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Nostalgia Awakens: The Star Wars Toy Empire Revolution (Part 1)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 21, 2023 3:01 am

Nostalgia Awakens: The Star Wars Toy Empire Revolution (Part 1)

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 21, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the "Nostalgia Awakens" is a Star Wars action figure exhibit from enthusiast and museum curator Jarrod Roll. He's here to share the story of how Star Wars toys revolutionized movie merchandising, licensing, and even how children play. 

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This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on the show, including your stories.

Send them to They're some of our favorites. And on this show, America is the star.

The American people are the star. Featuring every action figure toy made by Kenner from 1978 to 1985 based on the original three Star Wars movies. The Star Wars toys on display are from Jared Roll, enthusiast and museum curator from Wisconsin. He and his brother Kevin owned many of the toys when they were children. As an adult, Jared collected the rest of the original toys. Here's Jared Roll to share the story of how Star Wars toys revolutionized movie merchandising, licensing, and even how kids play.

Well, I guess we will go back to, you know, to the beginning, and that was in 1977. At that time, I was four years old, and my mother is a fan of sci-fi. She watched syndicated Star Trek episodes, and she had learned of this movie called Star Wars that was coming out. By the time we saw it, it already had gained a lot of interest, a lot of hype. Star Wars was released in May of 1977 to only 32 theaters in the United States. Just to put that in perspective, so 32 theaters. When The Force Awakens was released, it debuted in over 4,000 theaters. So, again, there are people who have documented the story of Star Wars, you know, the little movie that could, and how it just changed everything.

When that movie came out, there was nothing like it. It changed everything. It changed how we think about the relationship of toys and movies, merchandising, licensing, how kids play. It really solidified action figure toys. Up to that point, toys were not licensed for movies like they are now. Movies weren't around long enough to justify the cost for toy companies to invest in a toy line. So with the exception of some evergreen licenses like Disney, Looney Tunes, you know, because they were around for decades and they had other ways of appearing. Unless it was a TV show, action figure and toy lines, they weren't made for movies. And so that's why when the Kenner Toy Company signed on to be the sole producer of toys for the Star Wars movies, they were taking a risk. If you would go to Walmart today or Target or any place where toys are sold, you will see toys in the aisle for blockbuster movies before the movie even comes out.

That's a given. You want to just get the most out of it, help even create excitement for that property. But when Star Wars came out in 1977, kids like me who left the theater, we wanted toys for that movie, but there were no toys to be had. When George Lucas was in the process of creating Star Wars, he knew he had a story that would appeal to kids. So George Lucas shopped around the Star Wars license to the big toy companies first, saying, you know, I've got a movie coming out. I can't tell you a lot about it.

I can't show you much about it because I'm keeping it a secret. But, you know, it's going to be science fiction and it's going to involve, you know, characters that I think will translate well into a toy line. And the bigger toy companies like Mattel and Migo, you know, they said it will pass. You know, there's too much risk involved. Quite frankly, you know, science fiction just really doesn't appeal to kids right now.

And so it's not worth our risk to do that. That's where the Kenner Toy Company enters the scene. Kenner at this point, they were a small toy manufacturer in Cincinnati, Ohio. And they were a subsidiary of General Mills Foods. So if you've ever eaten Count Chocula cereal, that's the company we're talking about. And they were just the small toy arm of General Mills.

And so they were willing to take a look at it. And it was just one of those stories where you just had the right people working for Kenner at the time that saw the potential of this movie. And being a smaller company, they have slightly less risk and they can be a little more nimble versus a giant toy company. And so Kenner Toys said, we will do this.

We can do this. They shared some product samples with Lucasfilm and Lucasfilm said, yeah, you know, we're on the same page when it comes to this. And so they signed an agreement with Lucasfilm and they were the ones to make these toys. People will tell the story about Bernie Loomis being asked the question, he was the president of Kenner at the time, what size should we make these action figures? And Bernie Loomis stretched out his finger and his thumb and said, Luke should be this tall.

And that size was three and three quarter inch. The decision that Kenner made was based on the idea that they knew to make this toy line really, really catch on with kids, they needed to have a world for kids to play in. They needed to have environments, you know, what we call play sets. They need to have vehicles for the figures that go in. And to do that, you can't do that inexpensively with a 12 inch toy line. Up to that point, up to 1977, 12 inch was a very common action figure or doll size for boys dolls or action figures.

