Thursday, January 10, 2019

'Chive Cast Blog Log Pod Episode 10: Most Beautiful Kenner Artwork (and Archive Party IV Info)

Ron Salvatore joins Skye and Steve to discuss a beautiful and gigantic piece of unused ROTJ Kenner art. What was this Endor scene intended for? Was it for a never released display? What does it have to do with the Northern Renaissance? Is it, in fact, the greatest piece of Kenner art ever?

Then, we go over ALL the details for tickets and premiums for the upcoming Archive Party IV at Celebration Chicago. Sculptures! Cereal! Prices! Pizza! It is all on this double Blog Log Pod.

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02:38 – Ron Joins the Show
05:04 – Potential Unused ROTJ Kenner Display Art Described
07:40 – Ron explains how the piece came into his collection
12:10 – The Specialness of the Art
13:13 – What was this art for?
15:00 – Connection to ROTJ Space Display
24:09 – The Northern Renaissance Connection
27:02 – The Archive Party Discussion Begins
32:01 – Food at the Party
37:43 – The BIG Contest
38:45 – Bill Cable's Key Art
41:34 – Cardback and Coin Art
45:03 – The Coin
46:03 – The Sculpture
50:13 – Ticket Prices


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The 200 Million Dollar Brand

Ron writes:

 Star Wars was a pretty big movie. It probably qualified as a cultural phenomenon.

But you know that, right?

I mean, here we are over 40 years later and you're reading a blog post about obscure Star Wars ephemera. Nobody understands the cultural impact of Star Wars better than you, a card-carrying member of the nerdlinger elite, and probably one of the four people who paid to see Solo in the theater.

So big was Star Wars that it vaulted the aforementioned toy company, Kenner, a mid-level operation run out of Cincinnati, Ohio, to national prominence.

Kenner did over 200 million dollars in sales during 1978 alone, nearly doubling its volume of three years prior.

Obviously, the bulk of that volume was Star Wars.

If you're Kenner president Joe Mendelsohn, you're proud of moving over $200M in product. So proud that you make the achievement the focus of your first "Sales Force Bulletin," released in January of 1979.

Above you see a copy of that bulletin, which includes Joe's immortal prediction that "I think this paper will be fun!"

Well, I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it "fun," a word I normally reserve for inventing derogatory nicknames for random people at the mall, but it's certainly pretty interesting.

Of particular interest is the art that graces its front cover. It presents Joe's congratulatory message in graphic terms.

That art also appeared on a special print provided to employees. An example is featured above. It was printed on deluxe textured paper at a size larger than the standard 8.5" x 11". The cream-colored sheet you see below the print was intended to protect its surface from abrasions.

When your print comes with a protective cover sheet, you know it's high class.

Although Star Wars claims a prominent space within the print's design, homage is also paid to other Kenner properties of the time, such as Stretch Monster, the Easy Bake Oven, and the Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barbershop. The latter product allowed aspiring right-wing children to practice the forcible shaving of hippies. Hey, if your big sister was dating one of those dirtbags, you'd want to shave them too.

Interestingly, the print's R2-D2 may have been based on the conceptual model of the small R2 action figure that Kenner used to represent the product early in the production process. That's what is suggested by its unusual shape, at any rate. Note that the X-Wing featured on the print looks pretty much exactly like the production toy. Not that R2, though.

Lest any of Kenner's faithful employees find the print unsatisfying, the company also issued a mug commemorating the $200M milestone.

Interestingly, it can be found in at least three different formats. This second one has an hourglass shape that prevents the graphics from printing squarely. The graphic seems oddly skewed on the majority of examples that I've seen.

This third example features a little ridge in its lower portion.

It's possible that each format corresponds to a different production run. Or maybe they made all three versions at the same time? I don't think anyone knows for sure.

November 27, 1978 was the Monday following that year's Thanksgiving. Presumably, that's the date on which Kenner's shattering of the $200M barrier was made official.

