Monday, November 18, 2019

This Time Kenner is Ready: Tracking Empire's Release Through Advertising

Ron writes:

 Below you see an advertisement, dated May 4, 1978, that announces the debut in stores of Kenner's Star Wars action figures and related toys. On that date, if you were a kid in the St. Louis area (the ad is from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), you could run to Target and buy one of the first nine action figures -- if, that is, any remained in stock.

Why spring of 1978 rather than spring of 1977, when Star Wars premiered in theaters?

Well, as most nerdlingers know, fans of the first entry in the Star Wars franchise were forced to wait nearly a year, reckoned from the premiere of the film, to buy action figures toys based on the movie. It's not that Kenner was unprepared. The mid-sized Cincinnati company had only signed on as a licensee in spring of 1977, just prior to the film's release. Once Star Wars proved a massive hit, Kenner's nose was forced to the grindstone. The mission: get product onto store shelves as quickly as possible. Generally, it takes a year for a toy company to bring action figures to market. Kenner managed to shave more than a month off that schedule.

But the release of The Empire Strikes Back would have to be different. By then, May of 1980, Kenner would need to have a full range of new product on store shelves. A kid would need to be able to tromp out of his local movie theater, into the toy area of his favorite department store, and right up to the cash register, Empire Strikes Back product in hand.

 The big question: Would Empire deliver?

I'm sure Mattel was thrilled by the photo used to illustrate this piece.

According to this article, written by Clarence Petersen for the Chicago Tribune of May 4, 1980, retailers remained skeptical. So skeptical that an anonymous local toy buyer, surely a congenital grouch, is quoted as saying "We're not planning for a major push. Everyone is leery of space toys this year. Sales fell off in 1979, but no one knows what the new movie will do. The whole thing is up for grabs."

Sue Sandler, an editor at Toys, Hobbies, and Crafts, agreed, saying "There will be a lot of caution, at least until the movie comes out and they see how much money it's making in the first couple of weeks."

Kenner PR guy Dave DeMala was slightly more optimistic. "We've had a couple of people here see the movie," he said, "and they say it's absolutely spectacular."

Hey, Dave's a PR guy; he's paid to be optimistic.

But in the final words of his quote, I detect a hint of trepidation. "Goodness," he told Petersen, "I hope they're right."

Well, we should probably forgive Dave his doubts. At the time, no company had ever based a toy line on a film trilogy. Remember, prior to the Star Wars Trilogy, sequential storytelling in movies was just about unheard of. Would audiences follow a story across three films and six years? And would they continue to want licensed trinkets tied to those films?

In 1980, these were big questions.

But while we can forgive DeMala, others we cannot forgive. Among these is the unnamed Kenner spokesperson who referred to the upcoming Tauntaun toy as a kangaroo.

Kenner's biggest product roll-out of all time is at stake. There's a huge advertising budget. The whole company is striving to present the product in the best possible light. And this guy pitches the Tauntaun as "not a vehicle but, like, well, like a kangaroo." Nice.

As we all know, Dave's coworkers were right: Empire was spectacular. And when the movie finally hit theaters, accompanied in major markets by full-page newspaper ads like the one seen above (complete with space kangaroo), its box-office performance put the turbulent minds of toy buyers at ease. It was a hit rivaled in recent memory only by its predecessor.

Empire did so well in its early bookings that, by June 13, when Petersen's article was reprinted in Mississippi's Jackson Daily News, the skeptical comments had been edited out of it. So, for that matter, had the kangaroo.

The emphasis this time around was less on speculation regarding the movie's performance than on Kenner's ability to meet demand.

The gist of the piece can be boiled down to one line: "This time Kenner is ready."

Why, you ask, was Petersen's article re-run in Jackson, Mississippi, over a month after its debut in Chicago?

Well, the release of Empire was staggered. Although 70mm prints were released in key markets on May 21, 1980, many areas didn't get the movie until June 18. According to this helpful site, Empire didn't screen anywhere in Mississippi during the month of May. So the Jackson Daily News ran the story on June 13 in anticipation of the movie's local opening later that week.

