Toy theater, sometimes called plastic theater and paper theater, is basically a type of mini-theaterdating back to the late 19th century in Europe. Toy theaters used to be made on paperboards and sold for a small fortune as packages at the concession stand of a vaudeville theatre, classical theater, or opera house. These theaters would often be run by local theaters and would entertain small children and those who enjoyed magic shows. The first toy theater was built in 1913 at a paper mill in Germany.
As new technology developed and became cheaper to produce, more elaborate and realistic models began to be produced. While the idea of going to a real brick and mortar venue for a play or show still attracted some people, more people were able to experience the benefits of viewing a production or a show in their own home. This is when the concept of a toy theater was born. In recent decades, toy model theaters have been continually improved upon and many different formats have become available. Still, there are two basic types of toy theater that remain popular.
The first type is the classic penny plain theatre. These classic toy theatres were most commonly run by one or two women, with the actors and actresses being compensated by the penny. These theatres were decorated as they would have been years ago, using large, clear sheets of plywood and fabric to create the stage. Often times, these theaters had plush seats that were made of felt. They had authentic looking cast and crew, and if they were operated by a real business, the business would have an office in the back of the venue. Most of these old penny plain playhouses were run by the women of the neighborhood, as they were usually the ones who could afford them and enjoyed the entertainment value that they provided.
The second type of toy theater that has become popular in recent years is the Back to School Theater. This type of theater is most often run by the schools themselves. Many of these are designed as academic theatres to provide a real world like environment for the students to enjoy, while at the same time, allowing the children to learn something outside of the classroom.
One of the most common models for the late 19th century was the toy theater of Thomas Alva Edison. Alva Edison was known to be a huge fan of “impressive” models. In fact, he often took trips to New York to view local plays and shows, which often included miniaturized versions of famous pieces of equipment. Alva Edison’s toy theater was so impressive that it prompted his famous company, “GE”, to produce a similar model theatre. The “New Improved Model” as it was called, became one of the most popular shows in history, bringing large numbers of children and adults to Broadway.
The Alva Edison toy theater was not the only model theater that came to be produced in the early 19th Century. It just happens that it was the first one that was made with the wide use of machinery and new manufacturing techniques. Manufacturers were able to mass produce these models, which allowed them to create large amounts of miniature theaters, all while reducing costs and allowing for greater profit margins. These toy theaters often had large “stage” areas for additional staging and would often have a number of chairs along with other features, such as large flower boxes or even slides.
It was not until the late 19th Century that the toy theater truly began to catch on in large cities across the United States. At this point, however, it was still commonplace for parents to send their children to see a “real” play and not go to a “box” or a fancy house. Many people found that going to see a real play was a more educational experience than sending their children to see a dummy show. Many of these early toy theaters were powered by wood and would often feature music from a local band. While there were certainly disadvantages to this form of entertainment, it was a step in the right direction and soon people were sending their children to see a real toy theater instead of a dummy one.
As the 20th Century dawned, more producers were drawn to the idea of creating a toy theater. This time around, the technology was more advanced and the equipment was more compact and affordable. There were also numerous international toy theater festivals being held in various cities all over the world. At these events, large scale puppeteers and actors were hired to entertain the crowds. While there are no known disadvantages to this form of entertainment, many parents who sent their children to see a real live puppet show found that it was simply much more entertaining and educational than watching an overcrowded and overly complex mass-produced toy theater production.