Wednesday, June 21, 2017

'Chive Cast 83 - Thousands of Prototypes: Steve Denny Story Time

Collecting folk hero Steve Denny regales the 'Chive Cast with tales of finding literally thousands of cared figures and prototypes in the wild wild Midwest of 1980s and 1990s Cincinnati. Learn about the proof finds, Canadian Droids and Ewoks, UDEs, Rocket Fetts, Revenge proof sets for $50 and the mysterious Mr. X. Plus, Skye unveils a conspiracy theory that may lead to the greatest scandal in the history of the hobby. All this on the cursed 83rd Vintage Pod! Brought to you with the help of John Wooten and


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06:40 – News: Steve’s "At The Movies" Podcast Launches
10:52 – News: Theft at Rancho Obi-Wan
14:55 – Skye’s Worst Joke Ever
24:00 – Skye’s Boat Trip
37:31 – Story Time: Steve Denny’s Inconceivably Huge Canadian Haul of Droids, Ewoks and Sandcrawlers
48:30 – Story Time: Zteca Influence on Kenner and Banana Boxes?
52:04 – Toy Shop Memories and Die Cast Displays with Ron
59:16 – Vintage Vocab: Proof Cards and a Proof’s Voyage
1:09:58 – The New Management of
1:13:39 – Storytime: How Steve Denny found ALL the proofs
1:19:40 – Chinchillas Attack!
1:20:29 – How Many Rocket Fetts?
1:21:59- Mr. X and His Magical Chalk Box of Prototypes
1:25:11 – Micro Prototypes
1:27:00 – A Most Peculiar Trade (How Many Snowtroopers?)
1:29:51 – Father’s Day Memories
1:32:15 – How to Get Rid of Revenge Proofs
1:36:22 – Skye’s Conspiracy of the Biggest Possible Scandal of All Time

Image Sources and Show Note Links:

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Match Made in the Heavens: Star Wars and Estes Model Rockets

Ron writes:

 The modern rocket was invented by the Nazis to kill British people.

But then there was Laika the Soviet space dog, the Apollo program, and Elton John, and by the '70s the rocket had been rehabilitated, allowing it to become a staple of the toy and craft industries, played with by thousands of children.

And all of this while we were under constant threat of annihilation by ICBMs.

In America the model rocket business was dominated by Estes, the brainchild of Colorado native Vern Estes, whose innovative and economical engines revolutionized the industry in the 1950s.

Even though Estes was sold to Damon in the '70s, the company remained associated with Vern, who personally addressed customers in regularly issued catalogs and newsletters.

By the '70s Estes had branched out into licensing, releasing rockets associated with properties such as Star Trek. So when Star Wars hit theaters, you can imagine Vern's excitement. Here was an opportunity to sell rockets in conjunction with the biggest space movie of all time!

Reportedly, his trucker cap spun around three times, and two of the patches popped off of his bomber jacket.

Here's Vern's justifiably proud announcement of his company's acquisition of the license, printed on page one of the 1978 catalog, the cover of which you see at the top of this post.

Of course, if you saw this as a kid, your eyes were drawn to the art rather than the text. At which point you wondered: Why is Luke doing jazzercise?

As Vern mentions, Estes' 1978 Star Wars line consisted of six different products. Judging by the information in the catalog, most of these were released in the spring, meaning they coincided with the debut in stores of Kenner's first Star Wars action figures.

But one rocket was released slightly earlier: the Proton Torpedo.

I can almost hear you muttering: "Well, that's just a missile with a decal that says 'Star Wars' on it. And it's pink."

True. But the box art was pretty rad. And the fact that it didn't require a specialized design meant that Estes could release it quickly by modifying one of their existing products.

As to the color...well, the proton torpedoes used in the movie were pink. Don't you value authenticity?

The Proton Torpedo was pricier than many of Estes' other products due to the fact that it came packaged with most of what was required to launch the rocket. The bulk of the company's other rockets required engines and launching paraphernalia that were available as separate purchases. I think it's likely that Estes, knowing that a lot of kids would be introduced to model rocketry via this kit, wanted to ensure that none were disappointed by an unanticipated requirement to purchase additional accessories.