Audiences in Memphis, Tennessee were luckier than those in Jackson, Mississippi: they got to see Empire right off the bat, and in nothing less than 70mm. This ad ran in the local Commercial Appeal on June 4, 1980, nearly two weeks after the movie opened at the Park Theater.

The ad combines a photographic image from Kenner's 1980 Toy Fair catalog with Kenner-supplied line art, a reproduction of Roger Kastel's art for the theatrical one-sheet poster, and some wonky hand-drawn imagery. It makes for a gloriously full-page impression.

In support of the movie (and in support of sales), the retailer responsible for the ad, Goldsmith's, offered a free record or coloring book to the first 100 shoppers who purchased an action figure. Not a bad deal! What's more, the department store ran a contest whose winners received four tickets to see Empire at the Park.

Chances are the folks who won those tickets had already seen the movie. But who's going to complain about seeing The Empire Strikes Back twice?

Audiences in the Los Angeles area had ample opportunity to see the movie on multiple occasions: Several theaters in Orange County had the movie as soon as it was available. The above ad, from the May Company, spotlights Kenner's toys and the bedding products produced by the Bibb company.

The sharp observer will noticed that May used a representation of MPC's model kit version of Darth Vader's TIE Fighter rather than Kenner's larger action figure toy. Oops.

Like Goldsmith's in Memphis, May offered free movie tickets to winners of a store-sponsored contest. They also offered something more special: personal appearances by Darth Vader and Boba Fett.

The latter is described as "wily," leading me to believe that more than a few kids walked into a May location demanding to be introduced to that fearsome intergalactic bounty hunter, Willy Boba Fett.

Hey, as names go, it's no stupider than Salacious B. Crumb.

Not to be outdone, the proprietors of Manhattan's Gimbels commanded their customers to "strike back with space-dream savings." Whatever those are.

Gotta love this young gangsta just flat-out mackin with his Star Wars comforter and large-size figures.

Interestingly, the ad, from the New York Times, dates from late June, when Empire had been in local theaters for about a month. Maybe special guests Darth Vader and Willy Boba Fett were delayed by their duties on the West Coast? The ad does say that they planned to travel to Gimbels through hyperspace...

Not to be outdone by their competitors in other parts of the country, Gimbels offered movie tickets to select customers. In this case, anyone who bought more than $5 worth of licensed merchandise received two passes for Empire.

In Milwaukee, the Boston Store followed Gimbels' lead by running its big Empire promotion about a month after the movie debuted locally at the Southtown Cinema (but just in time for the wider 35mm release).

Alas, Darth Vader and Willy Boba Fett didn't make it out to Wisconsin. I mean, would you?

This ad is similar to the others featured in this post in that it utilizes a reproduction of the Kastel one-sheet art and offers free movie tickets as a promotional tie-in. Also, it repeats the Goldsmith's offer of a free coloring book or record with the purchase of a toy.

It's cool to see the scarce retail version of the Action Display Stand featured so prominently.

But even cooler is the introductory text, which reads:
Once, a long time ago in a distant galaxy . . . the most popular entertainment idea in the history of man was born. It was a time of great war, great love, and great adventure. It was a time of STAR WARS.
Well, here we are nearly 40 years later and it's still a time of Star Wars.

When The Rise of Skywalker hits theaters next month, you probably won't be able to meet Darth Vader at your local department store, and you won't be able to see it in 70mm. Most of the old department stores have closed, and movies today are typically measured in pixels rather than millimeters. Shoot, you probably won't even be able to admire a full-page newspaper ad related to the movie, because who reads newspapers these days?

Happily, for those who are sentimental about such things, there are still toys -- for now, anyway.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

'Chive Cast Blog Log Pod Episode 12 - Cakes and Fakes

Jonathan McElwain joins the show to talk about all things vintage custom Star Wars cakes, before the dark times, before the Wilton License. Then he talks about Wilton! Also, a new fake item from Argentina is confirmed at the end of the episode.

