In the atlas of Bob Marandino’s imagination, you can board a train in Saint Martin and ride it over to Nantucket. On Nantucket’s weathered docks, you can buy a lobster roll and some ripe St. Martin fruit (which has just arrived by canoe), and pause to admire the Statue of Liberty bearing her torch over Nantucket Harbor. Get back on the train and you’ll soon pull into Coney Island circa 1950, a whirl of carousels and bumper cars, shooting galleries and teacup rides, where, as luck would have it, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has encamped with its horses and lions and elephants and big-top tent…
But wait. How the devil does anybody know what goes on in Bob Marandino’s imagination? He leads a visitor through the back door of his stately home in Rye, through a tidy little office, and into a well-lighted basement. And there it is: a meticulously crafted model railroad layout of enormous size, a leviathan among train-based worlds. At 35-by-27 feet, it’s even bigger than most people’s living rooms. What makes it truly unique, though, is that almost every scene is autobiographical.
“The idea was to bring out all of the things that made me happy when I was a kid,” says Bob, who is a robust seventy-nine years old. “So I sat down and wrote out what scenes I would want, beginning with the circus, and I slowly developed this.”
It took him about ten years to build. Well, longer than that—decades, a lifetime—if you figure in the collecting, culling and curating of every element of every scene. Considering trains alone, Bob has more than a thousand railcars and 150 engines—steam, electric and diesel. He points to the wall, where bright red rows of custom-built shelves hold hundreds of Lionel engines and cars that have gone gracefully into retirement. “See that black locomotive and the three blue cars? That was my first set of trains.” On Christmas Eve 1939, his father, Pat, set it up by the tree for Bob to discover at first light. “Those things you don’t forget,” he says, mentally revisiting the Brooklyn of his earliest memory. The hobby took. Further into boyhood Bob struck an incentivizing deal with his father: If he wanted something for his model railroading, Pat would pay half. “So I always had a job, whether delivering newspapers or groceries from the food stores. What drove me was to make money to buy trains.”
The passion went underground in adulthood, while Bob made a successful career in car dealerships and commercial real estate. But in retirement, trains returned as a full-on obsession. Little did anyone realize how centrally they occupied his dream life. When he built the house that he and his wife, Joan, live in today, his daughter Cristin—the editor of this magazine—asked why it had to be quite so big. Shouldn’t he be downsizing, like most people his age? “I have to have someplace to put the trains,” Bob replied.
He acquired his layout’s thousands of constituent pieces from some unlikely sources. He spotted his giant Ferris wheel on display at a CVS. He took it home, motorized it, and christened it the Wonder Wheel after the famous ride at Coney Island, where he worked one summer selling French fries. The tracer lights for his military airstrip formerly decorated some candles at Home Depot. The Statue of Liberty he found in, of all places, St. Martin. “They wouldn’t sell it at first,” he recalls. “But if the price goes up enough…”
Bob commissioned his most picturesque trains (the circus train, complete with animal cages, and a “work train” so detailed that you can see the individual rivets) from a master train builder whom he met at what hobbyists simply call “York,” the popular twice-yearly model train show in Pennsylvania. He constructed half of Nantucket himself. He purchased the Lionel-manufactured Glendale Station, but thought it looked too metallic, too toy-like, so he built a new roof and siding. In the basement’s adjacent workshop he also built, section by section, the latest and greatest feature in his Arcadia—Yankee Stadium. Yankee Stadium is deep in the interior of the landscape, as if at the center of his brain. But why not Ebbets Field? “Because when the Dodgers quit Brooklyn,” he says with a little extra gusto, “I quit the Dodgers.”
South of Yankee Stadium lies Robert’s Oldsmobile, the dealership in downtown Stamford that Bob owned for many years. “Joan bought this building at the York train show,” Bob says. “It doesn’t look anything like the real Robert’s Oldsmobile, but it’s beautiful.” The handsome brick edifice has a sales floor, gleaming with midcentury Oldsmobiles, and a street-lamped parking lot to hold the overflow. In the back lot, Minnie Mouse and Goofy appear to be having a secret rendezvous—one of many whimsical touches in Bob’s world. One can stare at the layout for hours and keep discovering new, often humorous details, like Santa being pulled over in his red Corvette, or a sign at the edge of the board warning: “Steep Grade.”
If Robert’s Oldsmobile represents Bob’s work life, then Nantucket and St. Martin represent his escapes. Nantucket in particular serves as his vision of family happiness: In summer the Marandino family would travel to Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard and finally to the favored Nantucket on their sixty-foot boat; Bob still rents a house on Nantucket every August, and family members drop in as they can.
