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Cool and Collected: Tops of the World


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Judith Schulz's most impressive trick with tops involves flinging them across the display area at the Spinning Top Museum in Burlington, Wisconsin, and hitting small landing platforms more than 15 feet away. "This is a rare skill to master," she says, "even though it's within anyone's ability to pick up if they just try it enough."

Schulz's obsession with tops began in 1975, when she was visiting the Soviet Union and bought a wooden doll that had a top inside rather than the usual family of smaller dolls. She began collecting in earnest and now has 5,000 models. "Tops are like cars--they all operate in essentially the same manner but have countless small variations," she says. "I have promotional tops for kids' shows like Huckleberry Hound, gambling-game tops that players would spin to match a race number with a horse number for placing bets, and even bracket tops where you pull one cord and get two tops released."

Schulz, a longtime educator, first displayed an assortment of her tops during Burlington's 1986 Chocolate Festival, arranging them in cases at the nonprofit educational resource center she'd set up in 1976. She intended to leave the tops out only for the duration of the festival, but people kept saying they had to bring their friends and relatives. So she agreed to leave the display up until the end of the summer. During the summer, tour groups asked her to keep it there until Christmas, and then the Christmas visitors asked her to leave it through the spring. Finally she gave up and made part of the resource center a permanent top museum.

Today she keeps 2,000 tops on display at a time--the remaining 3,000 take up space in her home and car. The museum also has 800 yo-yos, numerous puzzles, gyroscopes, games, and antique toys, as well as a gift shop featuring 180 different tops, 55 yo-yos, and lots of books of tricks.

Schultz's favorite top is from Malaysia. "Top spinning is a national sport in Malaysia," she says. "They even have a coin with an image of a top spinning on one side. The tops there are so elaborate you wind them with an 11-foot rope around a tree to get proper tension, scoop them onto a paddle, and they continue spinning up to seven hours."

Schulz regularly puts on a two-hour show, and she encourages kids to play with many of the tops. She also makes her library of books available to anyone wanting to study the history and physics of tops, yo-yos, and 3-D puzzles.

"Tops are still made, but they're harder to find in the days of Nintendo and Game Boy," she says wistfully. "I just have to keep my eyes open between rummage sales and antique shows. My daughter just went to Washington, D.C., and brought back a top that both glows in the dark and serves as a pencil sharpener. That's something even I've never seen."

The Spinning Top Museum is at 533 Milwaukee in Burlington, west of Kenosha. But it's open only a few hours a week, and you must make reservations. Call 414-763-3946. Admission is $5. --Carl Kozlowski

For information on Kenosha see the Visitors' Guide on page 44.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carl Kozlowski.

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