Full-Course Kenner: An Autobiographical Journey Through Star Wars Toys, Part 1

KENLOGThere’s no big Star Wars-related milestone that inspired me to write a little bit (or not-so-little bit) about the line of Star Wars Kenner toys that were such a massive part of my childhood. The original three movies are 37, 34, and 31 years old, we won’t see a new film under the deal with Disney until at least the end of 2015, so things are pretty quiet in the Star Wars universe.

What set me off down this path was actually a podcast — The Star Wars Minute, hosted by Alex Robinson and Pete the Retailer. The concept behind star wars minutethe podcast is these two Star Wars geeks around my age (closing in on 40) dedicate each episode to a single minute of the original Star Wars movie. (I still have trouble calling it A New Hope or Episode IV.) A typical episode runs between 12 and 15 minutes, and it’s better than it sounds. They go into behind-the-scenes trivia (most of which I know, and I tend to yell corrections at my iPod when they flub something) and banter with their weekly guest, in addition to analyzing the minutiae of the film sixty seconds at a time. I may be biased, but I don’t see this working with any other film series. There’s a certain richness to the Original Trilogy that latter-day CGI-fests can’t match (terrific as some of those films are.)

Star Wars Minute has moved on from Star Wars, and are a ways into The Empire Strikes Back (they have promised to hang it up without doing the dreaded prequels), and here’s my beef: they have remarked numerous times that they have received complaints about digressing too much into discussion of the Star Wars toys. It surprises no one that these complaints come from Generation II of the Star Wars fan base.

Generation I are the people who fell in love with the Star Wars movies during their original theatrical run (1977-83), and aside from yelling occasional corrections at their iPods, are content to bask in nostalgia and not rock the boat too much. Generation III is everyone from toddlers through high-schoolers who were born or began to watch the films after the “Special Edition” re-releases in 1997 and are totally uncritical and accept the series as a whole, prequels and all. New Generation III’ers are being made each day (welcome!).

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Generation II are the nitpicking assholes. The millennials. The Gen-Y’ers. The eldest of them maybe got taken to Return of the Jedi as an infant and breastfed through it. They usually have older siblings or younger parents who were Generation I and got them into it…and then they really ran with it. They played all the video games, gobbled up the “Expanded Universe” novels and comics, and re-watched the movies endlessly on video. They are the ones who began to fetishize Boba Fett beyond all reason. They’re mostly in their mid-twenties to early thirties these days, and they’re the type who actually e-mail complaints to podcasts. Which is fine, but when they say the toy discussions should stop, that’s where I have to step in and invoke a little Gen I seniority.

Generation II have never existed in a world without home video. To Gen I, the toys were the only way we could keep the movies alive in our heads. We squeezed in as many viewings as we could at the theater, and once it finished its run, we hoped it would show up on TV now and then.

In the meantime, we had the toys. The wonderful, wonderful toys produced by Kenner from early 1978 through 1985, which fired the imagination like nothing else could.

walrus man

(This is what is at the core of Generation I’s anger towards Lucas’ tinkering with the original films and his prequels. His imagination just seems a lot different from ours, and after creating the original films, it veered off down a path that we all judged to be, well…kind of silly. It could not compare to our awesome personal imaginings — mostly spurred by those toys. Generation II has piggybacked on that anger because the Internet tells them they should.)

Kenner was a small toy company based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. The Kenner action figures were the first ones to go small — 3 ¾ inches on average. Most “action figures” before that were a Barbie-sized 12 inches. The smaller size of the Kenner figures meant you could take a whole bunch of them to Grandma’s or on vacation…and opened up the possibilities of compatible spaceships and vehicles! They were the first to utilize the packaging that has since become universal for action figures — the figure in all its glory, with “accessories” (i.e., guns), under a clear plastic blister, attached to a card showing a picture of the character. On the back of the card was a photo showing all the figures currently available. During the eight years of the original toy run, every year or so a few new figures would be released, and the group photo on the card backs would get a little more crowded. In the spring of 1978, there were twelve Kenner action figures in production. By the time it was all over, there were 92. I never got them all (dammit), but oh, how I tried.

The Star Wars craze was totally unexpected by Kenner, who didn’t realize the bonanza it had on its hands at first. They tried to get the toys on the shelves by Christmas ’77, and failed. They famously sold an empty box(!) as an “Early Bird Special” that Christmas — basically, you were pre-paying for the figures and you got them whenever Kenner finally succeeded in manufacturing them.

A cardback from around the time I started collecting the figures. There were 41 at the time

A cardback from around the time I started collecting the figures. There were 41 at the time. Yes, I sent away for the survival kit.