Interestingly, and somewhat tangentially, November also saw Kenner's hosting of a "Star Wars is Forever" meeting. It was at this meeting that the company's Sales force was propagandized into believing that George Lucas would never stop making Star Wars movies and that Kenner would never stop selling Star Wars toys. Above you see Boba Fett himself gently persuading the Sales force of the foreverness of Star Wars.

Remember that, in the late '70s, movie merchandising was in its infancy; it was virtually unheard of for a movie to serve as a long-term platform for toys. Yet Kenner was banking on selling Star Wars stuff for years. The strategy probably warranted a little propagandizing. And though Kenner's first foray into Star Wars ended unceremoniously in 1985 after everyone finally admitted that the Droids and Ewoks cartoons were irredeemably lame, Star Wars returned with a vengeance a mere 10 years later, and it hasn't disappeared since.

So, heck, maybe Star Wars really is forever and will survive even that part in The Last Jedi where Luke Skywalker milks a walrus.

Hey, in case you haven't made the connection, I'm guessing that Boba Fett's appearance at this Sales meeting was connected to his visit to Kenner HQ, during which he posed for the photograph that was eventually used on the blister card of the character's action figure. You can read Chris Georgoulias' write-up of this visit here. Obviously, that's the official Lucasfilm-created costume you see in the above photos of the meeting, and not something hacked together by Kenner's model shop.

There was probably a bit of trepidation around Kenner in early 1979 and 1980. After all, the company's status as a top-tier player largely depended on Star Wars. If enthusiasm for the franchise dipped, or if -- God forbid -- The Empire Strikes Back bombed, Kenner was in trouble.

But the company had a lot of non-Star Wars product, too. Foreverist optimism aside, Kenner couldn't afford to become The Star Wars Company.

You can sense that fine line being walked in the below "Sales Force Bulletin," the follow-up to the issue featured at the start of this article.

If in the inaugural issue Kenner's president had offered the carrot of congratulations, in the second issue its VP of Marketing offered the stick of withering downtalk.

In brief, his message to the Sales force was: "Yeah, Star Wars is hot, but we have a lot of other product, and those Butch and Sundance toys ain't gonna sell themselves, slacker."

My favorite part: "You have not done your job if the non-Star Wars part of the order does not meet the requirements. You have allowed the account to buy -- you haven't sold."

Sheesh. It's a message worthy of Boba Fett himself. You get the sense that disintegrations might be in order should Fuzzy Pumper sales fail to meet expectations. I can imagine this guy asking disappointing Sales people to return their commemorative mugs. Because commemorative mugs are for closers.

The bar graph featured on the bulletin's cover only upped the pressure. Not content with a mere $200M in sales, Kenner was shooting for $300M in 1979. And that was without the benefit of a new Star Wars movie.

Did they meet the goal? Honestly, I'm not sure.

But this article, from a June 1980 issue of The Jackson News, reveals that Kenner sold over $100M of Star Wars product in 1979, matching the Star Wars-specific volume of 1978.

That's alotta space doodads. Enough to make Kenner the number-two toy company in America, behind only Mattel.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

'Chive Cast 94 - Bib Fortuna Filth Dance

Skye and Steve talk about the worst character in the Star Wars saga, Bib Fortuna. We discuss different colored capes, amazing toothpaste figures, dentist postcards, beezers, Paint-by-Numbers and then are joined by the #1 Bib collector in the World, Phidias Barrios. He regales us with the stories of his amazing collection and how it was made. We're talking everything from wax pieces to strange and exotic patent references that you have definitely never even thought about. An episode so good, you'll be saying "Yay wanna wanga" and "Yay Jabba! Yes Badda!"

