By William Stillman
I once told Ted Hake that going to see him was like a visit with Santa Claus and the Wizard of Oz combined! Indeed, anyone lucky enough to have whispered "open sesame" and found themselves at the threshold of this magician's inner sanctum can readily attest - with childish awe - to the embarrassment of riches contained therein. Christmas reigns year round in this treasure trove of artifacts from generations past thanks to a kindly benefactor who is possessed of a spark in his eye, an infectious grin for each toy in his bounty - not unlike St. Nick himself!
The rest of the "real" world knows Ted Hake as a 50ish collector, author and owner of Hake's Americana & Collectibles for the past thirty years, long established as the premier collectible mail-and-phone-bid auction house, this York Pennsylvania-based firm has built its foundation on Ted's reputation as honest and trustworthy, as Jonell Hake, his lovely wife of twenty three years, heartily endorses: "People can count on Ted to do what he says and to stand by the thousands of satisfied customers who have thrilled at finally "finding that elusive childhood plaything". As an auctioneer of over 15,000 such items a year, Hake views himself as a "middleman of memories." Some items trigger such strong emotional responses that personal memories are the reason why many people collect popular culture memorabilia - a nostalgia Ted knows himself.
Typical of those indelibly etched childhood recollections, Hake remembers the "great warm glow" which emanated from his Hopalong Cassidy bedroom lamp " making one feel very secure in the dark." (In homage of his Hoppy lamp, he still retains a penchant for character night lights). "One of my most vivid memories was coming down the steps and seeing a Joe Palooka (inflated figural) punching bag propped up next to the Christmas tree. That was probably about 1948 when I was five or something, so the thing was as big as I was!" recalls Ted.
Similar memorabilia is offered for sale five times a year in Hake's meticulously described, photo-illustrated auctions catalogues. Each 3000-item book provides subscribers with several generations worth of cultural icons; the hundreds collectible catagories span an eclectic range ("Fantasy Adventure" is the most recent entry). Treasures, like Cracker Jack prizes, radio premiums and tin wind-up toys, comic character doll, cowboy toohtbrush holders, and a healthy gamut of Disneyana, find their way into the eager hands of winning bidders around the globe.
This fabulous wealth of offerings wasn't always the case however. In 1965, while still a college student, Ted began to issue carbon-copy sales list consisting of political pin-back buttons. Customer response to the lists were beyond his expectations. With many potential buyers scattered across the country, some people were disappointed to learn that specific items of interest had been sold a day or two earlier.
Inspired by a concept initiated by George Rinsland's Americana Mail Auctions in the early 1960's, Hake resolved to conduct his sales in an auction format. [Then (as now), upon receipt of their catalogs, customers could submit their bids by mail and later raise those bids by telephone on the auction closing day.] This practice proved both fair and successful.
Throughout the late 1960's, Hake gradually added a number of "special interest" categories to his lists which had previously been limited to buttons. New additions included radio premiums, toys and comic character merchandise. By the fourth auction, the items were photo-illustrated - a clever strategy based on the theory that people would be more inclined to buy what they could see. "Talk about crude," Ted remembers. "I shot them (the auction items) out on the roof of my apartment. I had no lights! I had a camera that probably wouldn't focus down any closer than two feet. I'd photograph at four in the afternoon so that all of the shadows would shoot off to one side!"
Any short comings were over looked as business boomed in the midst of a nationwide wave of nostalgia for the collectibles of yesteryear. So encouraging was the response, that by 1971 he decided to devote his full-time attention to developing Hake's Americana & Collectibles, with particular emphasis on "trying to cultivate collectors over the years" - a unique perspective at the time.
In the intervening years, prior to the move into professional offices, the business operated out of the Hake household. Today, Jonell Hake laughingly reminisces about having to schedule wash days around photo sessions in the family laundry room. With the help of Jonell and a small, close-knit staff- Deak Stagemeyer, Joan Carbaugh, Russ King, Alex Winter, Jeff Robison, Vonnie Burkins and Charlie Roberts- Ted Hake has since built an empire of dreams which caters to the longing in every adult to recapture the simple fun and enjoyment derived from a long-lost plaything-or a plaything once coveted (like the Dick Tracy Tommy Gun owned by an older boy which Ted envied as a youngster).
Though nationally renowned for his business, his steady succession of highly-regarded collector's handbooks and his versatile expertise on a number of collectibles topics, Ted's kind and humble manner belies his impressive credentials. His complete comprehension of the passion and drive felt by many collectors is the key to his longevity. As a collector himself, he can delight in sharing those feelings of excitement and sentimentality. And that is why Ted Hake will continue to remain the captain of secret treasure....purveyor of childhood daydreams...king of collectibles!
About the Author: Williams Stillman is co-author of 1989's best selling The Wizard of Oz: The official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History (Warner Books) and The Wizard of Oz Collector's Treasury (Schiffer Publishing Ltd.) his Oz Collectible article, with Jay Scarone, appeared in the July/August 1992 issue of The Inside COLLECTOR., 225 Main St., Suite 300, North Port, NY, 11768.