A stone’s throw from Robert’s Oldsmobile, in the shadow of an elevated track, lies a bustling downtown with shopfronts and alleyways and a big iron clock on the sidewalk, very like the one on Greenwich Avenue. Down the track, we pass Marandino’s Fish Company, with an American flag emblazoned on the roof; a gas station with a limousine parked in front; a roundhouse for the trains to sleep in; stores with friendly front porches, one of which has a man resting with a newspaper over his face; a red Rolls-Royce stopped at a crossing gate; a blonde in a yellow convertible; Coke machines, billboards, water towers, oil rigs, sailboats; and a theater honoring Bob’s late sister, the Broadway star Patricia Marand. Then there are the hundreds of figures—men in suits, women in skirts, soldiers, sailors, shopkeepers, milkmen, musicians, pirates, fishermen, dogs, swans—for whom you can imagine multiple story lines as they crisscross one another’s paths.
On and on the train tapestry rolls, into the distance. And there is a very real sense of distance here: Murals painted on two walls function as a visual extension of Bob’s model world. One shows the New York City skyline with the Twin Towers lording over all; the New York Central rushes forth from a stone-block tunnel beneath the city, as if destined for the fields and mountains that comprise the second mural. The murals are evidence of how carefully thought-out Bob’s realm is; they had to be painted before carpenters built the massive model railroad platform, so that the painter could back up to see the murals whole as he worked.
Once Bob set to building and populating his layout, he had to keep in mind the scale. Yes, this is a world built to scale—“quarter scale,” dictated by the size of the trains. “In other words, a quarter-inch equals a foot. So one inch is four feet.” (Bob’s trains are O-gauge, for the fanatics out there. The brand he prefers these days is MTH Electronic Trains, believing their digital systems superior to Lionel’s.) Model rail-road vendors do sell by scale, but Bob’s more imaginative acquisitions, brought in from outside the hobby, had to fit naturally into the landscape. Not everything quite does—the Statue of Liberty is a bit small—but it would take a perfectionist’s eye to notice.
All in all, his empire is a technological marvel. Bob stands at the control panel looking not unlike a ship’s captain, an expression of pure concentration etched on his sun-tanned face. Eight trains at once are chugging around ribbons of track—among them Santa Fe, Baltimore & Ohio, Union Pacific, and, er, New York Yankees—and if Bob doesn’t calculate their speeds just right, he’ll have a catastrophe on his hands. “And if a coupler opens and you drop a car,” he says, “the next train coming around is gonna whack it.” He raises the lid on the control panel to reveal a Medusa-like nest of wires: “It’s organized confusion under there,” he murmurs. Next to the control panel is an array of bulky black transformers that power the layout—each keyed to different elements, from the buoy lights in Nantucket to the dancing raisins at Coney Island. Studying all this, one realizes that model railroading isn’t such a boyish hobby after all. Math, engineering and electronics all come into play, and in Bob’s case a craftsman’s talent. At the moment, only the teacup ride is on the fritz. He gives it a baleful stare, then casts an approving look at a dependable German ski lift. (Bob uses a “creeper,” such as car mechanics use, to visit the layout’s underworld, where some problems must be solved. But what if a tower were to tip over in the center of the layout? “Then I would have to get up on the train board and tiptoe through the tulips.”)
Bob jiggles the controls, and suddenly this little world is alive with the sounds of circuses, airplanes and trains, whose fading whistles approximate soundwaves bending into the distance. Aficionados call model railroading “the World’s Greatest Hobby,” and it’s easy to see why. Yet twilight has settled over it. “This is a dying hobby,” Bob says somberly. “Every time I go to a train meet, it’s who died here, who died there. We’re not attracting the young crowd, although we’re making every attempt.”
There’s more than a trace of patriotic nostalgia in the air of Bob’s basement. Well. He is hardly alone in believing that life in America is losing its former grandeur. Sometimes he’ll make himself a 5 o’clock martini and retreat from the news of the day, slip down here, among the trains that wind through his memories of that younger, shinier America. He dims the overhead lights. In the darkness the circus shimmers, the Wonder Wheel spins, the trains fly down the track with headlights beaming, and Yankee Stadium glows with color and light. Bob has kept the right-field side of the ballpark open, so that we can see inside—see the players upon the green grass, see the scoreboard, too, which informs us that the Yankees are pummeling the Red Sox, 8-0. All is as it should be in Bob Marandino’s world.
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