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02:26 – Skye explains how PSAs made him hate Bib Fortuna
06:19 – What there is to love about Bib
08:12 – Bib's Coin Text
08:56 – Majordomo Talk
11:14 – Behind the Steve on Bib Fortuna's Design Origin
17:07 – Skye-Ku
18:38 – Unloved Item of the Month (Paint-by-Numbers)
23:45 – Vintage Vocab (Red Cape, White Cape, Burgundy Cape)
41:13 – Spanish Colgate Bib Fortuna
48:07 – Oral-B Dentist Postcard Set
53:53 – Skye plugs his stupid music YouTube channel
56:19 – Phidias Barrios joins to discuss his mind-blowing collection
57:22 – The Wax Sculpt (and what is a Wax Cast?)
01:03:20 – The Unpainted Hardcopy
01:06:03 – The Painted Hardcopy
01:10:02 – The Protomold
01:19:09 – Bib Fortuna Smash Bros. MarketWatch Game
01:29:40 – Nugget from the Archive (Bib's Patent References)
01:48:13 – Outro

Image Sources and Show Note Links:

Friday, December 21, 2018

Tentacles of a Pilgrim Girl: The Patent DNA of Bib Fortuna

Steve writes:

 By the time Return of the Jedi was well on its way as both a forthcoming summer blockbuster and merchandising extravaganza, the number of Star Wars toy patents filed with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) was understandably increasing. As the breadth of new spaceships and creatures exponentially expanded onscreen, so did the ambition of Lucasfilm's and Kenner's upcoming product line.

While licensing laws might not be all that exciting on the whole to most, digging into patent details can provide insights into the history of Star Wars as a simultaneously cinematic and toyetic enterprise. In some cases, it can even offer additional collecting avenues for the most fanatical (or dedicated, depending on your point of view) focus collectors to pursue.

Such is the case with everyone's favorite tentacled majordomo with awful teeth: Bib Fortuna. The patent for the "toy figure" pictured below was filed on September 28th, 1982 with one Philip A. Tippett credited as its Inventor. As was typical, the individual(s) primarily responsible for the design of a character or vehicle were listed as Inventors on the toy patents, connecting behind-the-scenes luminaries like Tippett, Joe Johnston, Ralph McQuarrie, and George Lucas himself to the prospective toy products that would derive from their creations. As owners of the actual intellectual property, Lucasfilm, Ltd. is listed as the Assignee.

While patents for figures from The Empire Strikes Back feature renderings that unmistakably resemble the Kenner toys, the designs for Jedi figures more closely match the characters onscreen or in other instances such as Wicket (who wouldn't be released in action figure form until 1984), are more akin to concept art. As to why that is, I'm not sure. Perhaps the broader scope of products that the characters could be depicted on has something to do with it? Regardless, the patents trace creative and legal processes that eventually brought these action figures and vehicles to the toy aisle. Once an "idea" or design was finished, applying for a patent involved seeking out and referencing prior patented items that may share certain aesthetic qualities or physical characteristics. Lucasfilm and Kenner had a patent law firm (on most of the Jedi era patents, Townsend & Townsend is listed) review and verify the originality of the designs and cite patents for earlier related entries to aid USPTO reviewers.  

Sometimes, such as with Max Rebo and this stuffed toy elephant from 1947, the relationship is logical and quite clear. Rebo's ability to jam on those keys easily set him apart from Dorothy Mason Pierce's Dumbo doppelganger. With Bib Fortuna, however, the correlations are much more obscure and subtle. Three items are referenced on his patent dating back to the 1920s. Inspired by this thread on the Rebelscum Forums, Fortuna focus collector Phidias Barrios set out to track them all down.

First on the list was an ornamental flower holder with a patent filed in 1926 by R. Guy Cowan of Lakewood, Ohio, presumably referenced for the similarities in robe styles between those of the elegant female figure of the vase and the "gruesome looking, low-life creature" that is Bib Fortuna.

Next was another item along the same lines in terms of robe parallels. The patent for this Seminole doll was filed by Royal W. and Josephine A. Gudgen of Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1932. While completely unrelated conceptually, the layering of the garments in each design is strikingly alike, especially when looking at the actual doll and Bib's patent side by side.