By the way, have you ever wondered why George Lucas called the missiles utilized by the X-Wing Fighter proton torpedoes? Star Trek, of course, had photon torpedoes. This seems like a decision likely to inspire confusion.

It's claimed that Gene Rodenberry, upon seeing the Death Star briefing scene for the first time, rolled his eyes and said, "Well, at least the main character is named Luke Skywalker and not Captain Dirk."

If the Proton Torpedo suffered from being too obviously a rocket, Estes' R2-D2 struggled with the opposite problem: it didn't look the least bit like a projectile. Anticipating this problem, Estes printed a call-out on the front of box assuring their customers that, yes, "it really flies!"

Little did the folks at Estes know that, come 2002 and the release of Attack of the Clones, R2-D2 would be shown to possess full flight capability. Too bad he didn't use it to escape from that awful movie.

Of course, neither the engineers at Estes nor the animators of Clones have anything on the legendary Otto Dieffenbach, the Wernher von Braun of droid ballistics.

Estes' marketing materials emphasized that the droid was a "robot hero," lest it be forgotten that R2-D2 wasn't evil.

You can tell these kids love R2-D2 because they've fashioned their hair after him.

Released around the same time as R2-D2 was this X-Wing Fighter rocket. It was designed to soar over 300 feet into the air.

Given the prominent role played by the X-Wings in Star Wars, and the fact that, unlike R2-D2, they were explicitly intended for flight, the X-Wing Fighter is rightly reckoned the flagship of the Estes line. 

The marketability of the product was such that it was featured on the cover of this novelty catalog, where it was only slightly overshadowed by the technological breakthrough represented by the Perpetual Solar Engine.

Cost of a radio-controlled Firebird in 2017 dollars: $225.

The X-Wing isn't the sole Star Wars-related item included in the catalog: Death Invader makes an appearance on page 79. He's featured beside other luminaries of the day, such as Santa Claus and Drunk.

As the text inside the catalog makes clear, one had to purchase a host of materials in order to make the X-Wing Fighter rocket function as intended.

So, as they did in the case of the Proton Torpedo, Estes marketed a version of the X-Wing that came with most of the materials needed to make the thing soar into the sky. It was called, somewhat too wordily, The X-Wing Fighter Flying Model Rocketry Outfit.

That's alotta stuff.

I have no idea what recovery wadding is, but I like saying "recovery wadding."

From a collecting standpoint the product is somewhat nicer than the bare-bones version of the X-Wing, as the front of its box features cool art of Darth Vader and the droids in addition to the vignette of Luke and Leia.

But my favorite aspect of the box is this graphic, printed (or intentionally hidden?) on its side.

It depicts C-3PO telling R2-D2 that the package includes everything you need, provided your definition of "everything" doesn't include batteries, glue, and finishing supplies.

R2-D2 is a hard droid to read, but I'm pretty sure I can see the disappointment that has overtaken him upon taking in this brazen confession of corporate perfidy.

Is this the jerkiest C-3PO to appear on a vintage product? I think it might be. Nerdlingers: I hereby challenge you to find a jerkier C-3PO.

But the X-Wing Outfit wasn't the end of Estes' involvement with the X-Wing Fighter: The company also released a larger version of the spacecraft. It was called the Maxi-Brute X-Wing Fighter.

I have no idea what "Maxi-Brute" is supposed to mean or why Estes would use an appellation that calls to mind a feminine hygiene product infused with cologne. But I'm quite positive that the product's big selling point was that it was the same size as the effects models used by ILM during the filming of Star Wars.

The similar graphics and coloring of the boxes in which the three X-Wing products came packaged makes them hard to differentiate. Here's a group shot of the trio.

The final product released by Estes as part of their vintage Star Wars line is today the hardest to find in a boxed state: The Imperial TIE Fighter. I've seen only a handful of examples.

It's sometimes claimed that ILM used some of Estes' TIE Fighters in effects shots created for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I have no idea how true that is. Something similar is said of MPC's model kits.

You had to look at the side of the box to discover that, in order to make the boxy TIE Fighter fly, it was necessary to affix a long, missile-shaped appendage to it.

