. to compete with GI Joe.

These figures are fantastic and forgotten gems of toy collecting. I wasn’t as found of the good guys as Sam Cobra, but seeing them I felt as if someone had just opened a time-capsule in front of me.

The next step, of course, was to check EBAY, to see if my obsession to add Sam Cobra to my collection was a realistic endeavor or just a toy collecting pipe-dream.

And surprisingly, probably due to their obscurity, these toys are very affordable for action figures made over 30 years ago.

So I tracked down a Sam Cobra, bid… and lost.

But that’s okay, I found another one that seemed to be in good condition, bid and won!

I did it!

I captured the notorious outlaw… but what about his weapons and accessories?

One of the most amazing things about this figure besides its fantastic sculpting and articulation (seriously, a better articulated figure than many figures made today) is the amount of awesome accessories the figure comes with.

Three different pistols, two rifles, a safe, safe cracking tools, a cane with a blade in it, a sleeve dagger, a knife… Tons of stuff!

All missing.

Now I’m not a freak about these things, the figure doesn’t have to be absolutely complete for me to enjoy, but I would like him to have a few tricks up his sleeve when he comes across Johnny West or Sheriff Garrett. So I set out on a new quest, to search EBAY for loose Sam Cobra accessories.

Which led me to a knew discovery… The Circle X Ranch.

The Circle X Ranch is a modern day supplier and store for all things Marx & Co. Johnny West style.

I not only found on their EBAY store, but their official website that these folks aren’t only making reproduction accessories for the old west figures, they are also making new figures, new bodies, heads, and weapons for customizing or restoration.

The Circle X Ranch is at the center of a modern Johnny West collecting community.

A toy-collecting world I knew nothing about but am becoming quickly interested in joining.

In the process of ordering the parts needed to make Sam Cobra complete I met up with Noah Coop and his wife Terri, the folks behind the Circle X Ranch.

Fascinated with the amount of figures and accessories Circle X makes available, and very pleased with the quality of the merchandise, I thought I’d chat with Noah and Teri (who met thanks to Johnny West… that’s right fellow toy geeks, take note: you can meet women through your toy collecting!) to find out more about their operation and these awesome collectibles.

When did you first get interested in Johnny West? Did you play with them as a child, or discover them later in life? Whats your earliest memory of Johnny West?

Noah: Terri and I both played with Johnny West figures as children. My earliest memories are shopping for Johnny West with my Grandmother at Montgomery Wards, and playing with them in the sandbox at her house.

Noah and Terri, the folks behind the Circle X Ranch

Are you an old west enthusiast?

Six years ago we moved to a town built around a restored Civil War fort (Fort Scott in Fort Scott Kansas), so, yes, we definitely enjoy the Old West! However, toys are our passion, and Johnny West our obsession.

Do you collect any other toys besides Johnny West?

We collect all types of toys but our primary interest has always been action figures. Terri describes us as "magpies" and we even have a taxidermy magpie in our collection! We tend to add anything that catches our eye to our collection. I describe the majority of it, as our "revolving collection". We love to set up at toy shows so we can sell some of our extras, and buy new. Some things will never be for sale, and will always be favorites in our collection. Others we refer to as our "tomb guardians". These are the ones that appealed to us at the time, but have never appealed to anyone else! (laughs)

What’s one of the favorite pieces in your collection?

The prototype Jesse James figure is the favorite in our collection. There are only about a half-dozen known to exist. This figure was scheduled for release in 1966 but the TV series "The Legend of Jesse James" staring Christopher Jones was canceled just as the molds were completed. The figure was never mass produced. Instead the body was used on other characters, and the head was re-sculpted to create Zeb Zachary.

Shortly after we got the prototype figure, we produced new molds so we could share him with other collectors. He was the first figure we manufactured, and continues to be popular among Johnny West collectors as well as Old West enthusiasts . A curator of the Jesse James museum in Kearney, Kansas purchased a Jesse figure from us at the Kane County Chicago Toy Show to add to their display.

What gave you the idea to start manufacturing an armory and custom figures in the Johnny West style?

I began collecting Johnny West figures again in 1989. I was selling collectibles in an antique mall, and came across a MIB General Custer in another dealer's booth. I was overwhelmed by long forgotten childhood memories, and compelled to buy him immediately.

There was little information available about Johnny West series action figures at the time. I wanted them all, but could find no reference material that pictured them all. I found myself dreaming about characters that I recalled from my childhood, as well as others that were never created.

In my research, I came across a Toy Shop magazine, and quickly submitted a "Wanted to Buy" advertisement. Within a few months, I had purchased several collections, with the idea that I would keep the ones I needed for my collection, and sell the rest.

One of the collections I purchased contained over 100 figures, but most were Johnny West, Geronimo, and Jane. This purchase brought the number of figures I had in stock to just over 400. I realized that this would be the perfect opportunity to create some of the characters I had been dreaming about.

In 1993 I began selling the characters I created, and vintage Marx figures as well, through Toy Shop and at toy shows. In doing so, I developed a network of friends, and customers, which led to a monthly direct mailing list of items I had for sale.

In 1997 a friend encouraged me to begin selling my work on eBay, and offered to introduce me to a friend of his who was experienced with posting auctions there.

He brought her to a toy show in Tulsa that I was set up at, and it was love at first sight. That person was of course, Terri. It turned out we shared a passion for Johnny West figures and she has been instrumental in helping to build a company devoted to manufacturing products for the hobby.

Did you come from a background in a type of manufacturing that gave you an understanding on how to make these items, or did you learn as you went along?

I was a printer for several years, then became a journeyman stonecarver and owned a lettering service and monument company for about 20 years. I was able to apply some of the knowledge I had obtained in these fields, but much of what we do now, was learned along the way.

What's it like to be such an active member of this community? Have there ever been conventions, meet ups, gatherings?

We have met some of the most wonderful and caring people in the world through the Circle X Ranch group. We have friends in every state and many different countries. We've found that the vast majority of people who collect Johnny West figures have an outstanding value system. Most loved Western movies and TV shows as children, and had an affinity with the "Good Guy". They wanted to be the good guy then, and continue to strive to be in their adult lives. Our group is as close as many families. We share our wins, and our losses, and offer encouragement and support. It's the best experience of my life, and it's our privilege and joy to share that with others.

We have had many gatherings in conjunction with toy shows throughout the US and Canada. We call these group get togethers, JohnnyCons, and try to have at least 4 per year. The largest is held at the annual Marx Convention in Wheeling West Virginia each June at the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum. During the event, there is an evening sale at the Official Marx Toy Museum in Glen Dale, West Virginia. We look forward to this gathering with great anticipation, throughout the year.

Whats your advice to a new collector of Johnny West or Circle X Ranch?

My advice to any collector is to buy what you like, in the condition that most appeals to you. Terri and I prefer vintage items that appear to be vintage. To us, they show the time they were enjoyed by others, and it's clear to anyone who sees them that the item is vintage. Others prefer mint in mint box, and others still prefer no box at all.

So, first identify what you want your collection to look like, then buy what fits that description when you see it.

What are your future goals for Circle X Ranch?

We plan to remake and reissue all of the characters from the original Johnny West series, and create new ones as well.

Our goal is to share the joy of the hobby with as many people as we can.