By Srianthi Perera
Michael Pollack shows off the Borsch man.
The Mesa corporate headquarters of Michael Pollack seems ordinary enough from the outside.
Inside is another matter. In addition to the opulent offices of the real estate mogul, the building houses three extraordinary museums, one a contender for the Guinness World Records.
Pollack’s 8,000-piece collection of three-dimensional advertising memorabilia in the Pollack Advertising Museum is said to be the world’s largest and has pieces dating from the 1700s. It also houses 156 animated Baranger jewelry store window displays of the mid-1900s. It’s estimated that 165 total were made.
His other two collections—meticulously restored collections of antique wheeled slot machines and three-reeler slot machines—are no less unique. Some of the wheel machines date to the 1900s and would dispense gum or candy or would play a song so that saloon owners could circumvent the illegality of gambling.
The three-reelers include slot machines carved in the 1950s by Arizona cowboy artist Frank Polk.
“I think it’s history, and I’m fascinated by history,” Pollack said.
Pollack submitted an application for the world records book after a Guinness representative toured the three-dimensional advertising museum. He’s awaiting a response.
It’s a one-horse race.
“There isn’t another place that has that many pieces of one type,” Pollack said.
Until 2009, the collections were open to the general public and counted nearly 300 daily visitors. It was hard to keep up and required extra resources. Nowadays, it’s open during charity fundraisers and by appointment to Pollack’s friends, acquaintances and serious collectors.
If you manage to wrangle an invite, it’s best to walk the rooms of any of the three displays with the collector himself. In the absence of introductory plaques and devoid of the stories to give them context, the objects may seem just a collection of antique toys. It’s easy to forget that most of these objects were made before the Walt Disney Company was even founded.
So what’s there?
Advertisements featuring an elephant (Hamlin’s wizard oil—“great for pain”), tea (Lipton), airlines (Air India), shipping lines (Hamburg), a wooden ship (Cutty Sark), a bear twirling on a motorcycle (Hamm’s Beer) and the Old Crow flapping his wings and moving his head while pedaling on a unicycle (Old Crow bourbon whisky). There’s a green-shirted Squirt boy, Buster Brown with his shoes and a life size Esso tiger, just to mention a few.
One of Pollack’s favorites—he uses the word dozens of times—is the life-size Bosch man used to advertise the well-known battery in gas stations during the Nazi years in Germany. At the time, Allied forces were bombing the stations to prevent gas from being transported. This particular statue was discovered in a basement of an excavated building in East Berlin; it was safe inside a coffin.
Another of Pollack’s favorite finds, with an accompanying narrative, is an apothecary’s display of a terracotta figurine of a little man with a pointy beard, a cat and many mice dating to the 1800s. His is a tale similar to that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
A village in Germany hires a man to kill rats and mice that are invading, is only paid half the agreed amount. He’s called again when the mice return. This time, the man asks for what was owed to him as well more for the new job, which the desperate villagers pay. The man finally brings in several cats that destroy the mice.
“That was the story that goes with him; it’s sounded like a really good one,” said Pollack, who had to clamber up a rat-infested attic in a Berlin antiques store to retrieve the statue at the shop owner’s bidding.
Pollack is also particularly proud of his Baranger collection because the company made 165 or so machines, out of which he owns 156. Manufactured in Pasadena, California, the Baranger moving figures advertised pieces of jewelry. The machines were never sold to jewelry shops; instead, the company leased them and placed them inside the shop windows.
“There are about 10 that are pretty elusive, and I haven’t got to them,” he said. “There’s not a lot to add; we have an extremely complete collection.”
Pollack began his collection in northern California when he was about 12.
“I was fascinated by these moving, mechanical signs that were advertising different products,” he said.
He would buy items such as electric beer signs at flea markets on Saturdays, repair them at night and sell them for a profit on Sundays to antique stores.
“I actually was making money as a kid, but I was fascinated with these signs,” he said. “I liked them so much that I would try to keep one of each kind for myself. And, pretty soon, it went from a kid’s hobby to now one of the largest assemblages in the world.”
With his collector zeal, Pollack continues to scout for additions. He’s looking for the missing—and elusive—Barangers. He doesn’t have to travel too much these days, because collector’s items are listed online, and his museum is notified of any new finds because it has a worldwide reputation.
As for the future, Pollack plans to write a book to chronicle the history of the collection’s individual pieces. Although he doesn’t claim to know the story behind each and every piece, he remembers a fair amount.
“I have so much of the history memorized that it would be a shame not to preserve it,” he said.
For more information, go to pollackmuseum.com.