Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Did Kenner's 1990s Star Wars Renaissance Begin with the Destruction of Vintage Collectibles?

Ron writes:

 Remember when everything vintage was new again, and copies of classic Star Wars toys graced store shelves from Chicago to Sheboygan? (Only about 150 miles separate Chicago and Sheboygan, but, trust me, those 150 miles contain a multitude of shelves.) Here's guest blogger Ben Sheehan to share some of the history behind that '90s Star Wars renaissance. Happily, he's included several photos, all of which are new to my eyes.

Don't like the idea of opening sealed vintage Kenner vehicles, action figures and playsets? You may want to stop reading now.

Ben writes:

A lot has been written about Kenner’s notorious Morgue -- allegedly the resting place of everything sacred to vintage Star Wars collecting. Popular myth says that all unseen vehicle, playset and action figure prototypes were removed from the location in 1999/2000, when Hasbro uprooted its Boys Toys division from the rusty Ohio valley to the sparkling shores of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Precious little though, has ever been said about the Kenner Museum.

The Museum sat adjacent to the Morgue in the same building (according to insiders), and housed all of Kenner’s manufactured toys -- or at least all those deemed important enough to keep. This included sealed cases and boxes of vintage Star Wars product -- pristine time capsules of everything the company had sold at retail between 1977-86.

When Hasbro launched its fiscally catastrophic post-license-expiration pitch to Lucasfilm, (as Kenner lawyer Jim Kipling explained to me in 2015 during book research, Hasbro had failed to pay Lucas’ coffers a measly $10,000 in royalties, which voided one of the most lucrative licensing contracts the toy industry had ever seen) one of the first steps the company took was to raid the Kenner Museum in Cincinnati, tear open sealed boxes of vintage Star Wars toys, and then slice and dice the pristine, mint vintage product, for its sales pitch.

C-3PO goes for a ride on an action-feature for the never-made POTF2 Ewok Village.

While it’s true that the company could have scoured eBay for mint loose examples of these exact same toys that were brutalised, the direct route was seen as the best -- and importantly, it ensured the quality and legitimacy of the product.

Leopards don't change their spots, but Kenner added zebra stripes to an AT-AT.

Toys such as the Millennium Falcon, Landspeeder, AT-ST, TIE Fighter, A-Wing and even the lowly Ewok Village, were unceremoniously torn from boxes, cut with saws, modified with styrene and glue, had their insides torn out, and electronics added along with new air brushing or paint in order to create updated designs more reflective of the look and play value children wanted in the mid 1990s.

The resulting kit-bashed concept toys were highly detailed hybrids of old-world Star Wars, analogue-based action figure nostalgia, and new world digital design. The new mechanisms, lights, and electronics were cut, glued, and stuck into them with varying levels of precision.

New paint applications were mostly stunning -- far above the standard of regular toys and something not entirely surprising given the cache that Hasbro saw in regaining the Star Wars brand for their subsidiary, Kenner.

So how do we know all this?

Savvy former Kenner employees saved many items from this pitch to Lucasfilm, and many of these turned up in a closet at the Cincinnati R&D offices on Elsinore Place when the company was selling through its office fixtures and the detritus of operations in 2000.

The designs of many of these toys altered little before their release over subsequent years under the POTF 2 banner. The pieces are undeniably modern, yet retained much of their vintage soul -- principally because many of the same hands that had worked on the original toys had contributed the handcrafted additions to the kit-bashed models. 

More remarkably perhaps, some of the models included hand-written notations indicating that parts be braced, altered, or re-tooled for the POTF 2 release.

These pieces also highlight just how blurry the line between vintage product and modern toys can be -- a concept that extends right through to the 1995 era first shots and other prototypes from around this time (the vintage molds were dusted off and put back into service before being altered for the new designs that would follow). These pseudo vintage pieces -- most particularly the '70s- and '80s-dated, creamy, clear, or plain white injection molded examples -- are often passed off by unscrupulous types as vintage, purely because they have vintage dates, and are sometimes shot in unusual color combinations.

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