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00:52 – Intro
04:44 – Comedy Bang-Bang Interlude
05:32 – Porg Cake Story
08:13 – Jonathan McElwain's Heartwarming Cake Story
09:53 – Mail Box News Magazine
18:48 – Steve Starts the Chewbacca Cake Discussion
22:47 – Jonathan's Favorite Cakes
26:36 – Wilton Cake Memorabilia
32:00 – The Argentinian Fake Issue


Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Build a Display Island for Your Collection

My dear guests...

Ron writes:

 Back in 2018 I built a display island in my collecting area.

That sounds really bougie, right? A display island.

I'm sure you're picturing me leaning against my display island while eating Grey Poupon straight from the jar using a caviar spoon.

Bougie or not, a few visitors have asked me for instructions. They've experienced the allure of the display island and they want one of their own. So I figured I'd do it in a blog post.

First, here are a few photos of the island.

It has glass display doors on each side and a flat area on the top. The latter is painted and covered in acrylic.

The cases are lit so that the items they contain are easily viewable. As you've no doubt noticed, I have carded figures in mine. You can put Funko Pops in yours, or whatever other dumb thing you collect. It's really up to you.

The core of the display island consists of six Billy bookcases from IKEA that have been bolted together on the inside. The side you see in the first photo (we'll call it the front) consists of one case that is 31.5 inches wide and another that is 15.75 inches wide. The arrangement of the back is the same as the front. Each side consists of one case that is 31.5 inches wide.

This yields an island is that is approximately 52.5 inches long and 46 inches wide.

I had initially planned to use two 31.5-inch-wide cases on the front and back. That is, no 15.75-inchers. Alas, I didn't have the room to accommodate two of the larger cases. Maybe you do?

Of course, you can also forgo the second case on the front and back, and simply bolt together four 31.5-inch-wide cases. This will result in an island that is substantially thinner.

Billy! Billy don't you lose my number.

Now, if you're familiar with IKEA's Billy line of cases, you know that, like pizza and monster trucks, they're endlessly customizable. You also know that, if you want them to be serviceable as display cases, you need to outfit them with glass shelves and LED lighting, both sold separately.

Oh, and you need doors.

Although IKEA sells a traditional glass door for the Billy, you'll want to avoid that and go with the Morliden door. The trad glass door has an obtrusive wooden frame that will harsh your mellow.

Remove the inserts so that everyone can see your Funko Pops.

Although the Morliden is shown on IKEA's website with fogged glass, the fog effect is generated by a chipboard insert that attaches to the door's interior. If you ditch the insert, you're left with a clear glass door with a thin aluminum frame -- nice for display purposes.

Here, off the top of my head, is a list of materials you will need to build your display island:
After you buy the stuff from IKEA, you can begin assembly. To do this, follow the instructions provided by IKEA. You'll want to assemble each Billy, then install the lighting, and then arrange them into the desired configuration. You can worry about the shelves and the doors once everything is bolted together.

For the bolting, use corner braces at the corners and mending plates at the joint areas between the two cases on the front and back. These are easy to screw into the unfinished backsides of the particle-board horizontals at the spots where they meet.

Once bolted, you should have a solid rectangle of cases with a void in the center into which the wiring for the lighting is dangling.

The wire extending from each light needs to be inserted into IKEA's Ansluta transformer.

Here are step-by-step instructions for obtaining the Ansluta:
  1. Walk into IKEA, preferably wearing a lounge jacket.
  2. Locate a reasonably no-nonsense-looking female staff member.
  3. In a loud Ron Burgundy voice, tell her that you're looking for an sluta. Then say that she looks like just the kind of person who might be able to assist you in your quest to find an sluta. Pause a few times between words and wink ostentatiously. 
  4. After she finishes clobbering you about the head and shoulders with the Hugad curtain rod, proceed to the lighting section and pick up your Ansluta.
Two six-input transformers should work. Remember that you also need power cords to connect the transformers to an extension cord. IKEA sells those.

All of that unsightly electrical stuff will be inside the island. Meaning you'll need to run the extension cord out of the island and into a power strip. Be strategic here. What you want is a straight line running to a power strip that is concealed somewhere against the wall.

