Friday, November 27, 2020

Star Wars is Here: The Release and Promotion of Kenner's 1977 Line of Star Wars Product

Ron writes:

 In December of 1977 Scholastic News Explorer featured R2-D2 on the cover of their holiday shopping issue. 


 Because, duh, everyone wanted Star Wars for the holidays in 1977. 

 The problem was that there wasn't a whole lot available.

Would a Star Wars watch be an "in" item?

The centerfold of the publication features a photo showing products like posters, t-shirts, and records. Beside these are three items that might be considered toys. These are the Escape from Death Star board game, a Dip Dots painting set, and a couple of puzzles. All of them were produced by Kenner, the Cincinnati-based company that had the license to produce Star Wars toys and games.

As everyone knows, by not producing toys for Christmas in 1977, Kenner totally dropped the ball, screwed the pooch, bent the wookiee, etc. 

I debunked this idea back in this article. I think I did an okay job. Regardless, everyone still knows this totally wrong thing. People will probably know it forever. Kenner screwed up! At the very least they were guilty of "poor planning." 

In reality, Kenner didn't become an official licensee until right before Star Wars hit theaters in May of 1977. Plastic toys take about a year to develop, produce, and deliver to store shelves. Therefore, action figures in the fall 1977 were not a viable option.

This situation was reported at the time. Here's the "Desert Sun" of December 19, 1977:

Kenner Products, Cincinnati-based and a division of the General Mills Fun Group, markets these goodies that proliferate under Christmas trees. A marketing coup, to be sure. But the same company says it will not have ready for Christmas another line of toys to which it has exclusive rights -- "Star Wars." 

Licensing agreements were not completed until last April. Products won't be on store shelves until early next year, and disappointed shoppers hoping to pick up such figures as Leia Organa, Chewbaca, Artoo-Detoo and Luke Skywalker will have to settle for a certificate. A "Star Wars" Early Bird Certificate. 

Released recently to some stores, it includes a full-color, stand-up backdrop showing the movie's characters, a membership card in the "Star Wars" club, "Star Wars" stickers and a certificate. 

The latter, when mailed directly to Kenner, reserves the four "Star Wars" action figures. 

"It takes a full year to make the authentic toy characters and spaceship, and we'd rather do it right and do it late." a company spokesman said, explaining the post-Christmas delay.

And here's the "San Bernardino Sun," carrying an item from the New York Times News Service:

One of the hottest-selling toys this Christmas may not be a toy at all, but the promise of one. The Kenner Products division of General Mills Inc. has a winner with its Star Wars line of toys. 

The only problem is that the company does not have a single Star Wars figurine on the market. Instead of Luke Skywalker and his light saber, Princess Leia Organa with a star puffs hairdo and removable cape, Chewbacca and his laser rifle and ammunition belt and the lovable R2-D2, Kenner is selling a certificate costing up to $15, guaranteeing delivery of all four before next spring. And the certificates are sold out. 

As for the toys themselves, "We got the license last May and began production right away," a Kenner spokesman said, "but most toys take 12 to 15 months to develop." 

Kenner's production-supply problem has bewildered shoppers. Not only do they not get a toy, but in many cases they cannot even get the certificates. In major centers like Chicago and New York, the certificates are sold out. And some stores, which question the use of certificates for toys, refused to carry them."We sell toys, not promises," said one New York toy store.

I need to pause here to express my admiration for New York's "toys not promises" guy, who is clearly immune to anything resembling holiday spirit.

You know what Christmas-hating fictional character he reminds me of? 

No, not the Grinch.

The Burgermeister Meisterburger.

The Burgermeister Meisterburger

"Certificates are hereby declared illegal, immoral, unlawful, and anyone found with a certificate in his possession will be placed under arrest and thrown in the dungeon (no kidding)."

Of course, the promise to which our New York Burgermeister referred was Kenner's famous Early Bird Certificate Package, a stopgap product released by Kenner for the 1977 holiday season. I'm not going to waste your time explaining what it was. Click the preceding link, or just reread the above newspaper extracts. Sheesh.

But some stores were just fine with the prospect of selling promises rather than toys. The above ad, from the Cincinnati-based Shillito's, spotlights the Early Bird Certificate as well as two other early Kenner products (more on those in a bit).

Here's another ad, this one deriving from Kenner (as opposed to a retail outlet). It ran in newspapers across the country in the hopes of informing consumers that the Early Bird Certificate was available "at stores everywhere."

Well, everywhere except for that one joint in New York...
 *    *    * 

Okay, so action figures were on everyone's mind in the fall of 1977. I guess that's not surprising. Over 40 years later and action figures are still on the minds of collectors everywhere, many of whom would sooner buy 800 examples of the same common figure than look at something as dismal as a model kit or poster.

But Kenner did release a number of items in the fall of '77 that had no relation to action figures.

All of these were featured in the company's first wholesale catalog devoted solely to Star Wars, the cover of which you see above.

