Neil Had a Dream
West Hartford (Google Maps location)
June 1, 2011
Note: This museum is now closed.
Every now and then this website affords me entry into places that are beyond description. I get to meet people who might fly under most people’s radars. It’s not that Neil Sakow or his museum were secrets or hard to uncover – not at all. Heck, he’s been on local West Hartford public access television for years and is sort of a fixture at local town events.
Neil has been featured in everything from West Hartford News to the New York Times. Neil is, in short, the man.
But I had the opportunity to get to know Neil, over the course of about two hours inside his orderly but cluttered home across the street from the town’s offices and a short walk to Blue Back Square. It is here, right in the center of my own hometown that one of our state’s greatest collectors and showmen lives and revels in his outsized id.
I distinctly remember back in the early days of CTMQ, feeling quite satisfied with my list of Connecticut museums. “Aha!” I thought, “I’ve listed them all! I am incredible!” I’ve added probably 200 since then but one in particular stung: Neil’s American Dream Museum.
I found something somewhere about it and my eyes popped out of my head. Here was a museum, mere feet from where I park when I go to “downtown” West Hartford – and it wasn’t on my CTMQ museums list. I was an abject failure.
It was a humbling experience. (I then learned that the state of the museum was in flux at the time as Neil was in process of shutting it down – or at least making it much smaller. He was on to his new project of trying to market his unique skill for having memorized about 100 commercial jingles from the 50’s and 60’s… but more on that later.)
I reached out to Neil back in ’08 probably and he told me to call him back. So I did… a year later probably and he told me that the museum wasn’t really a museum anymore, but I could visit sometime. I tried to schedule a visit during my day long adventure with the guy who ultimately would write a Connecticut Magazine article about me, but the timing didn’t work out. Neil still got a mention in the magazine though.
A year later, on a whim, I called Neil and he invited me over on a Wednesday morning. (I was on my way to Boston for a work conference that afternoon, which became a source of endless prodding and ribbing for Neil. The thought of a 3 day conference about life insurance marketing and research was, to him, the absolute worst possible way one could spend three days.)
I arrived at the appointed time and was greeted with a wide smile and an immediate battery of questions. He always referred to me as either “Steve Wood from C-T Museum Quest” or “Steve Wood Life Insurance Salesman.” (Note: I do not sell life insurance.) Another thing immediately struck me about Neil, but no article I’ve ever read about him has dared touched on it.
Boxing glove. In the kitchen cabinet. With Mohammad Ali’s signature. For real.
And that is, if I were a betting man, I’d say that Neil has Asperger’s or something similar. (Do I get to get away with this amateur diagnosis because I have a special needs son? I hope so.) His personality is so quirky and unique – and brilliant and scatterbrained and his speech often repetive and rote and all that stuff. I just feel uncomfortable no one else has mentioned it. Oh well.
(I feel it IS germane to this page because this whole “museum” is an obsessive’s obsessions put on display. I can’t imagine what this place was like when it filled all three floors of the house he occupies. He ability for recall at each item’s origination, provenance, worth and back story is nothing short of amazing. Neil is a museum unto himself.)
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz personal checks… Somehow
He was as curious about me as I was about him and his collection. What was my purpose, what would I do with my pictures, what would I write about and when could he see it. Well, sorry dude… It’s just short of two years later that I’m writing this. I’m the worst.
Although it’s no longer a museum for the likes of you to visit, Neil still has (or had in 2011) museum quality collections of pop culture from the 50’s and 60’s. He continued to shock and amaze me every five minutes or so with, oh, I don’t know… the original receipt from a life insurance policy for Desi Arnaz. Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?
Desi Arnaz’s life insurance policy receipt.
Trying to piece together the collection trajectory of Neil is a Herculean task. There have been several newspaper articles about him over the years – so I can give it a shot. His main focuses of collection have been, to my mind, three different things over the years:
1. Baseball everything, especially Yankees and especially Dimaggio and Maris stuff.
2. Howdy Doody everything.
3. Everything else from kitschy 50’s pop culture.
4. Everything having to do with commercial jingles from the 50’s.
I should note that he’s had much, much stuff in the past but has sold a ton of it off. Here’s an auction catalog from one of his “sell-offs” which is 10 pages long and incudes a ton of something called Britains – tiny little war figurines which are, I guess, from Britain. He had 300 lots in that auction.