I initially thought that I'd need to drill a hole in the base of one of the cases in order to run the cord to the wall. Fortunately, each Billy has a notch in its back to accommodate a baseboard. Perfect!

Use an overfloor cord protector to cover the cord and prevent your homies from tripping.

You can also try running the cord beneath the floor and up to the power strip against the wall. But that's some real Bob Vila sh*t and possibly not worth the effort for Funko Pops.

You'll now want to test the lighting setup to ensure that it works. Leave the switches on the IKEA power cords in the "on" position, so that everything lights up when you flip the switch on the power strip.

When you turn it on for the first time, be sure to say something like "By the power of Grayskuuulllll!" or "You've released the fookin fury!" just to set an appropriately momentous tone. And maybe play "The Final Countdown" by Europe.

Now for the top of the display island.

You'll want to go to Home Depot or Lowe's or whatever big-box outfit has put mom-and-pop hardware stores in your area out of business. Get a large piece of medium density fiberboard (MDF) cut to fit the top of your island. They'll cut it for you right there at the store.

On the above list of ingredients I linked to a piece of MDF that is .75 inch thick. I think the one I have is .5 inch thick, but I don't see that on Home Depot's website. Whatever. Go to the store and choose something that works for you. Try not to offend anyone like you did at IKEA.

You'll also want to get some paint.

The paint I used is a Glidden-brand variety called Wheat Stalk. It's pretty close to the color used on the back of Kenner's Return of the Jedi blister cards.

Prime the MDF and cover it with a couple of coats. You can then put the board on top of your Billys to see how it looks.

I originally planned to make the top of my island removable, so that I could store things in the interior and easily access the lighting stuff in the event of a problem. Unfortunately, after I painted it, it warped slightly, causing the corners to rise in an unsightly way. So I ended up drilling it into the cases using some wood screws, then covering the screw heads with wood filler.

Okay, so the acrylic. I'm sure you're wondering about the acrylic.

You can also buy this at Home Depot. Comes in large sheets. Cutting it is dicey, though. Home Depot doesn't want to do it for you. Though they claim it can be cut using a scoring knife and lots of patience, I didn't fare too well when I tried it. I recommend having a professional cut it for you.

This is from a home-improvement site, not my project, but you get the idea.

I got the idea for the color effect from this home-improvement article. What you want to do is paint one side of the acrylic the same color as the MDF. The painted side will then be affixed to the MDF using clear silicone caulk. When it's done, the unpainted side will appear glossy and bright.

I recommend using a conservative amount of silicone with a slight amount of weight applied while it's curing. I used a lot of silicone and also weighted the acrylic with quite a few books. When the weight was removed, the acrylic rebounded slightly, resulting in a few chips in the paint. Annoying, but not very noticeable. Anyway, I don't think a lot of adhesive and weight are necessary.

At this point your display island should be complete. The only question is: What do you display on it?

C'mon, you're a Star Wars collector with a big collection. You're basically a hoarder who gets things graded. I'm sure you'll figure something out.

In my case, I used the island to highlight one of the largest items in my collection, the piece of art I wrote about here.

A good idea in theory, but more difficult to realize than you might imagine. I asked a few folks in my area if they could build a rig that would hold the art upright on the island. No dice. Most seemed to think the idea was maybe a little wacky.

Okay, I guess the idea was kind of wacky. Still, I couldn't get the idea out of my head. I needed to see that art on top of the island!

So I was happy that, when I mentioned the idea to my friend Tom Derby, he immediately said, "Oh, that's easy. We'll build a case. Just let me know when you want to pick it up." No hesitation or anything. Awesome!

But Tom is in Atlanta. I'm in New York. That's a two-day trip each way by car. I gotta pick this thing up and haul it back.

Luckily, I was able to con some friends into chauffeuring me down there. My feet up the whole way, like I was Richie Rich or something. I even conned some other friends into meeting us at Tom's. And then I conned Tom into taking us out to dinner. Man, what a racket!

I'm maybe 30% joking.