Judging by this letter, which accompanied the catalog, it was distributed in late summer, giving retailers just enough time to log those important holiday-season orders.

The Early Bird Certificate aside, what was in that catalog?

The Escape from Death Star board game was one item. This was actually the only product that Kenner was contractually obligated to release under the terms of their Star Wars license. You can read our in-depth (and incredibly snarky) post about board games here

Two separate assortments of puzzles were also spotlighted in the catalog. The 1977 puzzles are easily distinguished from their later counterparts by the bright colors of their boxes. To learn more, see our post devoted to Kenner's extensive line of puzzles.

Dip dots, man, dip dots. Dip dots, yo.

Rounding out this inaugural line of Star Wars offerings were two painting sets. The one you see above, an offshoot of Kenner's Dip Dots brand, brought the excitement of watercolors to Star Wars.

The second paint set, called Playnts, was much larger in format. 
Although Kenner planned to do a second iteration of Playnts, with all new art adorning the included posters, they quickly ceded color-it-yourself posters to their sister company Craft Master, who produced Star Wars-themed poster sets into the early '80s.

So that's six Kenner Star Wars products for 1977, eight if you count each puzzle as a unique item:
  • Early Bird Certificate Package
  • Playnts
  • Dip Dots
  • 140-piece puzzles (x2)
  • 500-piece puzzles (x2)
  • Escape from Death Star Board Game
All of these were featured on the original order sheet distributed to retailers, a photo of which you see above. 

What do they all have in common? 
They have no (or very few) molded plastic parts. In the toy industry, no plastic means a quick turnaround time. Consisting largely of paper, these items were rushed to market while Kenner was still racing to create the metal molds required to produce action figures.

Here you see Kenner's entire Star Wars line as of December 1977. In that year, millions of kids received at least one of these items for the holidays.

 *    *    *

So those were the products. What about the marketing?  

A Children's Palace advertisement from November 1977

If you're Kenner circa 1977, and you find yourself sitting on the biggest license in toy manufacturing history, you want to make damn sure people know that your products have arrived and are available for holiday purchasing.

 The slogan Kenner chose for this purpose was simple: "Star Wars is Here."

This large sign, consisting of two separate panels, is part of a display that was issued bearing just that slogan. 

For years collectors were uncertain of this sign's usage. It was thought to consist of four panels in total, the two seen above connected to two identical panels, which were capable of being folded into a four-sided cube shape. 

A cube is a pretty odd format for a store display, though. Maybe it was the outer portion of a product dump?

That speculation turned out to be correct -- sort of. I say "sort of" because no one pictured the dump as cylindrical.

The above instructions, which shipped with the display, indicate that it was designed to be used with an existing Play Doh merchandiser. The graphic would have wrapped around a wire cylinder intended to hold product.

This is how the assembly appeared when fully stocked. Note that the products included are all products we've discussed as being released in late 1977. 
The instructions, however, mention 1978 products like the X-Wing and TIE Fighters.
Three possibilities here:
  • I'm wrong that it was issued in late 1977.
  • The instructions were designed in expectation of 1978 releases.
  • The instructions were redone in 1978 when new products were released. (I have no doubt that this display remained in use well into 1978.)
I have dozens of internal Kenner photos showing store displays, and the above is the only one that contains 1977 product exclusively. That and the appearance of the "Star Wars is Here" slogan persuade me that it was released in 1977. 

Of course, there's no guarantee of this. It's possible some of these items were developed in '77 and hit in early '78. But that would spoil the narrative of this post, wouldn't it?
Atop this unit was a separate graphic -- the Toy Galaxy pole sign. This, too, was an early display piece that remained in use through 1978. Although most extant examples consist of individual panels, it was designed to fold together into a double-sided dimensional rectangle. Above you see the complete item in the unfolded state.
Regarding the existence of cut-down panels...

Is it possible that both the Star Wars is Here and Toy Galaxy displays were intended to be cut down into flat panels? Maybe some were even cut down at Kenner, before being sent to retailers?

Judging by the above image, I'd say the answer to both questions is yes.

The image, likely created for an internal Kenner presentation dating to the summer of 1977, shows both signs in the unfolded state and suggests they were both included in something called an "in-store promotional kit." 

Also included in the proposed (or perhaps released?) kit was the "May the Force Be With You" button that Kenner issued for promotional purposes.
But what about the other items in the image? What are those graphical rectangles and droid likenesses? 

I feel confident identifying the latter as Kenner-branded Factors standees, as discussed here.

Long story short: In the early days of Star Wars merchandising, the Factors company, a Star Wars licensee, appears to have offered life-size character standees to retailers as merchandising aids. Kenner, furthermore, appears to have purchased a quantity of these, modified them with Kenner stickers, and shipped them to retailers to assist them in advertising Kenner products.
So that's what the droid graphics are: Factors standees.

That leaves the graphical rectangles. What are those?
I think it's likely these are intended to represent commercial posters, also produced by Factors.
Why do I think that?

