Toy soldiers and trains: Mt. Lebanon display gives joy to many



Before setting up a soldier-themed Victorian Christmas display in a curio cabinet in his Mt. Lebanon home, Dave Frankowski studied pictures and descriptions of 1880s England.

Learning that British soldiers decorated their modest barracks in patriotic fashion, he designed a miniature setting of enlisted men eating plum pudding on benches against a backdrop of flags, a wreath and a picture of Queen Victoria.

On another glass shelf -- as depicted in old illustrations -- he fashioned a scene of British officers dining on turkey at a banquet table holding candelabras with suited waiters serving them.

Holiday train display a snapshot of merry olde England

Dave Frankowski talks about the holiday train display in his Mt. Lebanon home. A number of touches help it bring to live an era reminiscent of the mid- to late-1800s in London, England. (Video by Andrew Rush; 12/19/2013)

In an adjacent 4½-foot by 16-foot display, toy British soldiers guard ceramic versions of Buckingham and Kensington palaces and Windsor Castle in a picturesque 19th century village with a railroad, skating rink, pubs, church, a one-horse open sleigh and more.

Mr. Frankowski and his wife, Colette, held an open house Saturday for families to view the annual Christmas exhibit in their home.

The visitors included the Zimmerman family from Cecil, who made the trip for the third year to see the display.

"It's getting to be a tradition with our family: We have to go and see this," Katie Zimmerman said.

"There is something for everyone. My husband loves the soldiers, and I love the lights," she said.

The display features hundreds of intricately painted figures, including horse guards wearing red or dark blue capes and helmets with plumes and carrying swords; street characters such as a muffin vendor, town crier, pickpocket, blushing maiden and courting couples; and literary icons from the era's Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," including Tiny Tim and Scrooge.

Mr. Frankowski, 63, said his fascination with toy soldiers and trains began in his childhood.

His mother, who was born in England, knew he liked to play with toy soldiers, so she bought him a set of the guardsmen who are stationed at Buckingham Palace. He also liked to help his father set up the family train under the Christmas tree.

He began erecting his own display 15 years ago, after he found a train that matched the scale of his soldiers, which is 1/32.

"Then it kind of snowballed and got bigger every year," he said.

He buys items on the Internet, at garage sales and at shows for collectors of toy soldiers.

"They have to look British and fit the time period," he said.

He prefers unpainted figures that he can detail to create specific images and to match the Victorian motif.

"I think it's beautiful," Mrs. Frankowski said of the exhibit. "I appreciate his work he puts into it, like painting the figures and placing them strategically in the display. I'm proud of him."

Mr. Frankowski said the 16 hours he spends every year erecting the scene is time well spent.

"I enjoy doing it as it reminds people of their childhoods, and is our way of decorating," he said. "Anything that's Christmas is fun."


Margaret Smykla, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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