I had a great time driving down with Chris and Stephanie Riehle. We spent a couple of nights with Chris and Sharon Georgoulias, and we got to see several collections and lots of friends. We even crashed a meeting of the Georgia Alliance of Star Wars Collectors that was hosted at the home of Narayan Naik. Great people.

Here you see Tom and the Chrises calculating what it'll take to safely pack this beastly case.

Chris G. is an engineer and Chris R. builds stuff, so best not to get in their way while they're measuring crap. Best to just sit back and sip a wine cooler while taking photos of everyone else doing the work.

In the photo, you can see that Stephanie is marveling at my ability to get people to do stuff for me.

Geez, we kinda got sidetracked, didn't we? This was supposed to be a blog post about building an island to display your Funko Pops, and I've gone and turned it into some kind of personal reminiscence combined with a primer on how to exploit your friends.

Whatever. It's not like your time is worth wasting.

What would you be doing if you weren't reading this, writing fan mail to the Knights of Ren?

I suppose the only way to end this post is with a photo of the final result. I'm pretty happy with it.

Good luck building your island.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Frosting Overload: Star Wars Themed Cakes from Mail Box News Magazine

Ron writes:

 Cake technology has advanced mightily since 1977. Have you noticed? Last year, my buddy and frequent SWCA blogger Yehuda Kleinman threw a party at his place in Queens. He served a Yoda cake that looked so much like Yoda it would have fooled Frank Oz. I have no idea what goes into producing a cake like that, but I know it's a professional-level task. It's certainly not something your average '70s mom was likely to take on between packs of Parliaments and episodes of Days of Our Lives. This article by guest blogger Jonathan McElwain takes us back to a more innocent age of cakery, an age during which a kid would be happy with an R2-D2 cake that looked less like a character from Star Wars than a piñata designed by Joan Miró.

Jonathan writes:

Collecting can lead you down some strange paths. Collecting back-issues of 40-year-old cake decorating magazines is one of them. Mail Box News (later known as Mailbox News) was a long-running monthly magazine for cake decorating enthusiasts published by Maid of Scandinavia from Minneapolis, Minnesota. During the Original Trilogy era, Mail Box News featured color covers with black-and-white interior pages.

Mail Box News regularly featured cakes that were decorated by their readers and submitted for publication. In the late '70s and early '80s, many Star Wars-themed cakes were included. Most of the cakes featured in this blog post predate the licensing of cake and confectionery products to Wilton Enterprises in 1980.

This funky three-dimensional R2-D2 cake was the cover story in March 1978:

This cake, featured in the February 1981 issue, seems to have been inspired by the R2-D2 cover boy from 1978:

A more realistic R2-D2 is represented on this cake from the July 1979 issue. Look closely and you’ll see a Kenner R2-D2 action figure standing guard on the upper right-hand corner of the cake:

R2-D2 is featured on most cakes in this group from July 1979. The cake in the lower left-hand corner of the group separates R2’s appendages into both arms and legs, much like this Dutch bootleg:

This pair of cakes was featured in the March 1978 issue. The character collage includes a gorilla-esque Chewbacca:

This Vader cake featured in the August 1978 issue proclaims that “Darth Vadar Lives”:

This cake, from February 1981, features a Darth Vader based on artwork from the Drawing Board wrapping paper:

A wide-eyed Chewbacca is featured on this cake from July 1979:

This Chewbacca cake from July 1980 appears to have been inspired by its predecessor from a year prior.

I really like this award-winning cake from April 1978, which featured a 3-dimensional Death Star (actually a frosted ball of styrofoam) along with an X-Wing and TIE Fighter:

Last, but certainly not least, this one from July 1981 is described as an “airplane cake.” However, we all know that this cake is really based on the Kenner X-Wing toy, right down to reproducing (in icing form) the sound button on the rear end of the fuselage. The cake also uses the plastic canopy and a pair of guns from the Kenner toy:

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this nostalgic look back at some of the fun Star Wars-themed cakes from Mail Box News.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Summer 2019 MarketWatch

Pete writes:

 Hello Space Freaks!

