Tuesday, 05 March 2024

New lunchbox museum captures spirit, color of childhood

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The Clarkes' museum includes a carnival display that, with a few coins, springs into motion. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 

 


NICE – Behind the brightly painted blue door of a former firehouse along Highway 20 is a new and unexpected attraction: A lunchbox museum and collector's emporium.


Step into the newly opened Clarke's Collectibles and Lunchbox Museum and you'll be greeted by Debbie Clarke, a smiling and energetic woman whose enthusiasm for the wonderful stuff of childhood has coalesced into a colorful and magical new shop.


She and husband Duane transformed the former Nice Firehouse into a shop and museum that is part carnival, part walk down memory lane. It features more than 100,000 collectible items for sale, including dolls, television and movie memorabilia, and toys.


For the last 24 years, Clarke has collected lunchboxes, beginning with the first one that she and husband, Duane, purchased together at a flea market in 1985. It was a lunchboxes featuring teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman that is now nestled amidst the hundreds of other reminders of trips to the school cafeteria.


She has 700 lunchboxes in all, most of which line the walls. Extras are for sale.


Look closely and you're likely to see the lunchbox you carried to school as a child – this reporter did.


One of Clarke's treasures is a Beatles lunchbox she picked up at a small junk store in Clearlake a few years back for 25 cents. During the peak buying season at Christmas, Clarke has seen the same lunchbox go for as much as $1,000.

 

 

 

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Debbie and Duane Clarke's lunchbox collection includes several depicting favorite western television shows of the 1950s and 1960s. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 

 


When eBay came along, Clarke's collecting went to another level. “Then it got really crazy,” she said, noting she bought about 250 lunchboxes on eBay alone.


Clarke joined eBay's passionate collectors team in 2005 and was featured in a short eBay film in Chicago in 2008. She's also been the subject of many articles, with the shop's opening now gaining more attention around the region.


Clarke said she's fascinated by the social history that's portrayed on the lunchboxes. As an example, she's noticed that boxes produced during the Vietnam War seemed to have more of a pro-military theme.


She' especially fond of the TV show-related lunchboxes, which feature every genre – from Roy Rogers and “Gunsmoke” to “Kung Fu,” “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “Nancy Drew.” Plus there are plenty of Disney and Star Wars boxes.


Then there is the collection of Ponytail boxes. Ponytails, popular from the 1950s to 1980s, were cardboard coated with vinyl in which little girls stored their dolls. Because the cardboard can be easily ruined, it's hard to find them in good condition.


Clarke also has vinyl lunchboxes that, like the Ponytails, are extremely rare because they were easily ruined.


“These are the rarest kind you can get and they cost a lot more,” she said, pointing to a display of the vinyl lunchboxes.

 

 

 

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In addition to the lunchbox collection that's part of the museum, numerous lunchboxes also are offered for sale. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 

 


These and numerous other items for sale not just at the shop by on Clarke's eBay page.


Then there is the carnival theme, with a display at the back of the store.


A friend of Clarke's worked at Sonoma County's Recycletown, and happened to be there one day when a man came in, bringing with him animatronics that his father had built for Playland by the Sea in San Francisco.


The man intended to rip out the metal innards of the robotic characters to put them in the recycle bin, but Clarke's friend intervened and they were saved.


One of the characters, an animated bear with a hot dog cart, now resides at the back of the store, next to a giant Laughing Sally which the Clarkes acquired from artist Poe Desmuke, who also did a large carnival themed painting on the shop's ceiling.

 

 

 

 

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This animatronic bear from San Francisco's Playland by the Sea was headed for the trash heap at Sonoma County's dump when a friend of Debbie Clarke's rescued him. He now makes his home in the carnival display at the back of Clarke's Collectibles and Lunchbox Museum. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 

 

 


Drop 50 cents into the slot and Sally is happy to laugh up a storm, as the bear and other characters move, blink, even stick out their tongues while a neon carnival sign flashes “Open.”


Adding an extra measure of authenticity is that Laughing Sally's mirth is a tape of the original Laughing Sally, which Clarke got from Sheldon Steinberg, who owns the antique plumbing shop The Elegant Bowl, located in the old livery stable next to the Blue Wing Saloon & Cafe in Upper Lake.


It was through Recycletown that Clarke also got ahold of a large shipment of Star Wars-related items that were donated after George Lucas moved his movie production headquarters into a new facility in the Bay Area.


Opening the store took about a year, said Clarke.


The genesis of the project came about around seven years ago.

 

 

 

 

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Memorabilia for sale includes items featuring the Beatles. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 

 


Clarke had grown up in Lake County and attended Lower Lake High, but had moved to Sonoma County where she was a history teacher in Healdsburg.


One day as she and her husband were driving through Nice, they saw the old firehouse and he said he'd love to own such a building. And it just so happened that when they stopped to look at the building it had a “for sale” sign.


The couple, who between them have three grown children, later sold their home in Sonoma County and moved to Nice full-time. Both of them recently retired and then began their next career as shop proprietors.


While Duane Clarke is the artistic one in the family – designing and painting the building's colorful interior – Debbie Clarke turns her enthusiasm toward her job as curator, sharing her knowledge with anyone who is interested.

 

 

 

 

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An important part of the collection and the store is the offering of rare Ponytail vinyl boxes, used to store dolls. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.
 

 

 


They've also created a library for people to look up their item's value.


Even though they've just opened full-time, they're already had a lot of interest, especially from visitors traveling along Highway 20. Many stay for hours at a time.


“They're finding stuff from their childhood,” she said.


She's also seen visitors come in a little down and leave in a better mood after experiencing the colorful displays.


Clarke's Collectibles and Lunchbox Museum is located at 3674 E. Highway 20. The shop is open Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., or private tours can be scheduled by calling the shop at 707-274-9175.


Visit their virtual museum online or contact them through their Web site at www.retrodeb.com . The site also features a video of Laughing Sally.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

 

 

 

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Star Wars memorabilia is among the offerings at the shop. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.

 

 

 

 

 

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The shop has been renovated over the past year as the Clarkes prepared for their opening. Photo by Elizabeth Larson.

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