For some reason Jerky C-3PO didn't deliver this particular bit of bad news; it had to be inferred by the overly aggressive manner in which the kid on the right is attempting to talk his younger brother into enjoying this clearly sucky experience.

Estes was still selling Star Wars rockets in 1980 when The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters. The company's spring 1980 newsletter even included this cool preview of the film's vehicles and characters.

However, no additional rockets were released during the vintage years -- not even one representing Boba Fett, as likely a candidate for rocketry glory as any character in the Star Wars universe.

As this example of the X-Wing rocket proves, Estes, like MPC, updated their existing packaging with ESB stickers when the release of the sequel was imminent. These stickered versions must be pretty rare; this is the only example I've seen.

Estes also issued several of their rockets in bags decorated with graphical header cards. But the boxed rockets are the Estes products that collectors tend to lust after. Not only do they feature great artwork, they're scarce. It takes quite a bit of effort to assemble the complete set.

The collector who wants to get really serious about collecting this stuff might try pursuing the posters Estes issued as store displays. I am aware of two styles: the one you see above and the one seen here. According to Pete Vilmur's write-up in the linked database entry, the Proton Torpedo poster was also used as a premium. I wouldn't be surprised if the same is true of the X-Wing poster.

Estes also produced a couple of Star Wars-themed iron-ons: one representing the droids and another showing a dogfight between a TIE and an X-Wing.

Kids received these as freebies when they ordered rockets during odd-numbered months.

The iron-ons weren't particularly colorful, but they were free, and -- uh -- super-neat.

Once you've delved into the realm of super-neat iron-ons, you've exhausted your topic. So here ends our look at the wonderful world of vintage Estes model rockets.

If you decide to collect these rockets, good luck. And in the immortal words of perhaps our greatest Jedi: "May the Force be with you!"

Thursday, June 1, 2017

'Chive Cast Blog Log Pod Episode 3 - Funky Vans in the Rebel Base

Skye and Steve talk about the amazing and underappreciated world of MPC Model Kits. They are joined by innovative artist Mark Enright and super collector Ron Salvatore who talk about their two amazing SWCA Blog entries on Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back model sets. Do you know how many model kits were made? Do you know about the art? Do you know how inexpensive they are to collect? Do you know what the rare ones are? Do you know what you are missing? No, you don't! So have a listen to the third Blog Log Pod.


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Monday, May 22, 2017

The TIE Fighter Pilot Wore Bell Bottoms?

Ron writes:

 At some point every collector of vintage Star Wars action figures wonders why it took Kenner four years to release a TIE Fighter Pilot. The TIE Fighter was one of the first action figure vehicles released in 1978, but there was no figure capable of piloting the thing until 1982. What gives?

The best explanation I can come up with is that Kenner didn't view anonymous pilot figures as appealing until Hasbro began releasing one in conjunction with each of the vehicles produced in their G.I. Joe line. That would explain why the TIE Pilot and Cloud Car Pilot didn't hit store shelves until right before the release of The Return of the Jedi, even though their rides had been available since 1978 and 1980 respectively.

Pictures from the Jedi Defender forums
Unfortunately, it doesn't explain why the Cloud Car Pilot looks like your mildly alcoholic neighbor Randy cosplaying as a crossing guard from the future using nothing but common household implements.
You: Randy? What's with the helmet? that a popcorn bowl?

Randy: It was three Löwenbräus ago.

You: Does Cynthia know about this?

Randy: Only if my lawyer says something to her lawyer. Care to say a few words into my hand-held communicator? You can use it to talk to the future.

You: That's a package of cigarettes duct-taped to the top of a toilet paper roll.

Randy: No stalling in the crosswalk, sir.
Of course, true nerdlingers know that the pre-1982 Kenner did make a figure that looked quite a bit like a TIE Fighter Pilot. They did this in 1977, before the first wave of action figures was even available to consumers. The figure was featured in early photographs distributed to sub-licensees.

 Here's the twist: In the photographs the figure is referred to as the Death Squad Commander.

Whoa! Did I just get all M. Night Shyamalan on your ass or what?

Okay, as a revelation maybe it isn't as earth shattering as the Village being a place where inbred people pretend they're pilgrims. But it's pretty good, right?

