From the street, the Robinson home blends seamlessly with the other homes tucked in the quiet neighborhood near the lake in Mt. Juliet.
As you walk behind the house, though, the back yard rises before you like Wonderland come to life. Or at least like a McDonald’s playground.
A giant Officer Big Mac stands sentry while the Hamburglar flanks a metal slide.
Nearby, Ronald McDonald smiles from his perch on a porch bench in front of a small two-story building.
The guest book as you enter the small building bears signatures in childish scrawls and comments such as, “Speechless” and “Amazing.”
And no wonder.
Toys of all shapes and sizes emblazoned with McDonald’s golden arches, Burger King’s crown and even Shoney’s bear rest in hand-built glass display cases. But the walk through fast-food history doesn’t stop there.
A stained-glass table divider hangs in a homemade wooden frame on the wall.
A framed painting of Ronald McDonald skipping along with a boy and a girl on either side of him hangs on another wall.
“That was done by the guy who drew the Dick Tracy cartoon,” says Linda Robinson, pointing to the painting. “There aren’t a lot of those because they were recalled soon after they came out.”
Linda is a walking encyclopedia of fast-food memorabilia. For more than 23 years, the Mt. Juliet retiree has collected all the toys, statues and trivia she could get.
“Somebody told me I should call the Guinness Book of World Records and turn in how many things I have, and I said, ‘Well, I probably don’t have more than other people,’” says Robinson. “So I counted them, and I had over 5,000 toys.”
“That’s not counting displays,” adds Linda’s husband of 47 years, Paul Robinson.
Linda says she has about 200 displays, which are the cardboard cases McDonald’s uses to display each complete set of available toys.
In 2009, a British boy made international news after he sold his 5,000-piece collection of McDonald’s memorabilia – including displays – for $11,500 at auction.
But for Linda, the collection is not about the money, it’s about the joy the pieces bring.
She beams as she carefully cups a small wind-up McDonald’s toy from Hong Kong.
“This is one of my favorites,” she says.
When you ask her why she loves these toys so much, she pauses.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I never had toys when I was growing up – that could be it. I had six brothers and sisters, and there was always somebody to play with, but we never had toys to play with.”
Her collection began well into adulthood.
“My oldest daughter went to work for Hardees in 1989,” says Linda. “She brought me a set of toys home, and I thought, ‘Oh, those are so cute.’ So I stuck them in a cabinet. Then she brought me another set, and I put them in a cabinet…It just went from there.”
Eventually she filled six curio cabinets, and more pieces kept coming in.
Linda scoured yard sales, antique stores, Craigslist and Ebay, traveling as far as Florida and Chicago to pick up items.
“We got so much, we had to build a building,” says Linda, laughing.
Paul volunteered his work shed for the project and the couple worked for six months to convert the structure into a 16-foot-by-24-foot, two-story museum of sorts.
Paul built 13 glass-fronted display cabinets for the building.
Inside the cabinets, toys, Happy Meal boxes, cups, glasses, pencil toppers and more are grouped by type. Many of them bear tags labeling the name and release date.
In other cabinets, toys are grouped by country of origin, with pieces representing countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom.
“I kind of just put things where I can put them,” says Linda. “I just try to put things together that go together.”
As she walks through the narrow aisles, she points to various items and details the history behind each item – what makes it unique; how she found it.
She pulls out an unfolded Happy Meal box.
“There aren’t many of these,” she says. “This one has the rounded top…They replaced them quickly because they couldn’t stack them in the store.”
Linda shares her font of information with anyone interested. Neighborhood children frequently stop by to play on the playground or to admire the building’s treasures, and Linda gives them guided tours.
“This one little girl, she has brought I don’t know how many kids herself to look at the building,” says Linda. “I’ll just look around and say, ‘Now who hasn’t been here,’ and one of them will raise their hand.”
Of Linda’s and Paul’s seven grandchildren, Linda says they all were fascinated by the collection as children, but one in particular adored it.
“He graduated this year, but he was the only one out of all my grandkids that would beg me to play with my toys,” says Linda. “He’d say, ‘Granny, please. I’ll be careful. I’ll be real careful.’”
So she let him, and she began collecting sets for him until he lost interest as he got older. But Linda keeps adding to her collection with Paul’s help.
Each month, Paul goes to McDonald’s and buys another set of their latest offerings, and he takes her out scouring the shops for more.
“If there’s a box of toys or something, she just goes through it ‘cause I don’t know what she’s looking for,” says Paul. “I have helped pick out some stuff, but really I don’t know what I’m doing. She knows it all; I just support it.”
Linda says she has no plans to stop collecting anytime soon, and she says anyone is welcome to stop by to see the collection.
“We’re not the type to keep things boxed up and put away,” says Paul. “We want people to be able to see them and enjoy them.”
And much of Linda’s own enjoyment of the collection comes from children she shares it with.
“Those kids just love it, and that makes me feel good,” says Linda. “When it makes them happy, it makes me happy.”