Salutations, Star Warriors!
In May of 1977, Star Wars impacted my childhood like an Imperial biker scout into an Endor tree. I walked into the theater a normal, average, everyday kid and came out with my imagination cranked up to "11" with the knob broken off.
Much has been said about the deal George Lucas made with 20'th Century Fox in order to get Star Wars bankrolled. The studio probably thought they were making out like banditos when they short-changed Lucas's director's fee in lieu of profit points and the film's merchandising rights. Back then, the only movie that had made any substantial coin from tie-ins was Planet of the Apes. I wonder if the Fox executives sat back and laughed at Lucas for what they must have though was a pretty noob move?
But the young visionary knew that toys based on his sprawling space saga had the potential to be big business. Back in 1976, he asked Mego Corporation to produce a line of Star Wars action figures but he was immediately shot down. This discarded offer was promptly picked by Kenner Products, a division of General Mills who were best known for producing such childhood classics as Spirograph, the Easy-Bake Oven and Play-Doh.
Along with everyone else on the planet, Kenner was taken completely by surprise when Star Wars suddenly become a world-wide cultural phenomenon. In fact, they didn't even have the the capability to produce toys in time for the highly-prized 1977 Christmas season. Their solution to this was as bizarre as it was ballsy: they ended up selling fans an empty box.
Somehow this whole "Early Bird" racket managed to pass me by. In fact, I was oblivious to the concept of Star Wars merchandise until one fateful day when my parents were dragging me towards the exit of a Woolworths in Sydney Cape Breton in the Spring of 1978. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I spied something in the distant toy department. Back then I was so attuned to Star Wars imagery that I probably would have seen this display behind a foot-thick wall of lead:
I wasn't the only Seventies kid who was obsessed with this stuff; our entire generation was buying Star Wars toys like rats on cocaine. I wonder how long it took before the execs at Kenner realized that they had a Bantha-sized cash cow on their hands? I imagine if was probably just seconds after receiving the sales figures for that first quarter of 1978. After realizing how rich they now were, they probably turned to each other and said:
That's when we began to realize that these characters could be more then just window dressing. Via hours of creative play, we eventually assigned origins, motivations and back-stories to even the most obscure bit players. Way before these guys had had canonical names and lore attached to them we were invited as kids to make up our own. In retrospect, how could I possibly slight Kenner for that?
Besides, how many people can claim that some of their most cherished childhood toys were given to them for free? Well, that was certainly the case for one of the most popular action figures of all time: Boba Fett. Not many people know this, but the galaxy's most notorious bounty hunter didn't make his debut in The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed, any true Star Wars fan worth his lightsaber knows that Fett was the only decent thing to emerge from that steaming pile of wookiee dung known as The Star Wars Holiday Special:
Kids could get Boba Fett for free just by mailing in four proof-of-purchase tabs from the back of any Star Wars action figure to Kenner! Since I was fascinated by the sometimes-rare images on the front of the cards, I couldn't bear to throw any of them out. As such, whenever Kenner proposed another one of their freebies, I always had a huge proof or purchase surplus at my disposal.
These free figure offers actually happened with alarming regularity. In fact, here's a personal favorite of mine: "Bossk, Alien Bounty Hunter". As a side note, WORST SECRET EVAR.
By then I had over twenty of these little plastic bastards and no place to store them. Well, leave it to Kenner to sell you yet another empty box, this one designed to house all the crap that you'd already bought from them. Pure evil genius.
Now, Kenner wasn't content just selling a hojillion three-and-three-quarter sized action figures. They also produced a series of twelve-inch toys designed to compete with G.I. Joe and those super-heroic Megos. Although this scale wasn't nearly as successful as their diminutive cousins, it did result in the creation of some of the best toys ever produced. Unfortunately they were also kinda pricey and, as such, I only had Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader out of this line:
Wow, that sounded terrible. And on so many different levels.
Just as a casual aside, if anyone out there wants to buy either of these guys for me as a birthday gift, I wouldn't object. Seriously, go right ahead, you have my permission. Fill yer boots.
And with it came a virtual assault of Empire-related vehicles and playsets, such as the totally pimp Rebel Armored Snowspeeder:
The Twin-Pod Cloud Car:
The Tauntaun and Hoth Wampa:
Fett's Vette, Slave I:
The distinctly poultry-esque AT-ST Scout Walker:
And then there's Yoda's crib, included with the Dagobah Action Play Set:
I also managed to snare some of first film's toys this time around. Thanks to my inexplicable fetish for Stormtroopers and giant lizards, the Patrol Dewback was a foregone conclusion:
I was also keen on the Death Star Space Station play set, which I'd coveted ever since it first appeared in the Consumer's Distributing Christmas catalog:
But in a stroke of good fortune, I got the Death Star Play Center instead. It was a Sears Wish Book Exclusive back in 1980 and it's now regarded as one of the rarest and most valuable Star Wars collectibles in existence!
To populate all of these brave new vistas, Kenner cranked out nine new figures in 1981:
The following year nine more figures materialized including Hoth Battle Gear Luke Skywalker, AT-AT Commander, TIE Fighter Pilot, (Twin Pod) Cloud Car Pilot (OooOoo, exciting!), bounty hunters Zuckuss and 4-LOM, and a racially-diverse Bespin Security Guard.
Even as a ten year old kid I began to suspect that Kenner was starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel with some of these dubious choices. For example, "R2-D2 with Sensorscope" was the exact same figure from the very first wave but with a little plastic vibrator that popped out of the top of his head. Lame!
I started to become jaded, to the point where I didn't even bother to track down the C-3PO with Removable Limbs. My twelve year old brain reasoned that if I really wanted that particular option I could just rip the arms and legs off of the old figure.
Regardless, these wonderful toys allowed me to pass the time while waiting for the release of Return of the Jedi. But when the trilogy's final film appeared in theaters on May 25'th 1983, it actually fueled my growing Star Wars cynicism. Compared to the first two movies, I thought Jedi was creatively fatigued, juvenile and kinda slap-dash. Half way through the film I was silently hoping for an Ewok ethnic cleansing.
As a result, I didn't collect very many of the Jedi-era toys. By that time I was thirteen years old and way more interested in heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons and girls, oblivious to the fact that these things were mutually exclusive as well. I guess, at that stage, I was all Star Wars-ed out and thought that toys were best left behind in childhood.
But between 1978 and 1982 Kenner, Star Wars and I had a really good run. It's funny how four short years can feel like an entire epoch to a kid. Although some folks might look at all of this as an unholy marketing ploy, these great toys ensured that every day of my idyllic childhood was an exciting adventure in that Galaxy Far, Far Away...
EPIC MEMORIES: In all estimation, Star Wars paraphernalia appears in at least 30% of my childhood photos. Here a few select snaps from over the years:
EPIC PHOTO CREDITS: Display Box, Wave "A", Wave "B", Death Star Play Area, Wave "D", Wave "F".
FAILED TOY COMMERCIAL: Hmmmmm, I wonder why they didn't make a "Horny Itchy" action figure complete with "Diahann Carroll Virtual Reality Porn Goggles"?