GI Joe really started that, certainly solidified it in the 60s and early 70s. But they knew to have a Millennium Falcon, that you can't make a Millennium Falcon for a 12 inch Han Solo. It would be so expensive and retailers wouldn't want it for their shelves because it would dominate the entire shelf for itself. And so the three and three quarter inch line, you know, that that made sense.

And Bernie Loomis made that choice to to keep the figures to that smaller size for that reason. But it would take a full year before action figure toys were even available for that property. So when Christmas of 77 rolls around, kids like me, we want we want Star Wars toys for Christmas. That Christmas is the time that we get our toys.

And unfortunately, Kenner, you know, even though they're all working nonstop weekends around the clock to try to get toys out as fast as they can, there's no way they can get them into the shelves in time for the holiday 77 season. And we're listening to Jared Roll tell the story of how a small toy company beats the big company to the market on the Star Wars toy franchise. When we come back, more of this remarkable story about Star Wars on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation.

A monthly gift of seventeen dollars and seventy six cents is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to our American stories dot com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming. That's our American stories dot com.

And we continue with our American stories in the story from museum curator Jared Roll. Let's pick up where Jared left off, telling the story of how the small toy company, Kenner, took the offer from George Lucas to manufacture Star Wars toys after all the big toy companies passed on what seemed to be too much of a gamble. Kenner began production immediately, but wouldn't have a single action figure on the shelves until a year after the first Star Wars movie premiered. But they had a plan.

Kind of. Here again is Jared Roll. So rather than miss out on all the excitement about Star Wars that Christmas, Kenner toys.

This is Bernie Loomis as the president at the time. He and his team come up with an idea and it was a very risky idea. And that was the sell an empty package to kids so that at least there's something to go under the tree that year. And what that was, it was called the early bird kit. And it was approximately a 16 inch by nine inch cardboard envelope.

Very colorful. And in the inside, all you had was a cardboard display arena with pictures of what the action figures will eventually look like. There are just representations of the characters translated in the action figures.

So it's a little display arena. And then there's some stickers and and then a slip that you filled out and put in the mail. And then it says when these figures are available, you know, which is between February and June of 1978, you're going to get them.

You'll get Luke, you'll get Leia, R2 and Chewbacca, the first four. And so it was a real risk. And some people scoffed at the idea. It's like, wow, where do you where do you come up with the idea of selling an empty package for kids for Christmas? That seems like a non gift. But yet at the same time, for the people that did receive those for those kids that did receive those early bird kits under the Christmas tree.

Right. It wasn't the figures, but it was the next best thing. It was a promise for the figures. And at least it was something. And by all accounts, the people that I spoke to personally who did receive one at Christmas time or the accounts I've read, they were excited to get them.

And many of them, thousands were sold. And it's one of those just wonderful toy stories that has gone down in history about when Kenner sold an empty package to kids, when inside all you had was a promise. And that is, kid, you're going to be the first to get them when they're available.

They're just not ready right now for you. Merry Christmas. So the early bird kit, if you can find one sealed, like unopened, we're talking five figures. You know, I honestly they don't come up very often, you know, but if you have one like I have one as part of the Nostalgia Awakens exhibit and I have the original envelope.

And thankfully, the kid who opened it did a really nice job opening it just on the side, just to kind of slip the side open just so carefully had pulled the contents out. And so it has all the contents yet. And, you know, that thing costs a few thousand dollars to buy. At least it did when I had bought it. Because, again, cardboard is what you call ephemeral.

It's not meant to last forever. Now, I did not get the early bird kit as a kid at the time. I wasn't even aware of it as a kid where when I first started getting toys was when everybody else pretty much did.

And that was going to be in spring of 1978. So I remember the day, actually, so I would have been five years old, just about five. Yeah, because I turned five in April and it was springtime because it was warm out. And my my my mom and my brother and I were over at her friend's house visiting and my mother's friend's son, Jamie, who is my age. He shows me a little Darth Vader action figure and I bugged my mom and said, Mom, they have toys of Star Wars now.

