Raise a tiny plastic goblet, please, to Playmobil’s founder Horst Brandstaetter, who has died at eighty-one. Brandstaetter, who was apparently known as “Herr Playmobil,” joined the family company in 1952, but it wasn’t until the seventies—and the oil crisis—that he was moved to come up with the cost-effective and efficient three-inch plastic figurines we know today. The first three—a knight, a construction worker, and a Native American—made their appearance in 1974, and the rest is toy history.
Playmobils were a very big deal in my house growing up. They were my brother’s passion. While he had what seemed like hundreds—pirates, cowboys, families, farmers—the main players were his troop of blue-clad cavalry officers. From the ages of three to five, he was fixated on John Ford films like Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and his repeated viewings required not just his homemade uniform—my dad had affixed a strip of yellow electrical tape to some blue sweat pants, and added sergeant’s stripes to a turtleneck—but the arrangement of all his soldiers around him in formation, with a scout in the lead and several horses flanking the covered wagon. Then, of course, the whole cast, and fort, would need to be moved to the backyard, where the process would be repeated. Some thirty years later, the residents of our old house tell us they still occasionally dig up a long-buried Playmobil, like an archeological treasure.
At some point, my parents subscribed us to something called the Playmobil Fun Club, which involved some kind of certificate of membership, I guess, and maybe a pin, but what I mostly remember is the audiotape. This tape was on very heavy rotation in our car, to the point that to this day I can remember the theme song:
Tell me a story, make me smile
Tell me of old enchanted isle
Of dragons, and wizards, and warriors wiiiiild
Tell me a story, tell me a story!
The tape had nothing to do with Playmobils. (Or, for that matter, warriors wild.) Rather, it comprised dramatic multiperson enactments of fairy tales. Most of these were straightforward enough, if peculiar. But “Humpty-Dumpty” took things to a whole new level. For one thing, “Humpty Dumpty” had an original scenario to bolster the basic wall-fall-horses-men narrative. In this rendition, Humpty Dumpty is a dreary bore who sits around on a wall. His friend, Tammy, introduces him to the king, who mistakes his dreariness for deadpan wit, and is so amused that he promptly hires Humpty Dumpty to be his new court jester. In celebration, Humpty and Tammy crack open a bottle of champagne. Humpty Dumpty gets so hammered that he falls off the wall. As he’s lying there, broken, he says sourly, “With friends like you, Tammy, who needs enemies?”
It was the last story on the tape, and our favorite by a wide margin. It seemed so unjust. I have attempted to contact Playmobil and get a copy of the tape. They’ve responded with great friendliness, but so far, no dice. Well, at the moment, they have bigger things to think about.
Auf Wiedersehen, Herr Playmobil.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.