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An epic tale of bad television, plastic toy soldiers and the hidden treasure in your attic

Way back in 1959, when the television airwaves were ruled by Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Wagon Train and countless other horse operas, CBS came up with a Western with a new twist. Don Durant played the titular hero of Johnny Ringo, a gunfighter-turned-lawman, whose claim to fame was that he carried a not a six-shooter revolver but a seven-shooter. So every episode ended with a shootout in which the bad guy would eventually emerge from behind a tree to say, "I got you now, Johnny, I've been counting and you fired all six of your bullets." And Johnny would plug him with that seventh shot and ride off into the sunset.

RingoprshotEven among my fellow 5-year-olds, this formula got old pretty fast, and Johnny Ringo's ratings steadily dwindled. And toymakers who had bought licensing rights from CBS under the assumption that any Western was pure marketing gold were pretty much screwed; all those board games and toy seven-shooters wound up in landfills. The biggest casualty of all was a playset made by the Marx Toy Co., which included a tin Western town populated by plastic cowboys, including Johnny Ringo himself. Only about 300 of the sets were sold. And kids being the ungrateful little wretches they are, I imagine everybody who got one tossed it into the back of the closet and has spent the last five decades cursing his parents as fools for buying such an uncool present.

Well, if you're one of those ungrateful little wretches, look around to see if that Johnny Ringo set is still kicking around your attic. It's now worth about $10,000 (not a bad return on a $6 investment, even Johnnyringo allowing for inflation). Even the little Johnny Ringo figure by itself brings a cool $900. Johnny Ringo has become the holy grail for a crusading army of Baby Boomers who have turned into collectors of all those little plastic soldiers and cowboys and spacemen of the 1950s and 1960s. And (think of this not as a mixed metaphor, but an earnest attempt at diversity and even-handedness in religious allusions) their Mecca is the Official Marx Toy Soldier Museum in Moundsville, West Virginia. Read my story about it in Sunday's Miami Herald.

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