Now that we have a Star Wars movie slated for every year from here to infinity, the toy merchandising machine for the galactic franchise is in full-force (GET IT?). From automobile-maker cross promotions, action figures, light switches, candy dispensers… There is a disturbance in the force that can oversaturate the market if the mouse house battle station isn’t careful enough.
However, all was not like it is now back when Star Wars was originally released in 1977. Not knowing what a cultural phenomenon was upon him, George Lucas’ vision essentially created the toy Empire as we know it today. Here are a few visits down memory lane, documentaries to watch and the “cash-in on knock offs” during the essential build up of the toy franchise.
The Force Begins
We all live in an instant get-it-now world thanks to Amazon. But imagine having to sit and stare at a cardboard cutout for MONTHS before your action figures arrive. Kenner released this “Early Bird” promotion which, in a way, was brilliant and created the craze for these original action figures that was more rigid than a reform school. R2-D2’s head clicked and the smell of plastic capes filled the air every time the Darth Vader carrying case was opened. If you find these carded figures intact, they can sell for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. More stable than the stock market!
The perfect companion piece that I highly recommend is Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys. This tells the full story of how the Star Wars action figure universe began and covers how Kenner created a ground-breaking toy economy from sales, conventions and collecting.
The Vintage Galaxy
If you live within the DFW area, be sure to visit Dallas Vintage Toys. Size matters not in this small store that will keep you looking into every nook, shelf and ceiling of their massive vintage and re-issue collection ranging from Star Wars toys to G.I. Joe and everything in-between. If you are a collector, their website houses a database of their entire inventory. The edges of the store house the more collectible items enclosed in glass shelves to which there are several remote control R2-D2’s, Empire Strikes Back boxed vehicles, Transformers, and He-Man figures with action sets. If that isn’t enough to fill your vintage toy void, there is a vault at the back of the store that houses one of the most impressive carded and boxed collection of Star Wars sets, figures and ships that I have ever seen and is worth the visit alone. Be sure to call ahead to see if this collection will still be on display.
I Have A Bad Feeling About This
Let’s get back to the original launch of Star Wars toys and before the world of lawyers, licensing and legal strike teams… A slew of knock-offs infiltrated the stores, which confused some non-savvy consumers when they were buying toys for birthdays and holiday celebrations.
The first imposters were S.T.A.R Team (Space Travel and Reconnaissance Team). The “Knight of Darkness” (original huh?) is easily a Darth Vader rip off from the silver chest last, mask and black cape with a “futuristic weapon.” The other two team members are ZEM 21 who is a mashup of Greedo and C3-PO. His counterpart, the R2-esque figure, is ZEROID 4600-3. That easily rolls off the tongue… ZEROID came from the line of ZEROIDS which are very reminiscent of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet and reprised in the hit tv-series Lost in Space. Speaking of Lost in Space, the ship ZEROID used is very close to ship designs from that show. I actually received ZEROID as a gift from my a relative who fell for the “this was seen in Star Wars” gimmick. Sounds like Fake News. The trio was complemented with an action hero mash-up of Buck Rogers and an astronaut that came with a “Cosmic Cruiser.” Lucas tried to sue the toymakers of S.T.A.R Team but lost due to lawmakers stating that they were too much of a mash-up of many concepts.
And there were the cases… Before the Darth Vader face case made its debut, there were knock off figure cases that could hold 12 “space” figures. Star Wars, meet Star World and Space Case with a steampunk version of Darth Vader, R2-D2 and a hairy “wookie” who looks like a set extra from Planet of the Apes.
Beyond the action figure craze, Kenner branched out to cash in wearable gadgets and the rise of then popular tabletop electronic arcade games. Having owned the Electronic Battle Command Game, I can tell you from experience that bleeps and blinking red dots did not add up to the excitement of X-wing fighters flying by as the box shows. But it was all about imagination back then.
On our latest podcast, my compadres in crime and I asked each other what was the one gift you wanted as a kid but never received? My selection was the original Empire AT-AT I had envied so much when my best friend got one. It was the toy of all toys and pounded Rebel scum to the ground during action figure play. Check out the podcast to hear what their selections were. Happy toy hunting. There will be a substantial reward for the one who finds the Millennium Falcon. You are free to use any methods necessary, but I want them alive. No disintegrations.