When children’s television and theater writer Jeffrey Kindley was six years old, he became obsessed with Amahl and the Night Visitors, an opera that tells the story of a young boy who meets the three kings one winter night. “It was going to be televised as a holiday special,” Kindley recalled, speaking from his home on New York’s Upper West Side. But “unfortunately, we didn’t have a television”. His mother’s subscription to The Ladies’ Home Journal came to the rescue, with a toy theater version of the production. “I loved doing this theatre!” said Kindley.
A Disney cereal box design Peter Pan followed and he “learned that any shoebox could be turned into a proscenium”. His youthful enthusiasm blossomed into a career as a writer — and a passion for Broadway (“I’ve seen at least 2,000 plays,” he says). But Kindley has also stayed true to his first theatrical encounter, creating a collection of 130 paper theatres, 70 of which are on display throughout his apartment.
A 1920s Teatro de los Niños sold by Vectis for £220
A 1962 Remco Showboat theater set sold for £30 by Vectis in 2021
Kindley’s journey from passionate child to serious collector is not unique. Miniature theaters, constructed of cardboard or wood, exploded as an accessible form of home entertainment after World War II, and in recent decades, as the generation who played with them as children have become collectors, there was a wave of renewed enthusiasm.
A sale by toy auctioneers Vectis heralded their resurgence last year, as many auctioned playsets exceeded their sub-£100 estimates by the hundreds. The Strawberry Hill House gallery in Twickenham, built by Horace Walpole in 1749, followed suit this summer with an exhibition of 14 Gothic sets, including a staging by Walpole The castle of Otranto. July’s Masterpiece London art fair confirmed their popularity, with a large and opulent wooden example of writer Maria Curti Comerio’s 19th-century holiday mansion in Laino, Italy, featuring seven hand-painted sets, on sale at the Robertaebsta gallery for €60,000.
A vintage theater for sale at Benjamin Pollock’s Toysshop
A Hansel and Gretel theatre, £25, at Benjamin Pollock
Louise Heard, who runs specialist toy store Pollock in Covent Garden, places their current appeal in nostalgia for the days of analogue entertainment. “They’re magic,” she says from her shop. “Brightly colored squares that take you back to childhood, but also to a theatrical experience as a family.” Kindley, who keeps his collection of 70 papers for display purposes only, agrees: “wanting to preserve a moment is what it’s all about.”
Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Store pollock-coventgarden.co.uk
Pingel Rare Books pingelrarebooks.com
WHAT TO READ
A Penny Plain and Twopence color book by Robert Louis Stevenson (Pollock’s Toy Museum Trust, £17.50)
WHERE TO SEE
Pollock Toy Museum pollockstoymuseum.co.uk
Toy theaters first became popular in the 18th century, when they were sold as souvenirs after live theater performances. The printers “dropped” new theaters, settings and characters according to the productions presented – from Punch and Judy folk tale decorations, Aladdinand even a full staging of The Taming of the Shrew. “People could piece together what they had seen,” says Kathy Taylor, who heads Vectis’ TV and film department and organized last year’s flagship sale. “When they’re in a dark, candlelit room, they represent what it would have been like to visit a theater.” By the early 19th century, it had become “a complete craze – like Pokémon”, says Alan Powers, curator of the Strawberry Hill exhibit and collector himself.
In today’s market, British wooden folk art theaters and their continental counterparts could cost around £100, with prices rising for more technical stages. Spanish designs are worth seeking out, Heard says, often featuring multiple layers of backdrops and colored cellophane for immersive lighting effects. The Vectis sale featured an El Teatro de los Niños by prolific Barcelona maker Nualart, complete with props to play The repentant pirate (in Spanish) – including a sheet of miniature tickets – which cost £360 from an estimate of £100.
A Teatro de los Niños from the 1920s, auctioned by Vectis for £160 on an estimate of £80-£120
A c1890 theater sold for £150 by Vectis in 2021, with a cast of figures
A harder-to-find collection of 100 Oak Optical Theaters can be purchased from Pingel Rare Books in Paris. Dating back to 1750, the design allows viewers to peer through a circle on a board. Complete with accessories to create biblical scenes, boar hunts, whaling, carnivals and city views, they are priced at €49,000.
For paper decorations, “Benjamin Pollock’s Toysshop remains the not ultrasays Kindley, “but eBay sometimes has surprises.” Pollock’s current offerings include a colonnaded navy blue toy theater that was handmade in the 1930s with hand-drawn figures (POA).
Particularly sought-after backdrops or characters include romantic melodrama The miller and his men, which was originally performed at Covent Garden in 1813, says Powers. It was a favorite at the time because it “ends with an explosion”. An “indoor fireworks display” recreated the scene during home performances. (“It was all very dangerous and flammable,” he confirms.) Etsy seller Greenbanks Curiosities has an immaculate set for £150. For those less inclined towards pyrotechnics, Greenbanks is also selling Pollock’s candy-coloured 1910 edition of Sleeping Beauty (£175).
For some children who have played with such role models, their influence has been immeasurable. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ralph Fiennes developed their talents on miniature theaters, says Heard. And for some adults, like Pollock’s occasional patrons, Philip Pullman and Emma Thompson, the magic of toy theater still sets the stage for the imagination to run wild.