Like an omniscient general, Frank Steffens is able to pick one toy soldier from among the thousands in his collection and tell you everything about him -- uniform, weapon, military unit, even the manufacturer. To prove his point, the Hollywood toy collector plucks Colonel Cardigan, the commander of the 1854 Light Brigade, from a sea of British soldiers on horseback. As the name implies, the colonel was a clotheshorse. "He had his tailor make these jackets without lapels, and that type of suit jacket later became a cardigan jacket," says Steffens, a retired financial officer for the South Florida Hospital District.
Stuck on the subject of uniforms, Steffens moves on to Napoleon's army, holding aloft a French infantryman whose headgear sports a tall, yellow plume. In real life, he says, the plume served as an optical illusion; it made the soldier look bigger than he was.
Steffens has been doing some hard-core collecting for the past ten years. Before that he was on a hiatus of sorts. When he was a boy living with his family in Long Island, his father bought him toy soldiers as gifts. On occasion they would head to New York City, where, in a Fifth Avenue toy store, miniature armies took up an entire floor.
He collected about 50 pieces as a kid, but when he went off to college, the hobby fell by the wayside. It wasn't until about ten years ago, when Steffens came across some toy soldiers in a bookstore, that he resumed his hobby. Today his collection amounts to more than 2000 lead and metal-alloy figures on foot and on horseback, playing in military bands, and riding elephants. He has Scottish bagpipers in kilts, Napoleon with his hand tucked in his jacket, and soldiers wielding lances and riding sidesaddle.
Steffens' collection -- part of which is on display in "Forward! March!" at the Broward County Main Library in Fort Lauderdale -- focuses on regimens and brigades that fought during the 1800s. The uniforms, banners, and flags of that era are much more colorful than today's olive greens and khakis. The oldest figures in Steffens' collection were made in the '30s. He bought one set, 49 British infantry pieces from the Malcolm Forbes Toy Soldier Museum collection, at auction. What the set's worth he won't say, but individual soldiers go for as much as $200, depending on age, condition, and availability.
His wife, Rita, contributed to the collection unwittingly when she bought a Christmas gift for their son, Michael. In the Bahamas she picked up a set featuring 28 musicians from the Nassau police marching band, dressed in white tunics and helmets. But because their young son was too rough with the figures, the set was stored in a closet. It stayed there for about 25 years. Today the band members stand on glass shelves in a lighted bookcase designed by Michael, an architect. The band, as well as all of the armies, are displayed in tight, neat formations in front of a landscape backdrop.
"It looks like a big grand parade," Steffens proclaims. "It's colorful history. It's a decorative art."
-- Patti Roth
"Forward! March!" an exhibition of 700 toy soldiers from the collection of Frank Steffens, is on display June 4 through September 27 at the Bienes Center for the Literary Arts, 6th Floor, Broward County Main Library, 100 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Admission is free. Call 954-357-8692. For more information about the South Florida Toy Soldier Club, call 561-732-7295.