Phyllis Baskerville passed away peacefully this past week. In my 35 years on Channel 8, she may have been my favorite guest. She was not someone to be toyed with—or she was the perfect person to toy with. You decide.
I first met Phyllis in 2002 after doing a live TV segment in Fortville. As I headed for my car, the spunky 75-year-old woman in her pick-up truck approached me and asked me to follow her home. “I have somewhere else I have to go,” I told her. “This will be worth your time,” she shot back.
Minutes later I pulled up in front of a Pentecostal church, which made me wonder if this was going to be an attempt to convert me. What I saw when I entered the sanctuary was heavenly. Taking up every bit of available space on the floor were thousands of classic toys, all in mint condition, and many in the original boxes. Memories flooded back as I saw board games, wind-up toys, lunchboxes, and dolls that I had not seen in 50 years. “This is a TV segment,” I told Phyllis, assuming that was her intent in bringing me to that place. “Not now,” she countered. “Not until I get everything on shelves.”
We soon struck a deal. I interviewed her when the collection was still in disarray, then returned a year later to show the progress she had made. The next year she opened Dolly Mama’s Toy Museum in Fortville.
There is more to this story, of course, beginning in Florida in 1998 where Phyllis and her husband, a former district fire chief in Indianapolis, had retired. When he developed Alzheimer’s, Phyllis was overwhelmed, as many caregivers are. “I went to a support group meeting,” says Phyllis, “but that wasn’t for me…I didn’t need someone else’s problems. I was living it. I needed something else.”
That something else began with a few dolls she had in her home, which mushroomed into so many toys that they filled several rooms. When her husband’s condition worsened, they moved to Indy—toys and all—to be close to her daughters, but by then the collection had overgrown her residence. “Oh my God, what have I done?” asked Phyllis. “My kids are gonna think I’m crazy.” That’s when she decided to open a museum.
Phyllis purchased the then-vacant Fortville church and continued to hunt for toys, assisted by her daughters who religiously took Phyllis to garage sales, antique shows and consignment shops in search of each next piece of everyone’s childhood.
Her museum’s normal tour lasted 90 minutes, with Phyllis pointing out her favorites. “See that OJ Simpson board game?…See that Gund doll? You’ll never see anything like that again.” Every toy had to be in working condition, and she often interrupted her own play-by play to demonstrate a punching nun or to set in motion Robby the Robot.
The museum is currently closed. The future of Dolly Mama’s is still to be determined. I once said to her how much I had admired her passion—the time and work she had devoted to her collection. She responded, “It’s just child’s play.”
Dick Wolfsie has written 12 books and has been a television personality for 30 years. His humor column appears weekly in The Times.