New toys at the Craft and Folk Art Museum

If children spun it, flung it, wound it, or sent it rolling along the floor with a flick of their thumbs, Dr. Donald Adler had to have it for his collection of international folk toys.

While vacationing all over the world for 40 years, in industrialized countries like Japan as well as more developing nations like Papua New Guinea, Adler sought the things of children’s play, eventually collecting, by his estimate, more than 2,000 examples.

Don Adler with Japanese Daruma Doll (Edmon J. Rodman)

But after becoming a widower, remarrying, and moving to a smaller house this year, Adler who is in his early 80s, felt it was time to scale back his collection. As a result, he has donated half of his holdings to the Craft & Folk Art Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, which with his approval is putting the collection on sale from July 18-20 to raise funds for the museum.

According to Adler, who will be at the opening of the sale, on Friday at 6:30 p.m., to give a talk on the toys and answer questions, “folk toys are made by hand, not mass produced, and reflect something cultural that can be passed down generation to generation.” His collection includes hand-held playthings like tops, marbles, balls and jacks, puppets, games and puzzles, as well as simple and primitive items such as pebbles, shells and sticks.

“Folk toys are meant to play with,” said Adler, who demonstrated how to put the correct spin on a top that he acquired in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, made from a large nut with a long wooden splinter inserted in its middle. (You spin the splinter between your hands, and let it go.)

From each of the 75 countries in his collection, Adler has been able to find some representation of the nation’s culture in its toys. From Israel, he collected dreidels, a grogger, and a Havdalah spice box in the form of a locomotive that has working wheels. From Japan his collection includes wind-up robots as well as paper koi on wheels of wood. And from Vietnam, water puppets — whose stage is a mechanism-concealing pool of water — that are thought to have originated in the region’s flooded rice fields where the farmers used them to entertain each other.

Dreidels and spice box, Some of the folk toys Adler is holding on to. (Edmon J. Rodman)

How does a doctor busy helping couples from all over the world to have babies—Adler had a ground-breaking career in reproductive medicine and surgery, opening the west coast’s first sperm bank —get interested in collecting playthings?

Before taking a trip to Japan in 1973, he saw a picture of a carved and brightly painted wooden Miharu horse — a toy that commemorates a legendary act of kindness during a battle in Heian period of Japan (794-1185) in the town of Miharu. When he got to Kyoto and saw a similar horse in a shop window, he “was smitten,” said Adler, whose collection has more examples from Japan than any other country.

Seeking a way to share his collection, Adler has taken examples from it to the Kadima Day School in West Hills, where he let the 7th and 8th graders try them out as he told the cultural stories behind them, and projected pictures of his travels.

“The teenagers loved it,” said Adler, who feels that the folk toys that he has collected and the stories related to them “promote playing together.”

Watching kids play together has given him a few stories of his own.

Sitting on a tour bus in China in1982, he saw a group of children, “five to seven-year olds hitting something with their elbows and feet, keeping it up in the air,” he recalled. Getting out of the bus for a closer look, he saw it was a “leather button” into which they pushed little chicken feathers on one side, and a rock for balance and weight on the other. “It would stay up in the air almost like a shuttlecock,” he said. Excited by his find, he was able to get the kids to trade it to him “for half a dozen ball point pens,” he said.

Alder, who lived in the St. Louis’ Easton Avenue area of delis, fish markets and Jewish stores until he was 13, moved to Los Angeles with his family in 1945. “I grew up poor, with not a lot of toys,” said Adler, who attended Fairfax High School and UCLA, eventually graduating from medical school at the University of California San Francisco. As a child he never had a bicycle — “we couldn’t afford it,” said Alder, who recalled attaching a two-by-four to some roller skates and then adding an orange crate to build a scooter.

Paper koi folk toy (Edmon J. Rodman)

Adler, who says the most important aspect of collecting is “seeking,” and that “showing is secondary,” nonetheless, has spent time seeking a place to show his collection. “I was hoping someday to have enough money to buy an old house and make it into a toy museum. You need a lot of financial banking to do that,” said Adler who hoped that CAFAM could take his collection.

Suzanne Isken, director of the Folk and Craft Art Museum said she receives many similar requests from accomplished collectors. “The museum is a small, private nonprofit and is not a collecting museum at this time,” she said. “Not everyone can take a collection,” she said “It’s a huge responsibility,” she added.

For Adler, giving up his collection, he says “is like parting with an arm.” He is keeping his toy soldiers and many key pieces, including a large Daruma doll from Japan, which has played a role in his life.

A traditional doll in Japan, the papier-maché, brightly painted, round-based and armless and legless doll, is weighted at the bottom in such a way that no matter how far you push it over, it always rights itself.

“It tells you that if you persist in doing what you desire, and if you are to have faith, you are able to comeback. You can recover from any diversity,” said Alder.

These dolls, when new, often have large white eyes with no pupils. “When you make a wish, you color in one eye, and if your wish comes true you color in the other,” explained Adler.

“When I asked my [second] wife to marry me, I colored in the first dot. And when she said ‘yes’ and after we were married, I did the ceremony of coloring in the other dot in front of my family,” Adler said. 

 “So they knew my wish came true.”