Visitors to Meet the Presidents and the Oval Office will indeed get a chance to meet every president in American history—in 3-inch toy form. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a play set that features an expansive semi-circle of commanding—and collectible—plastic figures around a model White House. The semi-circle was recently expanded when the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, joined the 44 other commanders-in-chief. (Grover Cleveland, the only person elected to non-consecutive terms, served as both the 22nd and 24th presidents.)
That a figure of Joe Biden exists at all is a testament to the passion and persistence of Patric M. Verrone, a writer and producer on the animated comedy Futurama and a one-time president of the Writers Guild of America, West. Most of the set was created by the Louis Marx & Company, which sold a line of American president figures starting in the 1950s for 15 cents apiece. The line was discontinued in the 1970s with the presidency of Richard Nixon, when the company was sold. “The Marx toy company was one of the greatest American success stories,” says Verrone. “Louis Marx himself hobnobbed with Dwight Eisenhower—he fancied himself a captain of industry, and that’s why he made this set of presidents initially going up to his friend Ike.”
Verrone, who grew up in Queens, was one of the tens of thousands of kids who collected the figures, buying a set in 1970 for $6.50 after spying an ad in Parade magazine. Years later, they were still on his mind when he found himself with some free time in the early 2000s. Using clay, paint, and craft knives, he taught himself to sculpt and modified an earlier Marx set of presidential candidates from the 1968 election—including Hubert Humphrey, George Romney, and Charles Percy—into the more recent presidents. His homemade set was a hit with collectors on eBay and what resulted was a brisk business selling the missing presidents. (Browse his eBay store here.)
Over the years, Verrone has refined his process: He now uses computer graphics and 3-D printing for the prototypes and works with a Los Angeles plastic manufacturer to produce the finished figures. Every election, he designs a version of both candidates, just in case—he once told the New Yorker that he still has a hundred John McCains in a box. He also has made figures of over 100 significant people from history beyond the presidents, including Alexander Hamilton, the Supreme Court justices, and vice presidents like Kamala Harris. (He’s currently hard at work on a Harriet Tubman.)
Verrone notes that he’s now worked longer on the presidents set than Louis Marx himself. “Monthly, I’ll hear from somebody who says ‘I had this set as a kid,’ or more importantly, ‘My grandmother gave me this set as a kid,'” says Verrone. “Now, there are grandchildren–turned–grandparents who are buying the extended sets for their grandchildren.”
Visit New-York Historical soon and see Verrone’s figures in person. Buy tickets now.
Top image: New-York Historical’s re-creation of the Oval Office