I don’t know why Neil’s been selling off his stuff. His health isn’t the greatest (A home health aide was leaving as I showed up) and upkeep on all this stuff was probably becoming impossible.
There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to this post-museum museum, but I don’t blame Neil. I sort of let my eyes guide me and I just picked up whatever random thing I saw. With each item, Neil launched into a memory – borrowed or personal, I never could tell.
Let’s take a trip through some articles about Neil over the years…
The first one is from some old newspaper clipping Neil had on his wall. Maybe it was the first article about him? I don’t know… But it says he was 30 at the time, so it’s an old article. Ah, there is another article on the same page about local schools not complying with the “recently passed” Title IX. That was in 1972. I was born in 1972.
It details Neil’s baseball card collection. It says he had, at that time, 1,003,000 cards. It does not mention that it’s odd that he needed to be specific about it. Back then, his house was a “museum.” Then it was a museum. It was a post-museum “museum” when I visited. Now it’s just a quirky collection.
Anyway, this old article focuses on his baseball collections; the autographs, the rare photos, his 1952 Bazooka card complete collection – one of only 6 in the country at that time. It notes that he has a photo of an infant Babe Ruth in his hospital nursery. I don’t know how or why, but that’s Neil.
If you ask him, “How in the world did you get this?!” His answer is always the same, “Cause I’m Neil the Real Deal Steve Wood, Insurance salesman!” Good times.
Let’s move up to 1993, when the New York Times did a feature on Neil. I’ll try to excerpt from it for the sake of brevity.
Neil Sakow was bouncing around the floor, singing the 1960 Kennedy campaign song written to the tune of “High Hopes.” Then he broke into an impromptu two-step, finishing with a frantic wave of an original campaign flag.
“Frank Sinatra did that song first,” he said, catching his breath. “But I don’t think he does it as good as me.”
You see what I mean? He’s a unique individual.
Neil Robert Sakow is curator of Neil’s American Dream Museum, a shrine to an age of innocence and a tribute to Mickey Mantle, John F. Kennedy and Howdy Doody. For Mr. Sakow, those three American icons represent a time when all was right with the world — his world at least, as a boy in the Bronx when he bought his first baseball card, that of Gil McDougald, the Yankee infielder. That was in 1951 and he was 6. Thirty-seven years later, Mr. McDougald was on hand for the October 1988 christening of Mr. Sakow’s museum.
Aha! Some concrete dates! Thanks, Paper of Record.
“I associate all this with the happy memories of my childhood,” said Mr. Sakow. “It’s hero worship. I’ve just collected my heroes — for the love of it.”
That love is evident from the minute one walks up to the three-story yellow house on Raymond Road here and rings the doorbell, which plays “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Sadly, I can’t remember if it still does, nearly 20 years after this article.
Mr. Sakow emerges, dressed as he often is in the spirit of the era he cherishes. One day recently he wore a circa 1955 yellow Viyella shirt with bright blue deputies’ stars, as if he were playing cowboy. He looked like part of his exhibit; he is always part of the show.
I’m bummed I got a dirty t-shirt and pants.
On a tour of the Howdy Doody room, decorated like a boy’s bedroom of the mid-1950′s, he mimicked the voice of a 6-year-old.
“Here are my clothes for the weekend,” he said, pointing out tiny Howdy Doody rompers and matching shirt hanging over a Howdy Doody dressing screen. “I get dressed behind there because I don’t want my parents to see me.”
While his childlike persona is curious and his antics entertaining, they belie a shrewd businessman. When a visitor to the museum asked him recently, “What do you do, young man, to afford all this?,” Mr. Sakow replied: “Sir, this is what I do. This is my life.”
EBay changed his life.
Although he charges no admission to the museum, which is open by appointment only — its phone number is [redacted – dude put his phone number in the NYT]-- he has turned his hobby into a career. For three years he has been the host of his own television show on local cable, “Calling All Collectors,” interviewing collectors of all sorts of memorabilia. He sells baseball cards by mail and at card shows, and runs auctions. Six months ago he paid for the publishing of his book, “The Most Mickeys on My Mantle,” and he is starting a Mickey Mantle collectors club. He has another book in the works, “Living in a Howdy Doody World.”
