Collector gives view on toy's popularity

Farewell: An avid View-Master fan, Mary Ann Sell tells the reel deal about the plant's relocation to Mexico.

September 01, 2000|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

And then there was Etch-a-Sketch.

Later this year, Mattel Inc. announced this week, it will close the Oregon plant that has long produced the plastic stereoscopic viewer with the 3 1/2 -inch round picture reels known as the View-Master and move manufacturing to Mexico. That reportedly leaves Ohio Arts' Etch-A-Sketch as the last baby boomer mechanical toy still in production solely in this country.

The formerly high-tech toy, introduced to the public at the 1939-40 World's Fairs in New York and San Francisco, has captivated generations of children who peered through the lenses at three-dimensional images from around the world. The picture reels are still a standard gift-shop item in many tourist spots.

But the View-Master apparently is not quite as popular with youngsters as it was before electronic games started capturing the imagination and attention of young minds. However, the viewers and film reels have become a passion for adult collectors.

Freelance writer, historian and collector Mary Ann Sell has spent the last 18 years of her life collecting View-Masters and reels. The 48-year-old Cincinnati woman is president of the National Stereoscopic Association, whose members are 3-D enthusiasts.

According to an article written by Sell and her husband, Wolfgang, in Stereo World, there have been more than two dozen types of viewers produced. Film reels have covered prehistoric life to animals in our national parks to Bible heroes.

In an interview with The Sun, Sell, the co-author of "View-Master Memories," a history of View-Masters, said she laments the loss of jobs in this country, but believes View-Masters and their enthusiasts will continue going strong.

So what was the reaction to the news about the U.S. plant closing and View-Master manufacturing moving to Mexico?

A lot of people are upset. I got a lot of e-mails from people saying, "How could you do this!" I am a historian and a collector. I have nothing to do with the company! I am sorry that people have lost their jobs. That company felt like a family to people.

Did you and others see it coming?

In 1998, Mattel started moving things around. So, yes. Now the reel-making is going down there. That's why the plant is closing completely. By the way, I am in touch with the company and the same [type of] machine that made the reels back in the 1940s is the same machine [used] now.

Can you estimate just how many reels and View-Masters are out there?

There are billions and billions of reels and millions and millions of View-Masters. And, you know, the reels they made in 1939 still work in the View-Masters made today.

So what is the appeal for you?

I had them when I was a little girl. My mother used to take me to the library and, back then, you could check them out of the library. I was about 5 when I started. One summer, it felt like I traveled around the world. I really loved them.

When did you decide to collect them and how did you get started?

Over the years, I gave a lot of them to my nieces and nephews. Eighteen years ago, I decided to collect them -- and they gave them back! Now I have about 30,000 reels. The whole upstairs of my house is filled with them.

What are some of the most sought-after View-Master reels?

The movie preview reels, the commercial adventure reels, some scenic and TV show reels.

Do you think children still enjoy View-Masters today?

Yes, they still sell, although kids don't play with them as much. They have so many other toys that I didn't have. And their attention span doesn't seem as great. I don't have kids, I'm just observing.

So how many View-Master enthusiasts like you are there?

Well, there are 4,000 members of the National Stereoscopic Association internationally, and everybody has at least one View-Master.

Do you get together to swap collections and trivia, like the PEZ people or the "Star Trek" buffs?

We just had our annual convention last month in Mesa, Ariz. Our next convention will be in July 2001 in Buffalo, N.Y.

How can potential View-Master maniacs get more information about collecting?

They can e-mail me at vmmasell@cint.net. The National Stereoscopic Association can be reached at our Web site, www.stereoview.org.

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