SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Tearle Ashby gets to relive the joy of his childhood Christmas mornings over and over again — only this time he knows to keep the boxes.
“I like to present myself as a mid-level collector, but I’m actually pretty heavy-duty,” said Ashby, who has spent the last two decades re-acquiring the G.I. Joe action figures he had as a child — and a whole lot more.
Ashby, who lives in Ballston Spa, shares highlights of his immense collection of G.I. Joes — both vintage and recent issues — in “Toys and Tanks: The Model Army,” a current exhibit at the New York State Military Museum. The installation also features military model dioramas of New York National Guard units that fought in World War II, which were researched and created by retired Lt. Col. Paul Fanning.
On Saturday, Ashby was as busy as an elf at Santa’s workshop turning a portion of the museum into a wonderland for boys who came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s.
G.I. Joe first hit the market in 1964, and the Hasbro “action figure” (collectors never refer to the “boy toy” as a doll) revolutionized the industry.
“It paved the way for thousands and thousands of different action figures,” Ashby said.
The 12-inch “movable fighting man” remained popular for more than a decade and continued to evolve with new models and features, including pull-string talkers. After 3-3/4-inch “Star Wars” figures took over the market, Hasbro discontinued the larger G.I. Joes in 1976. In 1982, they relaunched the line, mimicking the 3-3/4-inch scale.
Ashby’s collection focuses on the foot-tall figures that were produced between 1964 and ’76, as well as special collectors’ models that have been released in recent years by Hasbro and other manufacturers.
“I’m missing two minor pieces from between 1964 and ’74,” he said.
He began collecting in 1993 when an impulse purchase at a department store of a reproduction G.I. Joe wearing a dress Marine uniform got him reminiscing about the playthings of his youth.
Although Ashby owned a number of G.I. Joes through his childhood, most of the originals didn’t survive.
“I have one guy — the 1970 ‘Land Adventurer’ — but I had to buy a box,” he said with a laugh.
In 20 years, his collection, which is only partially on display at the museum, far outnumbers anything he could have amassed as a kid.
A display case in the front of the exhibit showcases G.I. Joes from the 1960s and 70s, along with original boxes Ashby has purchased through years of collecting.
More elaborate figures, many of them produced for the thousands of G.I. Joe collectors worldwide, offer a rare glimpse at military uniforms and equipment in miniature form.
Some of the installations present the figures in scenes, including a medic’s tent and a World War II tableau featuring a G.I. Joe with a replica of Tom Hanks’ head, a prototype that was made for a proposed “Saving Private Ryan” line.
“This is great. I get to display stuff. A lot of these guys are coming out of the boxes for the first time,” Ashby said, carefully removing a pilot from a pristine package.
Museum visitors even can watch vintage Hasbro commercials on a TV screen from the heyday of Joe’s popularity.
Ashby displayed part of his collection at the museum several years ago, and he said the response was overwhelming. Conversations with other museum patrons about the figures made him realize the role G.I. Joe played in American culture.
“Guys were walking around looking at everything, and then they would come over and talk to me. They would always tell me, ‘I had this’ – or ‘I had this,’” he said.
Ashby, who works as a therapist with kids, wonders if the current generation of children isn’t missing out on something.
“Kids today are immersed in electronics and technology,” he said. “I think it hinders creative play, which is linked to creative coping and problem-solving.”