This post originally appeared in The Magazine under the title Still Life With James T. Kirk, August 14, 2014.

It might be the earliest Christmas I can remember.

I don’t remember much about that year, but I had already figured out how some things worked. It was Florida, so there wasn’t snow and there were no chimneys. Santa clearly came in through a sliding glass door. As for the day itself, I know there were a fair number of toys, most of them forgotten. But the big gift…I can still see the box, wrapped in candy cane patterned paper, the last gift of the day.

It was the USS Enterprise bridge playset, along with several of the crew members, made by the Mego Toy Corporation. Based on the box design and the release dates, I would have been four and a half. I can still remember the first time and place I saw the set in a store: it was a Sears with an old-fashioned lunch counter. They had most of the crew, some of the aliens, and a sign for the bridge playset: “Coming soon.” I probably said something like, “I sure hope so,” but maybe not. My mother would have known either way.

The Mego U.S.S. Enterprise playset in action.

There is one other thing that sticks out from that morning. My grandmother didn’t want me to play with it or the action figures. It wasn’t because they were dolls, but because they were “Dolls.”

You see, I grew up in a doll museum.

One of the earliest ads for the museum. I’ve deleted the phone number in case it’s in use by someone else now…but I still remembered the number by heart all these decades later.

Welcome to the doll house…

This is the point where most people stop me and say, “You what?” Then come the questions, in no particular order. “What was it like? How many were there? Wasn’t it creepy? How could you stand all those eyes…staring…staring at you all the time…?”

The truth is, it never seemed odd to me. I didn’t know any other kind of life until I was about eight years old. Didn’t everyone live in a tourist attraction? As for the eyes — and that’s the one almost everyone mentions, all those eyes — it never bothered me. Because we lived next to the museum building itself, we didn’t have traditional neighbors or a neighborhood to hang around. The dolls were my playmates whether I physically played with them or just imagined stories about them. It’s probably one of the reasons I became a writer.

This is the point where people wonder when I’m going to write a Neil Gaiman-type story.

A featured story about the opening from the Lakeland Ledger

When my grandparents retired — he was career Army, she was a primary school teacher — they had accumulated several thousand dolls. So they moved to Florida and opened Brown’s Dolls of Dundee, situated on US 27 twenty minutes south of Orlando. The museum and I both came into existence within a few months of Walt Disney World. My mother and I lived with my grandparents and helped run the museum.

Opening day, and yes, that little kid is me.

Our neighbor to the left was a gas station and fruit stand. To the right, there was the Western Gentlemen clothing store–now part of the Eli’s Western Wear chain–and the USA of Yesterday Farm Equipment Museum. Across the four-lane highway sat a refrigerated-trucking company.

Amazing what one can find online. I remember this brochure as if it were yesterday. We had stacks of them in our gift shop.
They also had an old-fashioned and primitive playground merry-go-round with small horse shapes suspended from arms by wires that flew out a little sideways when it was spun. It had to be spun by hand, and when I was very little, maybe 2 or so, my grandmother insisted I try riding. Naturally, I flew right off and landed in the grass. Didn’t like merry-go-rounds for years after that. But that’s another story entirely.

As private collectors, my grandparents had focused on specific eras and doll makers, like Jumeau, Kesner, Simon & Halbig. Once they decided to open a museum, the collection broadened out to cover as many different eras as possible under one roof. That extended to true antiques — the oldest doll in the collection was over 500 years old — all the way up to then-current dolls and collectibles.

A view of one section of the contemporary and pop culture doll area. You can see Batman, Sonny and Cher, Planet of the Apes, Bozo and more.

This is where my grandmother wanted the Enterprise to dock.

Brown’s Dolls of Dundee. The main building was the museum, and the building with the signage was our house. My grandparents’ and my mother’s bedrooms are on the other side of the sign.

Scotty, beam me out

Even though the Enterprise and her crew were meant as Christmas gifts for the four-year-old, in my grandmother’s mind they were also meant for the museum. Fun to play with for the day, fun to check everything out, but then we’ll put them over in the museum in the celebrity collectibles exhibit with all the Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin dolls, the Mego Wizard of Oz set, the Howdy Doody ventriloquist dummy, and so on. Luckily for me, my mother put her foot down, else Kirk and Spock might have ended up a display piece like Roddy MacDowell in the Twilight Zone.

It was a lovely set, too. They had gotten four of the crew: Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Uhura, all with phasers and tricorders and such. There was a helm, a captain’s chair, two stools for helmsmen, and stickers to decorate them all. To one side was a transporter device, really just a spinning chamber in which you could place Kirk and others. Press the red button and the transporter spun, then stopped on an empty chamber; press the green, and it spun, stopped, and revealed the crew again. Low tech, but clever. The whole set folded up into an easy carrying case.

The set had two hooks and came with three double-sided cards, which allowed you to have six possible viewscreen images — some inspired by actual episodes, while others hinted at new stories, new civilizations. They were also abstract enough to allow you to ignore the actual episode stories: maybe some other entity grasped the Enterprise in a giant green hand sometimes…

A view of some of the dolls as you entered the first section of the museum. This is just a tiny selection of them, there were thousands. Seriously.

These were the voyages

The museum closed for good in 1979; the doll collection broken up and sold slowly over the years since then. The museum building is still there, but it’s become an RV dealership. The house was demolished, paved over to make room for motorhomes. I check Google Street View every now and then, surprised at how much — and how little — has changed along there.

I still have the Enterprise, though it’s not in mint condition. The captain’s chair and the helm remain, but the stickers have peeled off. The figures all still have their uniforms, but not all have insignias — those were stickers glued to the fabric. The various mobile devices and weapons are long gone, as are Uhura’s go-go boots. And there’s only one of the viewscreen cards left. I suppose it’s still valuable as is, but I don’t want to sell.

Best of all, I still have all the memories of making up stories, taking them on adventures, boldly going where no dolls had gone before.

Does anyone know where I could find a Scotty?