It's a workshop that would make Santa's elves proud. Or, given its precision, maybe a little envious.

On Wednesday in Northeast Philadelphia, as the sun dropped in the winter sky, thousands of toys were headed out of a military motor pool and into the hands of needy children.

The mountains of skateboards, soccer balls, and books had been reduced to hills. What was recently an insurmountable wall of board games had been trimmed to a more reasonable fence.

Big cardboard cartons full of basketballs, plastic tool sets and dolls were loaded onto trucks and vans, the final distribution of 90,000 toys gathered for the Toys for Tots program run by the Marines.

"We do it for the kids," said Marine Staff Sgt. Mauro Cervantes.

He and others were hard at work at the Motor Transportation Bay, a warehouse-type building set behind the headquarters of the Third Battalion, 14th Marines, on Woodhaven Road.

All those toys placed in all the barrels in all the lobbies of local businesses end up at the Motor T-Bay, as it's called. There, the toys are catalogued, sorted, and prepared for delivery.

Awaiting pickup yesterday were kites and Tonka trucks, footballs, puzzles, and Hula Hoops, along with enough stuffed animals to fill a zoo.

"We're pushing out toys by the tens of thousands," said Staff Sgt. Marc Palos, who is in charge of the effort.

Every toy is inventoried - which is how the Marines know they've gathered 90,000 in the city this year. Last year, the metropolitan-area figure was 93,000.

Registered charities can apply for up to 300 toys, one toy per child. The Marines distribute the goods on a first-come, first-served basis. Demand always outstrips supply.

Tuesday was the big pickup day, with so many trucks, vans, and cars pressing into the parking lot that it created a mini-traffic jam. On Wednesday, the pace was slower.

For Palos and other coordinators around the country, the mission is clear: To collect new, unwrapped toys during October, November, and December, and distribute them as Christmas gifts to poor children.

Campaigns operate in 500 communities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, with the Marines assisted by the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, a fund-raising body.

The Marines who run the local programs come and go, their orders taking them to far corners of the globe. But Toys for Tots endures, as eternal as Christmas.

It started in 1947, when a Los Angeles woman, Diane Hendricks, created a homemade doll and asked her husband to have a charity deliver it to a needy child.

When Bill Hendricks discovered there was no such charity, she told him to start one. He did. And he possessed the perfect combination of interests and connections to make it successful.

As a major in the Marine Corps Reserve, Hendricks quickly enlisted other local reservists to gather and give out toys - 5,000 that first year. The Marines formally adopted Toys for Tots the next year, and expanded it nationwide.

In civilian life, Hendricks was director of public relations for Warner Bros., which put him in touch with actors, singers and celebrities - all of whom were asked to help out.

Walt Disney designed the familiar Toys for Tots train logo. Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, and Vic Damone recorded a Toys for Tots theme in 1956. Immortals such as Bob Hope, and more recent stars such as Tim Allen, have given the organization their time and energy.

In Philadelphia, at the Motor T-Bay, the on-the-ground effort looks like this:

Rows and rows of big boxes, separated by gender and age group. Girls' toys to one side, boys to the other, little kids toward the back, bigger children up front.

Twenty Marines are assigned to handle the entire city, a job that mandates late nights and weekend work. Others play key behind-the-scenes roles. Retired Navy Capt. Howard Surlick, a Philadelphia native who seems to know everybody, helps open doors to donors.

The frontline staff keeps toys moving in and going out.

"It's very rewarding," said Staff Sgt. David Jones II, who functions as the assistant coordinator.

Some nights, Palos, the coordinator, is on the job so late that there's no point in driving home. He beds down on a government-issued cot.

But the satisfaction is great, he said. The job offers a chance to see humanity at its best.

One woman arrived with a carload of toys that she had bought. A guy came in with a full truckload.

"I said, 'What's your name?' " Palos recalled.

"He said, 'Don't worry about it. I'm Santa Claus for the day.' "

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.