Growing up in Highland Park, Illinois, Brian Levant found himself drawn to entertainment in an era when the television boom was about to pop and America was on the cusp of a licensing revolution. Levant caught the collecting bug early.
“When I was really young, maybe in 1958 or so, things like Three Stooges flasher rings and little glow-in-the-dark light bulbs started appearing in gumball machines — things that you really had to have,” he says, reflecting on the genesis of a passion that has been with him ever since. It’s a collecting hobby that’s been shaping his book: My Life and Toys.
For the past eight years, Levant, the filmmaker behind Beethoven, The Flintstones, and Jingle All the Way, has been working on the book with his brother-in-law, Joseph Pellegrini. Levant has the stories and the toys, but the process has taken time because Pellegrini, a commercial photographer, is in Chicago, while Levant is in Los Angeles. Whenever Levant makes his way back to Illinois, he brings a box of toys with him to be photographed.
Rekindling Memories of the Past
“It’s been a process, and working on the book has revived memories of things like riding on the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile,” he says, pointing to the memorabilia as distinct signposts that represent moments in his life.
Levant, who got started in Hollywood by writing and producing on TV series, such as The Jeffersons, Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, The New Leave It To Beaver, and The Bad News Bears, finds a lot of connections between his hobby and his work. When he visited the Weinermobile as a kid, “Little Oscar” was played by Jerry Maren, the Lollipop Kid from The Wizard of Oz.
“Jerry worked as a stand-in on The Bad News Bears, and it was so weird to talk to him again after all that time,” he says.
From the Bookshelf to Bedrock
While there are a lot of creative people who tend to collect what they’ve created, Levant may have booked a major gig because he collected.
“I think one of the reasons I got The Flintstones was because of my collection,” he recalls. “I’d heard that they were looking for a writer, but my agent at the time said, ‘They’ve got somebody already, but they’d like to speak to you about directing.’ When I went in to meet with [Steven] Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, I sat there for the first 10 minutes fumbling before I got myself together, but what I did bring was a Polaroid of my Flintstones collection, which was, at the time, maybe 35 to 40 pieces. Spielberg was blown away by it.”
Levant says he now has around 4,000 pieces of Flintstones memorabilia, including the Williams’ Flintstones pinball machine that was directly inspired by his 1994 film.
Surrounded by Inspiration and Creation
Happy Days was a series that Levant started working on and then collected. “I’m very fortunate that from 1976 into the ‘90s, there was a steady stream of great Happy Days merchandise being released, and it’s great to live with these parts of my life,” he says.
In Levant’s home office, he says that he’s completely surrounded by the comedians who have influenced him, the projects he’s worked on, and the entertainment that has inspired him. One particularly interesting collection is tied to a famous property that Levant wasn’t in love with until after he worked on it: Scooby-Doo.
“I have to admit that I was not a big Scooby-Doo fan. I took the meeting and couldn’t remember Daphne’s name,” he says with a laugh. Timed with the 40th anniversary of the Scooby-Doo franchise in 2009, Levant directed Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins and Scooby-Doo! The Curse of the Lake Monster for Warner Bros., both of which made their debut on Cartoon Network.
“I developed such an appreciation and appetite for collecting Scooby-Doo while making those two films,” he says. “And look at Robbie Amell [Fred] and Hayley Kiyoko [Velma] — they’ve gone on to become genuine stars.”
As Scooby celebrates 50 years this year, Levant continues to collect, amassing everything from multiple versions of the Mystery Machine to what may have been the first Scooby-Doo toy ever created: a simple vinyl figure of the Great Dane.
It’s Turbo Time! (A Classic Comes Around)
In 1996, Levant took the helm of what would be his biggest-budget film: Jingle All the Way. Now considered a perennial holiday classic, the initial response to the Arnold Schwarzenegger-led film was unexpectedly tepid. The film opened at No. 4 with a plot that mirrored the real-life Tickle Me Elmo craze of the year — parents going wacky in a hunt for the year’s hottest toy, the fictional Turbo Man. Of course, the film had merchandising of its own, with Tiger Electronics shipping Turbo Man action figures during the holiday season.
“The reason I chose the movie initially is that I figured I’d get all the toys,” Levant says. “By the time we finished production, I had the original 24-inch Turbo Man from the parade scene, and it sat in a box in the garage for more than 20 years. The original sculpt from the Tiger toy was in my storage area in a box of literal office junk. I was so disappointed. When you throw yourself into your work for that amount of time and under so much pressure and visibility, it’s very draining. The response we got was a cold slap in the face, and that was the first time that had happened in my career. I was lucky, though — I was 20-something years into my career before that happened.”
Over the years, the perception of Jingle All the Way has changed, with VHS and DVD releases followed by Blu-ray and streaming, along with seasonal showings on both TV and the big screen.
“I am so appreciative of the response,” says Levant, who teaches screenwriting at universities on the West Coast. “Whenever I go on these campuses, the only thing that anyone ever asks me to sign is Jingle. People explain that they sit down with their families and they watch it together every Christmas. I’m genuinely touched.”
The film’s growing popularity has, of course, spawned new collectibles, many of which are making their way into Levant’s hands — everything from high-end collector’s statues to enamel pins, T-shirts, and impressive fan art. As life imitates art, the original Tiger Toys Turbo Man is now a sought-after collectible that fetches hundreds of dollars, but there are also prop makers who have taken it upon themselves to create highly articulated figures that have been created from scans of the original production props and upgraded with modern tech.
The Icons of Advertising
Funko has been expanding its collection of Ad Icons over the past few years, but Levant has many of the originals that predate the Pop! Vinyl craze. Colonel Sanders, Big Boy, Cap’n Crunch, Mr. Peanut, the General Mills Monsters, Tony the Tiger, and more vintage figures each occupy a dedicated space in his office.
“As a kid, it was impossible to watch TV without being bombarded by the cereal commercials, and the way Kellogg’s would grab Wild Bill Hickok, Howdy Doody, and Superman, and later the Hanna-Barbera characters, to advertise,” he recalls. “It was an all-out assault, and at that time, it was Sugar Frosted Flakes, it was Sugar Pops — they literally pushed the sugar.”
Other mascots in Levant’s collection include the Pep Boys, Speedy Alka Seltzer, Mr. Bubble, Green Giant, and Charlie the Tuna, to name a few.
The Pinnacle Piece
Having a collection that spans decades and interests, could Levant possibly have a singular favorite toy or collectible?
“When I finished The Flintstones, which was a 23-month process, I bought myself a very nice present,” he says. “A set of Marx Bros. dolls — in the boxes — from the film Love Happy. I have them mounted on my wall.”
Currently, Levant is on the hunt for new Superman pieces, but not the standard fare. He’s looking for “ugly ones,” particularly the knockoffs and foreign pieces. He also made a stop at the biannual All-American Toy and Advertising Collectors Show in Glendale, California, where he picked up a vintage Superman lunchbox and Thermos, a Kix cereal Lone Ranger Six-Shooter Ring advertisement, and an original 7-inch vinyl single of The Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” / “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
No matter what your interest or fandom, Levant completely nails why things connect — and why we collect.
“See, collecting is about passion,” he says. “It connects us to our shared past and personal memories. It highlights our interests, our tastes, and our obsessions. Collecting is a physical manifestation of our individuality.”
Levant hopes to release My Life and Toys at some point late next year.
Follow @brianlevant on Instagram.
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Fall 2019 Issue No. 5, click here to read more!