Seattle's Tiny Totems

Taking a census of the city’s action figures, bobbleheads and toy figurines, Knute Berger reveals that Seattle’s smallest 'residents' make a motley crew of heroes.
Crosscut archive image.
Taking a census of the city’s action figures, bobbleheads and toy figurines, Knute Berger reveals that Seattle’s smallest 'residents' make a motley crew of heroes.

Action figures seem to be everywhere.

On a shelf at home, Sigmund Freud, cigar in hand, is often in a death struggle with his counterpart, C.G. Jung. (My wife is a psychotherapist.) I’m amused at how these playthings get incorporated into my granddaughters’ games when they visit — there’s an absence of Barbies at our place. The other day, the two plastic shrinks battled against a black windup robot. No word on whether they triumphed over the giant mechanical id.

Every Friday, when I walk into the KUOW studios, I’m greeted at the reception desk by an action figure of Nancy Pearl. She is perpetually shushing her companion, a J.P. Patches action figure. Apparently, the Mayor of the City Dump must be silenced, the irony being that there is no real-life librarian in America chattier than radio star Pearl.

Thanks to retailers like Archie McPhee and Amazon, action figures are the new fetish objects. They make great toys, and adult statements. But if you start looking at what we have locally, you have to wonder whether they represent our city. Are our hometown heroes really a librarian and a clown?

Funnily enough, the guy in town closest to a real-life action hero, self-proclaimed superhero Phoenix Jones, doesn’t have an action figure. So, who else in Seattle has been transformed into a toy?

Sports stars, of course. There are Ichiro figurines and bobblehead dolls. But most of the sports figures you find for sale online are woefully out of date. There are Ken Griffeys and Randy Johnsons in Mariner uniforms. There are old-time Seahawks players, such as running back Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck — guys who helped get the team to the Super Bowl, whenever that was.

You can find former SuperSonics basketball players, too, such as Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp — even Vin Baker. Vin Baker? Sadly, these guys played for a team that isn’t even here anymore. Sports fans are represented, too. There is actually an action figure of the Seahawks’ 400-plus-pound superfan Big Lo Sandretzky. No luck if you’re looking for Bill the Beerman or the dearly departed Tuba Man.

Seattle cultural figurines can also be found. No, there aren’t any Theodore Roethkes or Mark Tobeys. There are, however, collector figurines of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Lee. Apparently, there’s a market for action figures of celebrities whose graves attract tourists. There’s no Eddie Vedder action figure, but last year the Mariners had a Bobblehead Night for Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready. Raise your hand if you camped overnight for that one.

There are also some symbolic and historical action figures that capture the Northwest spirit. There’s no Bill Gates or Paul Allen, no Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Dan Savage, or Pepper Schwartz. But, you can find a barista action figure wearing a familiar green apron. You can buy also buy a miniature plastic Bigfoot with stamp pads on his feet so he can leave an inky trail across your desk. I even found a D.B. Cooper bobblehead portraying the skyjacker mid-jump wearing a parachute and dark glasses. Did he really jump at night with his shades on? Cool.

Online, you can find figures of the Lewis & Clark expedition. They include the two main heroes, plus guide Sacajawea, her husband, Charbonneau, and even the African-American servant York. If you buy them, you might also want to pick up a Northwest Native American play set from Amazon. It includes Indians, a bear, salmon and a tiny totem pole.

It’s not an action figure per se, but I was thrilled to learn that the local chapter of the historic preservation group Docomomo has created a 3-D paper doll of legendary Northwest modern architect Paul Thiry. He’s more obscure than Big Lo, more deserving than Vin Baker. Docomomo tells me it’s considering adding a Paul Hayden Kirk doll to give Thiry some midcentury modern company. I hope it makes a whole set: Minoru Yamasaki, John Graham Jr., Victor Steinbrueck. That’ll give Nancy Pearl a whole group to shush, instead of picking on poor J.P.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.