Finally, and perhaps most bizarre, a patent filed in 1943 by Ruth P. Grams of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for this Pilgrim girl doll was cited in Bib's USPTO filing. At first glance, these two objects and the characters they represent could not be less affiliated with one another. But upon closer inspection, one could surmise that the Pilgrim girl's braided locks sort of resemble our majordomo's slimy head tentacles. (As an aside, the word "majordomo" really needs to be used more often). These patent lawyers must really need to be in a strange state of mind to establish these abstract visual tangents.

That said, it can be argued that focus collecting is a strange state of mind, too. Phidias was remarkably successful in his quest to bring together these peculiar and seemingly unrelated items using so-phisticated searching techniques to extract the preserved relics from eBay Bib Fortuna DNA. It's a testament to his ingenuity and resourcefulness as a collector.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Was This Art Intended for a Kenner Store Display?

Ron writes:

 One of my favorite pieces of Kenner art was discovered by legendary Cincinnati-area collector Steve Denny. It's a large, action-packed piece showing a battle between the Rebels and Imperials on the forest moon of Endor. As mentioned by Steve in an interview conducted by Kenner Collector, the piece originated with the individual from whom Steve acquired his enormous trove of proof cards -- the trove that is the source of the majority of proof cards that exist today.

Years ago I speculated, in this SWCA database entry, that the art represents an unused alternate or second side of the large store display header, issued in 1984, depicting the space battle surrounding the second Death Star.

Since I recently got the opportunity to examine the art up close, I thought it would be fun to put this theory to the test by comparing it side-by-side with the store display.

You may have already noticed the similarity in the look and placement of the ROTJ logos. Here they are together, the art on top and the display on the bottom. The former is a piece of printed paper that was affixed to the painting; over time, the adhesive used to set it in place has bled through the surface, causing some discoloration. But even so I think it's pretty obvious that they are very similar, right down to the "reflections" present in the "racetracks" delineating their perimeters.

These faux reflections are, as far as I an tell, fairly unique; they don't exactly match those present in the logos featured on production carded figures.

What does that prove? Well, not a whole lot, but it's fairly interesting. I think it's hard to deny that the logos used on these items derive from the same source graphic.

Stylistically, the two pieces are fairly similar. The artist seems to have favored a rather dry paint application, with tight details layered on top of careful underpainting. And, of course, he's taken care to depict the Kenner toys.

In fact, it's very clear that the vehicles and implements depicted in both works are based on Kenner products rather than on the props used in the films. On the display, that is obviously the Kenner Millennium Falcon, not an ILM effects model. Similarly, it's hard to mistake the Scout Walker featured on the artwork for anything but the Kenner toy; it even features those rails attached to the back of the "legs," which facilitated the toy's action feature.

From the evidence of the toys included on the artwork we can reasonably date it to 1983 or early 1984.

The Scout Walker, Speeder Bike, Ewok Village, Ewok Assault Catapult, and Ewok Combat Glider all debuted in 1983. And, with one exception, the ROTJ characters depicted on the piece were released as action figures in 1983: Luke as a Jedi Knight, the Biker Scout, and the Rebel Commando.

The exception concerns the Ewoks. If I'm not mistaken, that's Teebo visible in the above detail. Teebo was released in 1984. The only other Ewok that suggests an action figure is the one standing behind C-3PO. I believe that's Chief Chirpa, released as an action figure in 1983.

The mix of 1984 and pre-1984 products recalls that featured on the store display. The display shows the Y-Wing, Kenner's big vehicle release of 1983, alongside pre-existing products like the Falcon and two from 1984: the B-Wing Fighter and TIE Interceptor. That makes a lot of sense, as the display was released in 1984.

You're probably asking yourself, "Well, Princess Leia in Combat Poncho and Han Solo in Trench Coat were released in 1984, and they're explicitly Endor-related figures. Why aren't they featured on the artwork, Mr. Smartypants?" It's hard to say with any certainty. Maybe Han and Leia are making out behind a tree somewhere? Or perhaps the designs of those figures weren't finalized at the time the piece was created?