And they made a figure out of everything that walked, crawled, or rolled in those films. If it appeared onscreen for a split-second, it got a name and an action figure. I don’t know how excited we were supposed to get over the “Power Droid,” which I think was just some kind of battery on Slinky legs, but yes, I had it. And the names Kenner came up with were not the most imaginative. I hope whatever genius who thought of naming the figure that appeared vaguely walrus-like “Walrus Man” got some kind of demotion, or at least a brutal, ritualistic office humiliation. (I enjoy imagining the old Kenner design offices to be like something out of Wolf of Wall Street.)

There were some curious omissions among the action figures, though. No Mon Mothma, the leader of the whole damn Rebel Alliance. Neither Owen nor Beru. No Grand Moff Tarkin? He was a principal character, fer chrissakes! And they loved to put out the same character in different outfits. You could get Luke in his white Tatooine farmboy tunic, his X-wing flightsuit, his khaki Bespin fatigues, and his Hoth cold-weather gear, but we can’t get an Award Ceremony Luke, with the shiny S&M boots and awesome lemon-yellow bomber jacket? Explain yourself, Kenner.

The toy names also contributed to official Star Wars canon. The term “AT-AT” was never once uttered in the films, but there it was on the toy packaging as early as 1981, and that became the official “Imperial walker” name, always and forever. Who was Lando’s Cloud City aide? Lobot, of course. Again, never spoken in the film, but a name created for the action figure (which is how most of the minor characters got their names). And why did they have trouble with “adapting” the SNOWSPEEDERS to the “cold” on Hoth? Because they weren’t “snowspeeders,” they were just “speeders” in Empire’s actual on-screen dialogue. “Snowspeeder” was the TOY name. The toy names contributed mightily to the Star Wars universe. Show some respect, Generation II.

snowspeeder

The original run of Kenner toys was discontinued before Generation II had reached their formative years. They neither remember them, nor care about them (because they’ve always had constant access to the films themselves), and want the Star Wars Minute guys to stop talking about them. I hope they continue talking about them–in great detail–just to spite them.

SW_-_Empire_Strikes_BackVarious collector’s websites tell me I’m not alone in admitting these toys were my obsession…at least from 1980 to 1981, which was a long time to me then. I turned six halfway through that period.  I was too young to see the original Star Wars (and even if I had, at 2½ very little of it would have stuck with me.) I honestly have no idea when its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, appeared on my scopes, or what triggered my interest. Star Wars toys had been on the shelves for well over two years by then, and I don’t recall taking any interest in them until just before Empire came out. If I had to guess, I would say the TV commercials leading up to Empire’s release on May 21, 1980 piqued my curiosity…or maybe just word around the neighborhood was inescapable.

And I did live in a real neighborhood back then. Older folks (and I guess I’m one of them now) tend to complain about the vanishing concept of the “neighborhood,” that “no one plays outside anymore.” All these modern kids are always isolated inside, with their computers and smart phones. I don’t think that’s really the case. I think that all the adults are also inside, with their  computers and smart-phones, and fail to notice a lot of kids are still playing outside.

But yes, I suppose the old neighborhoods aren’t what they used to be. I’m glad to say I lived in one. I played in the sprinklers. I drank from random hoses (you had to wait for the water to get cold, or you’d get a mouthful of hot, rubber-flavored liquid). My wet swim trunks left dark, heart-shaped marks on various curbs. I did not require supervision as long as it was daylight. When Empire came out, I was living in a two-story Spanish-style adobe at 728 First Street in Woodland, CA., about twenty miles northwest of Sacramento. Slightly bigger than “small town,” but not quite a city. Next door were the Parrishes, a youngish couple who had probably been hippies in college. They had a son, Isaac, who was a year or so older than me. I suppose nowadays they’d be described as “hipster parents,” the type who in a more modern era would put a Sonic Youth onesie on their newborn. They loved Star Wars too, and not only encouraged my and Isaac’s interests, they actively participated. I remember one of their family projects was building a life-sized tauntaun in their living room out of papier-mache. (Their house was also the first place I heard the Beatles, but that’s a story for another time…)

728 First Street in Woodland. I think I remember taking this one myself on New Year's Day 1980. Note the old Xmas tree at the curb.

728 First Street in Woodland. I think I remember taking this one myself on New Year’s Day 1980. Note the old Xmas tree at the curb.

Next door to them was the big Mormon family, the Woodards. I don’t know how many kids they had, but they probably could’ve put on a decent production of The Sound of Music, with a few siblings left over for stagehands. The eldest was, I believe, a few years out of college, and the youngest, Mikey, was three-and-a-half when Empire fever hit. His sister Susie was roughly my age. The gap between Susie and the next eldest was enough to suggest a little late middle-age carelessness in the Woodard bedchamber. Sus and Mikey probably could have been named Surprise and Real Fucking Big Surprise.

matt04-1980

Me, September 1980

However I stumbled across knowing about it, I remember very much wanting to see Empire Strikes Back. My mother took me to see it. I doubt we saw it on opening day, opening week, or even opening month. It was probably June, the start of my summer between preschool and kindergarten. It wasn’t playing at Woodland’s lone theater, the State, so we would have to make the drive to Sacramento. We stopped at a store before the movie to get a toy to commemorate the momentous event. I wish I could remember which store, but dammit, it was 34 years ago. I know we saw Empire at the “dome” theaters at the intersection of Arden and Ethan (now demolished) and the Arden Fair Mall is right across the street. So it was probably the Arden Mall Sears (also demolished and replaced with a toyless Sears in 1989)…or maybe the Alta Arden Gemco a few blocks east (now a Target).