Yeah. EBay definitely changed his life. Here’s a glimpse into what I partially saw…
Each floor is stuffed with hundreds of items — the original curtains from the Howdy Doody set, “Win With Jack” Kennedy bubble gum cigars, and original uncut sheets of baseball cards. One sheet, he says, is worth $100,000. Mr. Sakow even has one of the rare 1952 Mantle rookie cards — another sold at Sotheby’s for $49,500 in 1991. There is also an unopened bottle of Howdy Doody Welch’s grape juice from 1953 and a Howdy Doody cardboard general store. There are Jackie and Caroline paper dolls, a cake mold from Kennedy’s inauguration, and the original printer’s proof, with corrections penciled in, for the 1962 J.F.K. birthday program featuring Marilyn Monroe at Madison Square Garden.
Mr. Sakow also collects Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers memorabilia, toys and games from the 50′s and 60′s, and virtually anything related to baseball, including one of the shoes Bob Feller wore the day he pitched a no-hitter against the Yankees in 1946, and signed personal checks of Ty Cobb and Casey Stengel.
It’s hard to believe one person could amass so much stuff, some so rare you’ll probably never see anything like it again. It’s even harder to imagine someone spending so much time creating this kind of pop culture creche.
Not once you meet Neil the Real Deal.
The man giving the CTMQ thumbs up.
It almost didn’t happen. Six years ago, Mr. Sakow said, he was all set to be married, but his fiancee wanted him to give up his collections. He refused and the engagement was called off. Telling the story, Mr. Sakow spoke quietly, a departure from his usual decibel level, and looked out across the room. Then he bolted to show a visitor an original Mickey Mantle baseball toss game signed by the player.
Say WHAAAT?! I find that difficult to believe. Anyway, the article continues on but it’s time to move up to 2012. Now the museum is totally kaput, save for a few gems Neil has lying around, perhaps too important to him to auction off.
I should take a paragraph to tell you that I hate collecting stuff. I say this because it seems to surprise a lot of people. But I’m serious: I don’t collect ANYTHING. I just think it’s silly. And while I’m at it, I’ve never owned a sports jersey either. Why would I? I’m not on the team.
His life has taken a new turn: No more obsessing over paraphernalia – and on to obsessing over commercial jingles! I’ve used some info from this West Hartford News piece.
When you meet Neil Sakow, he will be happy to entertain you with one line zingers, jingles, and riddles. “I’m so outrageous I¹m contagious.”
Sounds about right. Note: I went to my Life insurance Marketing and Research Conference and, believe it or not, I did not break out into 1950’s commercial jingles. So it’s not all that contagious.
Neil’s hosted a show on local public access for 20-some years. I’ve never seen it. I’ve been on our public access channel… and I’ve never seen that show either. TV is not my thing. But Neil loves it!
He’s interviewed noted radio talk show personalities Brad Davis and Bob Steele; artist Gerry Dvorak who painted portraits for Tops 1950’s baseball cards; a lunch box collector from Enfield. Sakow says he’s had many enjoyable shows. ”My best show in 22 years was the Toaster Lady, the woman that brought in all the toasters from years back. I still get calls and kudos!”
Guess what’s special about this yearbook…
Why it’s Billy Martin!
The article then just randomly printed a bad Neil joke: “Why did the computer hate to go to work in the morning? Because it was a hard drive!” He rattled off a bunch of these to me, out of the blue apropos of nothing while I was with him. I dug it.
Which reminded me to go look for my “notes” from my visit. If you’ve read anything on here, you know that I almost never take notes (the glory of not having to worry about advertisers and libel and such.) Here are the notes I took:
“Why’d the photographer go crazy?
I bet that date is the date of that first article above. That’s all I wrote. Neil is a showman with a sweetness beneath his bravado. He didn’t have to show me around his place at all, but he did. And I loved it. It’s a shame this place is no longer open, as it was certainly one of a kind. Not just in Connecticut, but in the world.
Steve Wood Insurance Salesman.
Delicious 1950′s HiC
Food & Drink? About 40 good options w/in a few minute’s walk
You’ll like it if: You have a time machine
You won’t like it if: You try to visit now
Freebies: Gosh, I probably could have stolen a few thousand dollars worth of stuff.