The item in question is actually a mock-up. The folks at Kenner created it by modifying a figure drawn from Fisher Price's Adventure People line. That explains the odd positioning of the arms. It also explains why this villain from a galaxy far, far away is wearing bell bottoms.

The Fisher Price thing isn't as weird as it sounds. Prior to the release of Kenner's Star Wars line,  the Adventure People were among the few action figures made in a 3.75-inch scale. Therefore, they were ideal fodder for Kenner's model shop when it set about creating the earliest Star Wars prototypes.

When looking at the above photo showing the 12 figures released in 1978, you may have noticed that all but the Death Squad Commander, Tusken Raider, and Jawa look more or less like the versions eventually sold in stores. This wasn't always the case.

A still earlier photo, dated May 10, 1977,  reveals that, just like the DSC, the bulk of Kenner's early figure prototypes were based on Adventure People.

It also reveals that, originally, only nine figures were conceptualized in three-dimensional form.

Even the cardboard display featured in early photographs boasts images of only nine characters.

However, if you look at the figures featured on the display, you'll see mock-ups of the Tusken Raider and the Jawa. This likely indicates that these two pieces postdate the creation of the display itself. 

Still, there's no Death Squad Commander. Either he hadn't been created yet or he didn't show for the photo because his bell bottoms were still at the dry cleaners.

From these photos I think we can infer three things: 1) Nine figures were originally conceptualized, 2) Jawa and Tusken Raider were added somewhat later, and 3) Death Squad Commander was added last.

*    *   * 

I can hear you thinking: "That's weird, I thought the Dozen Original Figures were predetermined and immutable, like the Ten Commandments, the Holy Trinity, or something equally quasi-blasphemous."

In fact, this chronology jibes with much of what we know concerning the creation, marketing, and release of the first 12 Star Wars action figures.

As this store display shows, the Jawa, Tusken Raider, and DSC were the last of the first 12 figures released to stores. If you're old enough to remember looking for Star Wars figures at your local department store, you may recall waiting for the appearance of this motley trio.

As expected, this early advertisement shows nine figures. They're featured along with the TIE Fighter, X-Wing Fighter, and Landspeeder -- the first three vehicles released in the line.

This British advertisement announcing the arrival in stores of Kenner-derived product shows that a similar situation prevailed overseas: When the line was first marketed, Palitoy presented only nine figures.

So, while development of the first nine figures wrapped up around March or April of 1978, the Jawa, Tusken Raider, and DSC were late bloomers -- in large part because Kenner began developing them at a later date.

In the case of the DSC, what was that date?

Fortunately, we have this early projects list, from the collection of Ross Cuddie, and it suggests that the Death Squad Commander (part no. CFR) was first proposed on June 27, 1977. That's over a month after the creation of the photo showing the original nine that's featured above.

In other words, there is no DSC in that photo because, in all likelihood, at the time it was taken no one at Kenner had seriously thought of creating one.

In case you're wondering, other sheets of this paperwork reveal that 3.75-inch figures, along with the TIE, X-Wing, and Falcon, were first proposed on March 8, 1977. That's over four months prior to the proposal of the DSC. In the toy business, as in the mortuary business, four months is a long time.

Oh, there's a bunch of additional cool stuff listed on the above piece of paperwork. Perhaps we'll tackle it in a future blog post. I know you're chomping at the bit to discuss Generic Lunch Kits.

*    *    * 

Are you still with me, cowboy? Still driving our doggies along the high lonesome trail?

Okay, back to the DSC. The earliest known representation of the figure as it was eventually sold in stores is the original design drawing. This would have been sent to the sculptor to help him develop a sense of the figure and its features. Whereas the drawing of the DSC is dated to July of 1977, the drawings for the first nine figures date to either March or May of the same year. (Sadly, neither the Jawa drawing nor the Tusken Raider drawing bears a date.)

Using all of this data, I think we can propose a rough timeline:

March 1977: Original nine figures proposed.
April/May 1977: Mock-up prototypes of original nine figures and accompanying display produced.
June 1977: Mock-up prototypes of Jawa and Tusken Raider produced.
July 1977: Death Squad Commander proposed and design drawing created.

