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From toys to treasure

How Ken Hakuta, a.k.a. public television's Dr. Fad, used the Wacky Wallwalker to preserve perhaps the largest private collection of Shaker craftsmanship is quite a story.

He loves to tell it.

"I was bored with making millions," Hakuta said with a smile. "I wanted to do something more creative."

In the rare remains of the once flourishing Mount Lebanon Shaker sect of New York, which he has purchased and moved to a warehouse next to his toy factory in Columbia, Md., Hakuta said he's found something more than money _ something that gives meaning and reason to his fabulous luck and his fortune.

"I've become obsessed with preserving Shaker furniture. I feel as though every influence in my life, everything I've learned and know, all the money I've made, has come together to take care of it," the 41-year-old entrepreneur said.

Hakuta talks a kilometer a minute. He's so full of flash and dash he may well glow in the dark _ like one of the 4-million plastic toys he said he turns out each year.

He waves his hands as though they were propellers, no matter whether he's sitting in his Washington, D.C., living room with his slippers on or driving lickety-split down the highway to show off his Shaker hoard.

The best place to begin the story is with Hakuta's finding the formula for making a million dollars: luck plus a hunch.

"Opportunity just exists in the air for a few minutes," he said. "If you don't obey your gut feeling right away, you've lost your chance."

Hakuta acted on his hunch at Christmas 1982, when luck came in a brown box from Japan sent by his mother. At the time Hakuta was an exporter of cat food to Japan and an importer of karate uniforms from Korea.

Inside the box was a small plastic blob with long legs, a taco, or octopus. When thrown against the wall, its wobbly legs crawled slowly down to the floor.

Hakuta took one look and said, "We'll make a million dollars." He was wrong. Over six years, the Hakutas made $20-million as the exclusive U.S. marketers of 230-million quivery octopi named Wacky Wallwalker.

"An embarrassing amount of money," he said. With close to $1-million of his money from toy-manufacturing, Hakuta bought about 2,500 of the remaining movable objects at the historic Mount Lebanon (N.Y.) Shaker Village.

So far as Hakuta can remember, he and his wife and business partner, Marilou, had first seen Shaker pieces in art and design books. They found a great kinship between the clean lines of Shaker and Oriental design. "It's like Zen furniture, natural woods with a simple wash showing the grain," he said.

Their first Shaker purchases were four small chairs in Waterford, Conn., now in the place of honor at one end of the living room. Then they met a dealer selling antiques from Mount Lebanon.

From him, they bought their prize Shaker pieces: a rare, large, Shaker alphabet board suspended from the ceiling; a fine, tall clock; a splendid Shaker cabinet; and two sets of beautifully designed chairs. Rare Shaker-manuscript books, not known to scholars, are carefully shelved.

"We have two collections _ this one for our living room, and then the big study collection in the warehouse," he said.

Already tours of schoolchildren come through to see the collection, as well as the toy factory. Hakuta has thought of sending the pieces on the road to museums across the country _ and to Japan, "so people can see what I think is the most truly original American design."

Hakuta said his original hope was that the Mount Lebanon objects would become the core collection of a museum on the New York site. But after he and the seller, Darrow School (which occupies the old Shaker village), failed to agree on the establishment of the museum or the storage conditions of the collection _ or nearly anything else, for that matter _ he moved the Shaker artifacts to Maryland.

"We sold the collection to Hakuta, at a lesser price, hoping to keep it all together at the site," said Darrow board Chairman Earl "Trip" Samson III. ".


. We got snookered. A very wealthy collector took advantage of a financially strapped school."

But Hakuta said that Darrow told him to "

"make up your mind quickly and Fed-Ex a check' or it would be spread over living rooms across the United States."

For now, Hakuta is having the pieces repaired and restored _ many need a great deal of work. He's hired two curators to inventory, study and appraise the collection. His best estimate is that his collection contains 100 major pieces of furniture: workbenches, cabinets, tables, chairs, alphabet (teaching) boards, church benches and such; 200 books, including a rare manuscript book of hymns; a miscellaneous collection ranging from tools to tombstones (removed by the Shakers themselves to be replaced by a unified memorial); herb bottles and labels; and many other small objects.

Hakuta had everything photographed at Mount Lebanon, where some pieces were built into the Shaker buildings. Pictures and objects together form valuable evidence of the 19th-century utopian, egalitarian, celibatarian United Society of Believers, as the Shakers are properly called.

Today fewer than 10 members still practice the Shaker religion.

Ken Hakuta's parents came to California as East-West traders in the 1960s, bringing with them the 14-year-old Ken and his younger brother, Kenji. Ken Hakuta went to Georgetown University, majoring in business. He made spending money _ and considerably more _ by running a Japanese catering service.

"I figured out I could buy sake for $6 and cater it at $12," he said.

Though it's difficult to imagine his ever sitting still, "when I was a boy, my father used to criticize me for _ it's hard to translate _ I guess you could say "mindless time.' Thinking what to do," Hakuta said. "I need to be bored, so I can be pushed into doing something."

With Hakuta, that something is often turning the spotlight on himself. In September 1988, he began The Dr. Fad Show on Washington public TV station WETA.

The show, he hopes, will encourage children to be more interested in the way things work. Children bring in their inventions, and you-know-who hosts in his Wacky Wallwalker shirt.

Dr. Fad so far, to Hakuta's accounting, has earned him only $1 in salary and cost him a good bit more in production costs. In September 1992, it goes to PBS, with WETA as its originating station.

Though he said he studiously avoids promoting his toy line (which in any case can be found only as prizes in cereal boxes), the show helps satisfy his need to bask in the starlight.