Can you take me to go get one? And, you know, after enough haranguing, we eventually went to what we used to call the five and dime stores. And I still remember the creaky wood floors and walking in there and that kind of smell of a small town five and dime store and walking in and seeing the display for Star Wars and walking really quickly up to it and just looking and scanning with my eyes just to see what they made.

And there in this end cap is a selection of of action figures, you know, on blister cards. And I remember just standing there and I would take one off. I'd look at the back and then I'd set it in and just have to make a choice. And my mom's like, OK, make a choice.

I'm ready to go check out. And I didn't know which one. And I could only pick one, which is really hard because I don't know what you do with just one of them. But at the time, I remember C3PO was there and and R2D2 was there and a SAM person was there. But but Luke wasn't there.

Otherwise, I would have got him right away, I'm sure. But Chewbacca was there. And so he was the one I picked and I took him home and he was my first Star Wars action figure.

And he's the one that started it at all. And then from that point on, getting Star Wars toys was such an important part of my childhood. You know, it was always on my radar. You know, if I could save any little bit of money, you know, and we would stop at a small store or whatever grocery store sometimes carried them and they weren't very expensive. They were originally they were under two bucks apiece. So they're, you know, they're within purchasing power of a kid. But the real big, big opportunity to start a collection would have been at Christmas of that year, Christmas of 78. My grandparents, they were the ones that really gave us the toys, my grandparents. And they would also get the Sears and JCPenney Christmas catalogs in October. And I remember that year getting, you know, laying down on the floor, their carpeted floor in their living room and turning page by page and just seeing those toys in there and just circling and circling and circling.

And of course, you circle them all because you want them all. That year, that Christmas was wonderful because we received a lot of Star Wars product under the tree. And that was amazing. Star Wars had such staying power in the late 1970s. I mean, we have to remember that it didn't just influence kids, you know, kids toys and kids imagination.

It influenced everything. When we go back and look and see the influence on entertainment, for example, Star Wars was parodied on Saturday Night Live. It was there were there were so many knockoff movies that were produced during that time. Adults too, and adults loved Star Wars as well. It wasn't just kids. People back then of all ages really fell in love with that story and those characters. Everybody tried to cash in on the excitement surrounding Star Wars, so it was always there.

It was always in front of us. You know, trading cards and comic books. It lived on. So even if that if Star Wars left your local theater, it lived on. I remember getting bubblegum cards of Star Wars. And those were very important because that helped me as a kid remember the movie and also learn more about the lore of the movie. And these cards would tell you who the names of the characters. It'll tell you like what was going on in that scene because it happens so fast when you're sitting in the theater.

And I only saw it twice as a kid. And so these cards helped fill in those gaps and really expand that story for me. And it was all canon. It was all Star Wars.

It wasn't like somebody was making stuff up. It was all there. And so that that helped Star Wars stay in my mind all throughout that time period.

Seventy seven, seventy eight, seventy nine. And then the excitement of Empire coming out. So it never it never waned.

It was always there. And part of it, too, I wonder, is that because we were never fully satisfied. You know, when when you're my kids today, you know, when they see them, we go to the theater and see a movie. It's on DVD six months later and they'll watch it over and over and over and over again because it's a great movie. But then it's just kind of, you know, it's gone. And then, you know, the next great blockbuster comes along.

I mean, we live in a time period now where we have so much, so many wonderful stories being told of properties that we're excited about, superheroes in space and things that, you know, that as a kid, this weren't there. And so it it has such staying power that in the anticipation of the sequel, we had to find out what happened next. And when we saw what happened next and we find out that, you know, the good guys really lose in this movie, Han Solo is frozen. Luke loses his hand and Darth Vader is his father. Whoa, what's going to happen next?

We have to wait another three years. What it was like a lifetime of waiting for that to happen. But it was always there. And people making products made sure we were always reminded of Star Wars. You know, they they knew it, too. And so there was always something there to remind us. Oh, books on tape. So we had as a kid, I had a little storybook, a little cassette tape, and I listened to that thing over and over and over again. And so I knew the movies well, not because I saw the movies a lot, but because of all this other stuff that went along with it. And great job as always to Greg Hengler, Jared Roll's story of Star Wars merchandising and something more on America and American lives here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-08-25 21:35:51 / 2023-08-25 21:42:59 / 7

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