In case of link malfunction above, go here.
DETOURS---Toy trains sidetrack a life -- but in a good
By Dave Hoekstra
NEW BUFFALO, Mich.--Filmmaker Tom McComas is driving his Forest
green 1997 BMW across the Chessie System/Seaboard Coast Line train
tracks near the Indiana-Michigan border. Like any good cinematographer,
he looks both ways.
"The last thing I want to do is get killed by a train,"
McComas says with a laugh.
McComas owns the I Love Toy Trains store at 16 S. Smith St. in
New Buffalo. The shop is named after his award-winning "I
Love Toy Trains" children's video series. The store is a
great whistle-stop for a last-minute Christmas gift.
McComas also produced a "Celebrity Train Layout" series
on video and DVD that features the mind-boggling home train layouts
of Frank Sinatra (Part 1), talk show legend Tom Snyder (Part 2)
and Mandy Patinkin (Part 3). Rocker Neil Young is on deck for
Part 4. Young is a part owner of Lionel Trains.
And while Young sang, "24 and there's so much more"
(in "Old Man"), McComas found success in midlife. In
1972 he was running his own film production company in Chicago.
A big baseball fan, McComas made a film called "No Game Today"
about a child who snuck into old Comiskey Park on an off day.
McComas, now 64, also ran with a Chicago media crowd that included
the fine writer James Tuohy.
In 1972 a friend of McComas invented a sugar-releasing space capsule
that was supposed to be a premium for cereal boxes. McComas produced
a promotional film about the toy. The toy flopped and the friend
was unable to pay for the film.
Instead, he offered McComas four boxes of old Lionel trains. "I
was recently married, living in a small apartment on the North
Side of Chicago," McComas recalls in his store, which is
in a 100-year-old resort house. "The last thing I wanted
was trains. I had a set growing up in the 1950s, but used to put
lighter fluid on it, set it on fire and run it around the tracks.
I had no interest in trains."
A year later McComas had some friends over for dinner. One guest
was a train collector. McComas told him about the trains that
were in storage in the basement. After dinner, McComas spread
the trains out on the cellar floor. The guest offered $7,500 for
them. McComas immediately became interested in Lionel trains.
And he became sidetracked.
"After everybody left, I picked up those [train] pieces,"
he says. "They were heavy, die-cast metal. They were made
in the '30s. And Lionel had this feeling of quality. The 1930s
was a great decade for America, with popular music, architecture
and industrial design. This was part of the essence of America."
McComas set out to find more information about the trains and
their worth. He couldn't find any resource material, despite the
fact there were 10,000 train collectors across America. He figured
there would be a market for a book.
McComas recruited his pal "Tuohy" (as everyone calls
him) to help write a series of "Collectors Guide to Lionel"
books about trains. He recalls, "We both loved Sinatra and
baseball. And he is a magnificent writer. He taught me how to
write simply and with elegance--rather than writing elegantly.
But he wasn't a train fan, either. He did it because it was fun
and we could travel."
McComas suggested dividing the books into six editions, ranging
from pre-war (1943-45) to the modern era (1970-80) and even including
Lionel advertising and art (Vol. 6). He reflects, "Lionel
almost went broke in the late 1960s. Who was buying trains then?
Airline travel crossed train travel in '53. The Lionel name still
meant a lot, but kids wanted slot cars. However, General Mills
came along in 1970 and knew that in 15 years baby boomers were
going to be at peak earning power. They figured if they could
buy the [Lionel] name for a song, it would be gravy. And that's
Every April and October, more than 15,000 train collectors from
all over the world (including Neil Young) come to York, Pa., for
a toy train meet. After McComas and Tuohy published their first
book in 1974, McComas borrowed his father's black 1966 El Dorado
convertible for a road trip to York.
"It had the biggest trunk you've ever seen," McComas
says. "We loaded it up with books and started driving east.
Pennsylvania, New York--that's train country. We'd stop at hobby
stores along the way and sell books. Tuohy would say, “I
don't think Hemingway did it this way.” But at the end of
the day we had $400 cash. We'd go out and have a great dinner
with a few martinis. We'd get a motel and do it again the next
"One year Tuohy and I tried to sing through the entire state
of Ohio. We sang Sinatra. Cole Porter. The Beatles. By Cleveland,
we were looking for anybody." McComas looks away and begins
to recite lyrics from Eric Maschwitz's 1935 composition, "These
Foolish Things." He says, "A telephone that rings, but
who's to answer? How the ghost of you clings, these foolish things
remind me of you. How good a lyric is that? It would take Henry
James 600 pages to say the same thing. And it wouldn't have rhymed!"
McComas' business took off faster than the Southwest Chief. The
books gave birth to the children's videos. The children's videos
linked to the celebrity videos. The trains even led to McComas
producing a children's video series for Caterpillar. Today, the
"I Love Toy Trains" video series has sold nearly 2 million
copies. McComas and editor Joe Stachler, 32, co-produced the two-hour
PBS special, "A Century of Lionel Trains."
McComas and Tuohy parted ways in 1987. Last December McComas opened
his store, which is stocked with Lionel trains (starter sets and
refurbished post-war models), books, videos, T-shirts and popular
wooden trains for children. The store also features an operating
Lionel layout with four trains in constant motion.
Kids love the I Love Toy Trains store.
I don't have kids, yet I am floored by their fascination with
trains. In an era of computers and video games, little kids still
love trains. And technology has morphed with toy trains, so today's
trains have computer-controlled remotes with station calls, cab
chatter and other extras.
"Think of yourself 6 months old in a car seat and you pull
up to a train station," McComas says. "Suddenly bells
start ringing and lights start flashing. The biggest thing that
moves on earth comes roaring by. Some connection is going to be
made." McComas and his wife, Charyl, have four sons: their
11-year-old son, Jeff, does narration in the train series. McComas
began the toy train video series to entertain Jeff when he was
3. From previous marriages, Charyl's son Jack is a junior at Michigan
State University; his son Tom, 32, is a stunt man studying to
be a director, and son Chris, 26, manages his father's company,
which is called TM Books and Video. The TM umbrella employs eight
McComas has lived near New Buffalo since 1987. Sometimes, when
he navigates the modest train tracks between his Michigan store
and his Indiana home-editing studio, he wonders how all this happened
to him. "I didn't plan any of it," McComas says. "I
wanted to make movies. I loved the films of Godard, Truffaut.
But your life takes strange turns."
And that is the adventure of train travel.
The I Love Toy Trains store is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (EST)
Thursday through Sunday. Other weekdays, call (800) 892-2822 and
someone will meet you at the store. I Love Toy Trains also offers
a free appraisal service. Readers can fax a list of their trains
and the store will fax back a rough estimate of their value. The
store's fax number is (219) 879-7909.
And yes, you can take a train to New Buffalo. Amtrak's Pierre
Marquette line makes a daily stop just six blocks south of the
I Love Toy Trains store, 16 S. Smith St. The train leaves Union
Station at 5:20 p.m. (CST) arriving in New Buffalo at 7:32 p.m.
(EST). Return time is 10:02 a.m. (EST), arriving in Chicago at
10:26 a.m. (CST). A round-trip ticket ranges between $30 and $40.
For more information on I Love Toy Trains, call (800) 892-2822.
Reprinted with permission—Chicago Sun-Times (suntimes.com)