 As we melt our way through Summer let’s take a look back at how the market has been shaping up since the end of the Spring and into the season of collecting.

The Celebration Effect:

As with every year of a Celebration, the surrounding months were very light in terms of major market activity. Average prices dropped, availability dropped, and this is to be expected. When you take 100,000 Star Wars fans and drop them together in a giant convention center, some sales are going to happen and budgets are going to be blown. This year I think the effect was even greater than in years past, in part due to the lack of things to do at the convention center. There was no time spent line queuing overnight, and a lottery system that basically left a large part of the audience with no access to stages led to more time on the convention floor.

The market has finally picked up following this typical slump. Recent auction house sales along with some treats that hit the market in May, June, and July led to a good rebound from the lull taking place post Celebration Chicago. Here are some of the highlights.


Ben Kenobi Meccano MOC - $1,800 - eBay listing
One of the more common of the Meccano figures, here we have a great example of Ben with a decent price overall given its condition. 

Radio Controlled R2-D2 AFA 80 - $2,200 - eBay listing
A great piece and tough to find in good condition, the RC R2-D2 is one of the truly great one-off toys in the vintage Star Wars toy line. A strong price on a piece that doesn’t come up as often as they did historically, showing condition is everything these days.

Loose Set of 77 Complete - $2,225 - eBay listing
We don’t cover loose pieces that often on the MarketWatch unless they're of unique origins. When full sets turn up I try to pop them in here just to keep track of where the market has been. In this case, the market still seems to be creeping up on loose figures, as with no rarities or POTF figures this was a bit of a high point at an average of nearly $30 per figure.

ESB Red Six Pack Set MIB - $3,170 - eBay listing
This was a very good price for what was an overall strong piece. Like almost all boxed multi-packs the box itself was where the majority of condition issues came in with one large tear, but overall solid condition structurally.   

Darth Vader 12 Back AFA 95 - $6,100 - eBay listing
Like some of the Hake’s auctions last year we have a crazy price being realized for a one of the nicest MOCs out there. Getting the grade of 90 or higher is not an easy task with the vintage Star Wars line and thus these mint condition items will always bring a premium. This is one case where we do see some depreciation from the item's sale at Hake’s last year.

Death Star AFA 85 - $6,855 - eBay listing
One of the holy grails for collectors of sealed items, the Death Star Playset is always a favorite among collectors. Here we have an immaculate example of this beast of a playset. Given the size and rarity of sealed examples it’s hard to say that this is over-priced. Rather, I think it’s about right, but like many things is seeing a bit of a premium.

First 21 on Star Wars Cardbacks - $12,600 
Finding a nice set of the first 21 on Star Wars cardbacks is one of the most common runs collectors seek. And for good reason -- they were some of the most heavily produced toys in the vintage line.   Even with that information in mind it was nice to see what was still a very palatable selling price on a nice set with an average of $600 per figure.


Rocket-Firing Boba Fett L-Slot Prototype AFA 85 - $112,926 - auction listing
First off, I won’t infer that people were on some type of substance while bidding on this auction, as there are always outliers. I’m always excited to see things reach new heights as it means things are healthy in the hobby, but there was something almost off-putting about how the Rocket-Firing Fett auction ended, as unlike the last auction this was the more common unpainted L-Slot.

Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter MISB AFA 85 - $19,989 - auction listing
Another piece of noteworthiness was an original DV Tie Fighter, which came just shy of breaking $20K!

Both high grade examples went for well beyond estimates and stood out against the rest of the gallery of items.

On the inverse we did see a few good deals that night as well.

Anakin Skywalker Charcoal First Shot AFA 85 - $4,802 - auction listing
Although high end estimates on this piece were in the 5-figure range, this example of a Charcoal First Shot Anakin Skywalker failed to break the $5K mark with a modest selling price of $4,802. Anyone looking for a great deal on a first shot, well you just missed an opportunity…  Given $7K+ selling prices for the more common first shots in the past year, it’s difficult to see why this example didn’t pull in a better price.

That’s it for this time, but we’ll have more updates on the market and other topics coming soon.

Wampa Wampa,