Anyway, for my very first Star Wars action figure I picked…Greedo.

My mom asked me if I was sure that was the one I wanted. Maybe I’d see something in the movie I would like better, and we could come back. (This greedoconversation is one of the few things I remember from that day with absolute clarity.) No. I loved the green, bug-eyed alien in the way only a five-year-old can love something that funky-looking. Sharp-eyed readers will realize, of course, that Greedo did not appear at all in Empire Strikes Back, but I don’t think I was in any way disappointed. No matter what movie a character appeared in, they were always packaged in line with whatever was the latest movie release. Thus, my Greedo appeared in Empire-logo packaging (pictured). (The final, post-Return of the Jedi action figure run used a kind of lame, generic “Power of the Force” card logo.)

I saw the movie, I loved it, and saw it twice more before it left theaters. Later that summer, my parents were going to see Airplane! and were going to put me, solo, in another auditorium for what would be my third time supporting the Galactic Rebellion. While we were in the ticket line, an usher came out and announced a technical difficulty would prevent that day’s showing of Empire. I ended up seeing Airplane! (no regrets), and my third viewing of Empire came later on…I distinctly remember one viewing of Empire coming when it was cool, gray and cloudy. Could it have hung on in theaters until October or November? In those pre-home video days, absolutely. And talk about the vagaries of pre-K memory! Until I saw the film on video years later, I swore I remembered spotting 1) an X-wing pilot wielding a blaster in each hand, John Woo-style, during the Hoth evacuation, and 2) a stormtrooper losing a leg in a hail of sparks during the final Cloud City battle, confirming the neighborhood theory that the stormtroopers were robots.

I quickly determined Greedo needed a vehicle. Why not a TIE fighter? Within a week or so of seeing Empire. I got a TIE fighter at Consumers. Does anyone remember Consumers? It was a really weird store that was essentially just a big lobby. You’d look at a catalog in the lobby, pick what you wanted, give the catalog item number(s) to the counter guy, who would go to the back warehouse and get your order and bring it to you. You saved a few cents since they didn’t rely on a “costly showroom” (their words). (We got our first video game system — the Atari 2600 — at Consumers a few years later).TIE

After flying poor, lonely Greedo around in a TIE fighter, the obsession truly began. He needed company. I began building The Collection. Or more accurately, my mom began building The Collection, because pretty much every Star Wars sale Kenner made off of me was subsidized through mom’s purse. The figures ran, I believe, about $3-5 at the time, about half as much as I spend today on a Carl’s Jr. meal, but getting each one felt like an event.

As far as I knew, you didn’t really shop specifically for Star Wars toys. You got them when you were out running errands with your mom, shopping for other things, and Star Wars stuff appeared as a bribe or reward. Good behavior in the bank line or at the boring-ass Hallmark store could result in an AT-AT Driver or IG-88. Which meant that very few of my Star Wars toys were actually bought at a toy store. Toy stores required a special trip specifically to buy toys, which was rare. Sometimes I could parley a trip to buy something for a cousin’s birthday into an additional Star Wars nugget for myself, but not always.

landspeeder-front

No, for the most part my Star Wars toys were bought from the single toy aisle at the big chain drugstores like Value Giant or Gemco (both now defunct) or from the toy department of Macy’s (before its toy department went defunct.) In my memory, the toy department at the downtown Sacramento Macy’s was a slightly strange, mystical place. Very quiet and usually abandoned (I guess I was one of the few 5½-year-olds brought on Macy’s trips), and oddly lit with subdued, multi-colored track lighting, it was tucked away up on the third floor at the back of housewares. The selection was small, but you would often find stuff there that wouldn’t be anywhere else. My landspeeder came from Macy’s.

2-1BEvery so often, I hit the jackpot and was at the store the same day their shipment came in. The back of the packaging cards practically taunted you with the figures you hadn’t found yet. Kenner would send a store two dozen of one figure, but three or four of another. I once snatched a Dengar out of the hand of a minimum wage stockboy at TG&Y, and I remember when I finally found the coveted Rebel Alliance medical droid, and ran down the aisles of Value Giant yelling “2-1B! 2-1B! 2-1B! 2-1B!”…

To be continued…

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