Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Kenner Star Wars Action Figures (Original 12)
These guys changed the world. These characters changed the world of pop culture as we knew it. These figures changed the toy world as we knew it.
Much has been said about the small scale of the first Star Wars figures. Apparently, this scale was introduced in an effort to keep the size of vehicles and playsets for the figures down to a manageable size. The high cost of producing plastic, at the time, may have played a role, as well. Suffice it to say that Kenner started a revolution in the action figure industry being the first to release figures in the 3 3/4" scale. It became such a popular scale that other companies began following suit and we saw everything from Mego Superheroes to GiJoe being produced at this size not long after. This scale is even seeing a resurgence today in such lines as Mattel's DC Infinite Heroes, Hasbro's Indiana Jones figures, and many others.
When the first Star Wars movie hit in 1977, it caught just about everyone by surprise. Science fiction films were seen, mostly, as low budget "kiddie fair" at that point and no one expected Star Wars to do anywhere near as well as it did. For me, after seeing pre-release stills of pictures that included Chewbacca (all hairy and wearing an ammo bandolier), I had made up my mind that Star Wars was going to be nothing more than a Planet of the Apes rip-off. I was totally right, of course.
All kidding aside, Star Wars exceeded most everyone's expectations on all fronts.
In kind, Star Wars caught many merchandising companies by surprise, as well... and Kenner Toys was just as late as many companies in getting product to the shelves. Movies weren't quite the marketing juggernauts that they tend to be today. Previous to Star Wars, the Planet of the Apes franchise had enjoyed the largest movie merchandising push of any property up to that point. In those days, it wasn't a "given" that a big budget blockbuster would have toys and what-not released around or before the release of the film. These days, toy and collectible companies release stuff so much earlier than a film's release that they even have to be careful about spoiling plot points months before anyone actually sees the film.
Star Wars was released in May, 1977. If memory serves, Star Wars toys did not start hitting toy shelves until early spring of 1978...almost a year after the film's release. That's a long time to wait and a testament to the "staying power" that Star Wars held and still holds to this day. Kenner even sold an "Early Bird" cardboard package with vouchers inside for eventually-to-be-released figures during the 1977 Christmas shopping season. This was done in an effort to secure both money and mindshare before they could actually get figures on shelves in 1978.
The figures pictured in this feature are my actual figures from childhood (these are the same figures that were shown in the Valentines Day vintage photo). Most of them were secured as gifts during a 3 week stay in the hospital for a cracked shoulder. I slipped and hit the ice while playing hockey during grade school recess and didn't realize anything was seriously wrong until weeks later when it was discovered that my shoulder was infected and would require hospitalization. Fun. I believe I also received an X-wing fighter during that stay. Who knew a fractured shoulder could lead to so much cool Star Wars swag?
The first figures to hit shelves were Darth Vader, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Stormtrooper, R2D2, C3PO, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. In fact, prior to that, the first figures seen at all by the public were Luke, Leia, Chewie, and R2D2 when they were shown before Christmas 1977 in the television commercial for the now famous Early Bird pre-order set. It was several months after the initial release of 9 figures that the Death Squad Commander, Sandperson, and Jawa found their way to toy shelves, with the Jawa and Sandperson being the most difficult to find. Once out, this completed the initial release of 12 figures. We had no idea, at the time, just how many Star Wars figures were to come from Kenner. As far as I was concerned, I was done.
I'll never forget finally finding a Sandperson figure while on vacation in Oklahoma. There was ONE left and a younger boy was holding it and pleading with his Mom to buy it for him. Luckily for me, his Mom said "no" and the prized figure was placed back on the shelf. I held on to that figure so tightly all the way to the cash register that, if I remember correctly through the haze of nostalgia, it had to be surgically removed from my hands before I could open him and add him to my growing Star Wars figure ranks. That was a good day.
When the Jawa finally appeared in stores, most of us were very surprised to see that he no longer sported the vinyl cape that we had seen in so many promotional photos on the back of packages and in pack-in booklets (of course, a precious few Jawas with the vinyl cape did trickle on to shelves and are now worth more than my car). He was wearing a soft cloth hooded robe which seemed very odd at the time given the nature of the previous eleven figure's vinyl capes and robes. Plus, it hid the Jawa's trademark bandoliers that were part of the base figure's sculpt. Ah, but it was good to finally complete "The Twelve."
Today, we are looking back on 30 plus years of Star Wars history (has it REALLY been that long?) and there have been hundreds and hundreds of different Star Wars figures produced in that same time period. However, there was a point a long, long time ago when kids who loved Star Wars didn't have any Star Wars toys to play with and waited anxiously for them to be produced...not really knowing IF they would be produced. These old figures are the epitome of "vintage" with their limited articulation, screen inaccurate weapons, simple sculpts, and uncomplicated paint jobs. However, to many "kids" from the 1970s, there will never be better Star Wars figures produced...ever.
More Star Wars features to come.