Picks and Pans Main: Video
Wooo-wooo! Climb aboard with three toy-train demons for a captivating 45-minute tour of their special collections. First stop is Ward Kimball's place in San Gabriel, Calif., with its eye-popping collection of tin, wood and cast-iron cars and unusual accessories. Among his treasures: Lionel's Brass No. 7 (1906), the Ives 1810 trolley, (it runs on the juice carried by a slender wire), the 1906 Howard No. 8 locomotive (the first toy train with an operating headlight), the Mickey Mouse handcar ca. 1935, the Hubley elevated railway (1893) and a motorized gondola, which happens to be the first car that Lionel's founder, Joshua Lionel Cowen, designed in 1901.
Even more unusual than the museum quality of Kimball's collection, many of these old-timers are still in running order. With an engineer's cap propped on his head, Kimball, a Dixieland trombonist and former Disney artist, talks about his passion and how he planned his multi-gauge layout. He also demonstrates some of the extraordinary wares that stand nose to tail on the shelves lining his train gallery. (A separate room houses his collection of European models designed between 1895 and 1914.)
Next stop on this video tour, inspired by the 1987 book of the same title by train enthusiasts Tom McComas and James Tuohy, is a basement in Lake Forest, Ill., that belongs to dentist Michael Primack. Here a 25-x 25-foot layout is built around a floor-to-ceiling mountain that looms over two tiers of tunnels, trestle bridges, fueling depots and two miniature towns that Primack designed.
The challenge is to oversee the operation even when the trains pass from view. The cars run by means of an elaborate system that accommodates 15 custom-built switches. At full tilt Primack can guide eight trains in a gracefully synchronized pattern. And you get to watch.
Last stop is in the Los Angeles garage owned by Ralph Johnson, a former Southern Pacific railway employee. Despondent after his wife's death from cancer in 1986, Johnson let his beloved train collection gather dust until four mechanically-minded buddies helped him reconstruct a bright new O-gauge layout. While Johnson's assorted diesel and steam models surge past pastel mountains, lakes and waterfalls, the architects of the layout tell just how they pieced it together in this, the first of a series that will travel to other train wonderlands. (TM Books Video, $31.95; 219-879-2822)
PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
Oh, it's Christmas in the playhouse and our hearts are all aglow..."Hello, everybody!!!! My name's Pee-wee. What's yours? Ha-ha. Welcome to my Christmas special starring: ME!!!! Uumm. Ha-ha." The dainty, helium-filled playhouse proprietor is back for a manic 49 minutes in this appropriately goofy, sometimes clever, mostly cloying production that aired on network television last winter.
Too limp to sustain the show on his own, Herman supports himself with a quirky hodgepodge of guests that includes Grace Jones, who swivels around the playhouse in a plastic bustier warbling "rum-pum-pum-pum." A handful of pals call in their holiday wishes (Oprah, Whoopi, Dinah Shore). Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, who always seem to go places in a pair, show how to decorate Christmas cards. And Charo drops in to sing "Feliz Navidad." Other visitors do little more than arrive and depart (a pretrial Zsa Zsa, for example, and Cher). "That was Cher. Cher was right there; in the same room as my chair!" This is an exercise in camp that should be watched at your own risk. (Hi-Tops, $14.95; 800-526-7002)
LYLE, LYLE CROCODILE: The House on East 88th Street
This 25-minute musical version of Bernard Waber's whimsical book, narrated by Tony Randall with songs by Charles (Annie) Strouse, opens with a lively number in which the Primms family announces, "We're moving into a new house." Only one problem: In the bathtub upstairs, there's a crocodile. But not just your standard croc—this one dines on Turkish caviar and is a wiz at addition.
Soon he's the most popular croc on the block—and so renowned, the carney trainer who abandoned him comes to reclaim him. Several sad moments ensue—one heart-wrenching ballad that had Kate, 7, in tears—before all is resolved, and Lyle is returned. "It was great, Dad," said Nick, 3. "Dad? Wake up!" (Hi-Tops Video, $14.95; 800-645-6600)
THE BROTHERS LIONHEART
This 120-minute story, the blurb on the box advises, is "based upon Astrid Lindgren's most remarkable book, far removed from her well-known character Pippi Longstocking." That's like saying The Cat in the Hat doesn't bear much resemblance to Rambo.
A yellow-tinted gloom pervades the unknown town where a young boy, Karl, lies dying; his teenage brother, Jonathan, promises to meet him in a mythical land after death. But Jonathan dies first, and when Karl joins him a few weeks later, they begin an adventure filled with brandings, beheadings and villains hidden behind Batman-style hoods. "How could this be heaven, if they just get burned up?" Kate asked, enraged at a scene in which assorted good guys are vaporized by a fire-breathing dragon. "Shut up!" said Nick, wide-eyed at the prospect of a battlefield confrontation.
Somehow, after all this, the two brothers manage to die again. Let's hope, this time, they made it to heaven. All we see is a gravestone. This is the kind of children's story only Ingmar Bergman—or Woody Allen—could love. But it sure kept this adult on her toes. (Pacific Arts, $19.95; 800-538-5386)
Once upon a time more than 100 years ago, a Swiss storyteller named Johanna Spyri wrote a tale that continues to enchant. Her adventures of a young orphan who is sent to live in an Alpine chalet with her crusty old grandfather is sweetly told in this award-winning animated version.
Don't expect the sophisticated artistry or brisk editing of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This Heidi is a giggly muppet with pink discs for cheeks and black dashes for brows. All the familiar characters, Peter the goatboy, Clara the cripple, the rotten old Miss Rottenmeier are ably acted. The story itself, though simplistic, is beguiling enough to divert your 6 to 10 year olds for 93 minutes. (Pacific Arts, $14.95; 800-538-5856)