Regardless, I feel confident in identifying that one Ewok as Teebo, and Teebo debuted in 1984.

Obviously, Luke is wearing his black Jedi outfit because the Battle Poncho figure wasn't released until 1985, and probably wasn't even on the drawing board at the time the painting was made.

Before I move on to size comparisons, I'd like to point out that the explosions featured on both items are pretty similar.

The painting displays greater resolution and texture, because, well, it's a painting and not a printed copy of a painting. But I think it's pretty obvious that the explosion elements were created using a similar technique of painting.

Okay, how do the two items compare in terms of size?

Above you see both items. Obviously, the art is larger. Still, both pieces exhibit a similar length-to-height ratio.

Here is the display laid on top of the art. Again, I think you can see that, although the art is larger, the two pieces have strikingly similar formats.

Now, there's no requirement that art used to generate a store display be exactly the size of the intended display. Often, Kenner artists worked in an exaggerated size, and their pieces were scaled down for production. For proof of this, see the piece discussed here.

Still, it's a little annoying that the art and display aren't exactly the same size. If they were,  I'd be pretty convinced that the two items are related.

Alas, the graphical area of the art measures 50 inches by 26 inches, whereas the display is 45 inches by 24 inches. A considerable difference.

Wait a second, though. If you haven't noticed, the board supporting the art features lines drawn at each corner. Presumably, these define the areas of the piece that would eventually be reproduced. In other words, everything outside of those lines was in the bleed area, meaning those areas shouldn't be factored into our measurements.

Measuring the portions of the art within those lines, we get 48 inches by 24 inches.

Still a bit off of 45 by 24. Rats.

Something about this didn't sit right with me.

Frankly, I was a little surprised to discover that the store display was a measly 45 inches long. I'd always considered it a four-footer. 

When I took a look at Kenner's 1984 Pre-Toy Fair Catalog, I realized why: Kenner advertised it as being four feet in length, providing an overall size of 48 inches by 28 inches.

So the length as originally advertised was the same as the length of the usable area of the art.


But what about that advertised height of 28 inches?

Honestly, I don't know. At first I thought the 28 inches included the mounting tabs attached to the display's bottom. But when those are included, the height of the display exceeds 28 inches.

Also, the dimensions given in the catalog for the ROTJ foil display header don't appear to factor in the mounting tab. Why would the dimensions of the "four-foot" header include the tabs when the dimensions of the foil header don't?

I'm stumped.

The bottom line is that the dimensions given in the catalog are wrong where the "four-foot" display is concerned. It's not 48 by 28, it's 45 by 24.

Why did Kenner advertise the display as being larger than it actually is? Certainly, it's possible that the display was scaled down for some reason. But if that is what happened, the scaling wasn't proportional.

If it was scaled down from the dimensions listed in the catalog, 48 by 28, three inches were subtracted from the length, and four were subtracted from the height.

If it was scaled down from the dimensions of the usable area of the art, 48 by 24, three inches were subtracted from the length, and none were subtracted from the height.

To get our art down to 45 inches in length, while retaining the 24-inch height, it would have to be cropped on the left and right side at points inside the bleed lines inscribed in its border.

According to Steve, the art was utilized at Toy Fair; that's what he was told by the person from whom it was acquired. Unfortunately, no photos from Toy Fair have surfaced that show the artwork in the New York showroom. But that doesn't mean it wasn't used in that capacity. If anyone finds a photo of it in use at Toy Fair, please let me know.

Eventual usage aside, was it originally created with a store display in mind?

We may never know for sure, but, as I've tried to express in this post, I think there's at least some evidence to suggest just that. I even think it's possible that the "four-foot" ROTJ header was originally intended to feature unique art on each of its sides. An earlier Empire Strikes Back display boasted a two-image format; even the "Collect All 79" display, released in the same year as the ROTJ header, featured two unique sides.

But I'm not totally convinced, as not all the measurements add up.

What do you think?