Unfortunately, I can't say when the Jawa and Tusken Raider were first proposed, but I think the existing evidence makes it pretty clear that development of them began some time after the initiation of development of the original nine.

I also can't say when exactly the earliest three-dimensional representation of the Death Squad Commander was created, or explain why it looks like a black Stormtrooper.

Some have theorized that the figure you see in the group shot of 12 featured above is just the Stormtrooper from the shot of the original nine painted black.

Here you see the two figures side by side. Though it's hard to make a call either way, to my eye these look like different figures. In particular, the helmet on the white Stormtrooper appears to be more flared at the base. It's possible that two different Stormtrooper mock-ups were created. That seems to have happened in the case of R2-D2: If you look closely at the R2 mock-ups featured in the shot of the original nine and the shot of the early display, you'll see that they differ in small ways.
*    *    * 

Anyway, it seems to me that the key questions are: 1) Why did Kenner use a figure that looks like a black Stormtrooper to represent the Death Squad Commander, and 2) Is it all possible that this figure was intended to represent a TIE Pilot?

The answer to the first question is: Nobody knows.

It's quite possible that, needing a DSC figure for photography, and being pressed for time, the folks at Kenner simply grabbed a Stormtrooper mock-up and painted it black.

After all, of the first 12 figures, the Death Squad Commander is the only one without a public profile.

Shoot, Star Wars has been around for 40 years, and we still don't know what a death squad is, let alone what its commander looks like. In the eyes of the toy-buying public, a black Stormtrooper was probably as believable a leader of the death squad as any other character Kenner might have presented.

Curiously, Kenner did make an accurate two-dimensional representation of the DSC. You see it above. It would have been used to represent the toy in lieu of an accurate three-dimensional model, much as the cut-out of C-3PO is used in the above photo of the original nine. Of course, this piece is fascinating in large part because its mate, identical in all but paint scheme, suggests that Kenner considered repainting the DSC and releasing it as a Rebel Soldier.

It's hard to pin a date on these pieces. They may be coeval with the three-dimensional mock-up of the DSC. It's also possible that they postdate it slightly, being more related to a suggested repaint than to the earliest development of the figure. Regardless, I think it's obvious that, whenever they were created, Kenner knew exactly how the figure would look.

As to the second question -- Is it possible that the black Stormtrooper was intended to represent a TIE Pilot? -- I think the answer is: I dunno, what do you think?

Let me explain why this topic has come up.

A little while ago collector Thorsten Lafos posted a video from German television on Facebook. It contains some very interesting content from the early development of Kenner's Star Wars line, including shots of the original models of the TIE Fighter, Land Speeder, and X-Wing Fighter.

It also boasts a great performance by Dieter Kronzucker, the German Cokie Roberts.

Assuming you were able to tear your attention away from Dieter, you may have paused the video and taken a hard look at the aforementioned models. If you did, you, like Thorsten, may have noticed something interesting.

Although the Land Speeder and X-Wing aren't shown with pilot figures, the TIE Fighter is.

And the pilot is our friend the Death Squad Commander!

I mean the black Stormtrooper...I mean whatever that thing is supposed to represent.

Does that mean the DSC mock-up was originally meant to be a TIE Pilot?

Certainly, the fact that this figure, which resembles a TIE Pilot, was used in a video to represent a TIE Pilot is suggestive. And I suppose it's possible that, regardless of what the figure came to represent, at the time of its making it was intended as a TIE Pilot.

But outside of this video I am unaware of any evidence tying the figure to the TIE Fighter or suggesting that Kenner was even considering a TIE Pilot during this period of time. And I don't think the video alone is sufficient evidence for a reattribution, especially in light of all of the other evidence associating this mock-up with the Death Squad Commander.

Speaking of that evidence, I'll close out this post with a surprise: an early photo of Kenner's large floor merchandiser showing the Jawa, Tusken Raider, and Death Squad Commander mock-ups on cards. The figures also appear on the large header display. As far as I can recall, this is the first time the photo has been shared publicly. Enjoy.

UPDATE: Collector Scott Bradley reminded me that a photo similar to the one shown below appears in Kenner's 1978 Toy Fair catalog. However, the photo in the catalog is much smaller, and the prototype figures are harder to see.