Dean Milano is getting married. With the big 5-0 breathing down his neck, the guy who collects everything is finally collecting a bride. They’ll celebrate with a bash at Brookfield Zoo, where musicians who’ve played with him in more bands than anyone can remember will get the place jumping and every table will sport its own miniature Buick or Corvair or you-name-it from his model-car collection. When it’s all over he’ll move into his bride’s pretty Cape Cod in Elmhurst and live happily ever after. There’s just one small matter he has to take care of first: the 4,000 vintage model-car kits and 400 model cars plus dozens of old store displays, dioramas, Marx playsets, maps, clocks, radios, beer ads, and automobile-related toys and games that are piled up to the ceilings and bursting out of the closets in his own house in Addison, where he’s lived for the last five years. These things, the fruit of a lifetime of joyous acquisition, cannot move with him to the bride’s digs. The wedding gift Milano needs most is a nice little storefront museum.

Milano, the oldest of five brothers, was born in Milwaukee in 1951 and acquired his two consuming passions–music and model cars–early on. “If you lived in Milwaukee, you had to take accordion lessons,” he says. He started collecting vehicles as a preschooler; by the time he was a teenager the painstakingly accurate models he built were winning prizes. The cars went by the wayside in the late 60s and early 70s, when he was busy getting gassed at the Democratic convention and such, but he came back to them with undiminished fervor. For 20 years he made his living as a musician–a bassist and singer in a wide variety of bands, including a stint in the early 80s with the New Seekers. “I spent four years singing ‘Hey There, Georgy Girl,'” he says, while he continued to make, buy, and trade model cars as a hobby. He was especially drawn to the kits from his youth and all the paraphernalia that went with them. For ten years he was a columnist for Scale Auto Enthusiast, the bible of the model-car community.

It was a great life–all music and toys, a sunny boomer childhood stretching out forever. But in the early 90s, Milano says, something happened to the live-music business. “I was a musician all my life and all of a sudden there was no more music work.” He had always been versatile: “I’ve got my tuxedo for jazz, the cowboy boots for country western, the Hawaiian shirt for 60s rock ‘n’ roll.” But line dancing was killing the live-music country-and-western scene, and clubs were increasingly using DJs to spin records. When Revell, the nation’s largest maker of model kits, called to offer Milano a full-time product-development job in ’93, he took it. Now his days are spent researching cars, designing kit series, and writing box copy. The music is relegated to a few gigs each month with his current group,, and a 60s rock ‘n’ roll band called Duck Soup.

“I never thought the cars would become a career,” Milano says. Now that they are, he’s seeing a depressingly familiar pattern. Like the live-music business, the model-kit industry is in a period of contraction. “We’re trying to hang on to a generation of children that doesn’t seem to be interested in building model kits,” Milano observes. “Kids used to spend a week lovingly building a model and learning something about problem solving while they were at it. Now they’re caught up in computer games, spending all day pushing buttons. It’s their loss. There’s an adult market, a nostalgia market, but it’s not big enough to support an industry. I’m a real traditionalist; I don’t like to see the past disappearing. And here I am, watching two traditions crumble around me.”

The art on kit boxes and store displays from the 1930s to the ’60s makes them more valuable in some cases than the model cars themselves. Advertising art was inventive and idealistic then, Milano says–before a campaign for truth in advertising in the mid-60s turned packaging realistic. After that, “manufacturers had to show a stark photo of the toy, and all the art that had fired the kids’ imaginations was gone.” He’s scouting for a museum location in the Elmhurst-Addison-Villa Park area, but meanwhile some of the pieces from his collection (including vintage store displays and dioramas) can be seen in “Cruisin’ Cars: the Dean Milano Collection of Model Cars,” opening July 8 and running through July 30 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill Avenue, Elmhurst. Museum hours are 10 to 4 Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; 1 to 4 Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for children over 12; it’s free on Tuesdays. Milano will be at the museum to lecture about his collection July 15 at 2 PM. Call 630-834-0202 for more information. –Deanna Isaacs

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.