Because of the existence of items like the one you see here: a Factors commercial poster branded with a Kenner sticker -- the same sticker used on the standees. 

So far only a couple of these Kenner-branded posters have surfaced, and it took me years to find one, but I'm pretty sure they represent the final component of the "promotional kit."

Whether the kit existed or was just a proposal is open to debate, but I think the existence of the items proposed for it is a good indication that it, or something like it, was in fact released.

An additional data point: A few years ago, the above box surfaced. It contained unused examples of the Kenner-branded C-3PO and R2-D2 standees. It's impossible to know what other items were originally in the box, but it's not out of the question that it contained all of the items shown in the art for the "in-store promotional kit." 


As this photo demonstrates, the box is just large enough to accommodate a folded-down Star Wars is Here sign.

Again: read more about it here.

A different box containing Kenner-branded examples of all four Factors standees -- C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader, and Chewbacca -- is also known to exist. How it relates to the box you see above is at this point anyone's guess.

Here's another internal Kenner image showing what appear to be the Factors standees in front of a graphical backdrop. The interesting thing about the backdrop is that it combines elements of the Toy Galaxy and Star Wars is Here signs. It's almost as though this idea evolved into the two separate pieces of signage.

Here you see a shot of the interior of a store called Foley's. Although the photo dates to December of 1978, a full year after the period under discussion, you can see all of the display items proposed for the "in-store promotional kit," including a Factors poster that appears to be branded with a Kenner sticker in its lower right corner. As Star Wars product was consistently popular during this era, it wasn't uncommon for Kenner's displays to remain in use for a year or more following initial issue.

 *    *    *

I started the previous portion of our discussion by talking up the "Star Wars is Here" slogan, but then we got a little sidetracked. 

The slogan did appear on at least one other display item released late in 1977, a rare item related to the Early Bird Certificate.

Only a few examples of the Early Bird pole display are known to exist. The display bin designed to hold the actual Early Bird envelopes is much more familiar to collectors.

As the instructions demonstrate, it, like the Toy Galaxy pole display, was designed to fold around a cardboard tube.

Here's an unassembled view.

The New York Burgermeister quoted at the start of this article would probably pooh-pooh this display, as it advertises a mere promise rather than a purchasable toy, but I think we can all agree that it's a pretty attractive display. 

And besides, what's wrong with promises?

Thanks to Todd Chamberlain and Eddie for providing some of the photos used in this post.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

'Chive Cast Blog Log Pod Episode 15 - Too Much Info on Vintage Star Wars Stamps

Who is Gator Head? What is the Beep Code? Jonathan "Johnny Too-Much" McElwain joins the pod with Ron Salvatore to provide answers and talk about collecting the vintage Star Wars Harris Stamp Kits.

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Monday, November 9, 2020

The Force is With Harris: The Star Wars Collecting Kit of 1978


 Do people still collect stamps? Do people still use stamps? 

When I was a kid, probably around 1981, my father took me to a store where a dusty-looking gentlemen sold stamps and coins. Here I was told that stamps had value, because people collected them. But the store seemed pretty desolate; I didn't see many collectors in it. Frankly, I was suspicious. My father, though, owned something faintly resembling a stamp collection; therefore, he was inclined to believe in the stamps-have-value mythos. 

(Mind you, I'm not poking fun at my father or stamp collectors. Who am I to judge? A couple of years later I became an aspiring baseball-card tycoon, buying -- and stupidly saving -- a bunch of modern baseball cards that are today worth absolutely nothing. Honestly, I think I'd rather have the stamps.)

I don't know much about the collectible-stamps market, but I suspect that these days the portion of it that's devoted to more recent issues isn't booming. Further, I suspect that my father's stamp collection is worth less today than it was back in 1981. The people who made stamps a hot collectible have passed away or grown very old, and younger people just don't care about postage collecting. Hobbies are basically trends expressed in material terms, and like trends they thrive and wither in ways that are fairly predictable.

Fortunately, Star Wars crap is insulated from this natural and inevitable cycle. It's guaranteed to be worth a fortune even after the folks who grew up with Star Wars are old and investing in cemetery plots rather than 12-backs. 

It's true, I promise.

On that positive note, I happily hand this off to regular contributor Jonathan McElwain, whose predictably excellent piece on the Star Wars Postage Stamp Collecting Kit really made me think about the funny ways in which the collecting trends of succeeding generations overlap and bump up against one another.

Jonathan writes:

The Force is with Harris? Harris who? 

By the 1970’s, H.E. Harris & Company, Inc. of Boston, Massachusetts was a dominant force in the world of stamp collecting. Much of their business was based on the “approvals” model, where the company made an introductory offering for a low price on the condition that the consumer agree to receive future offerings, which they could either keep (and pay for), or return. This is the same gimmick that Columbia House used to sell many of you 11 (no, 12!) albums for only a penny.

Harris was absorbed into the General Mills conglomerate in 1975. As part of General Mills, they were able to get a piece of the Star Wars action. This advertisement from the January 1978 Playthings trade magazine announced the Star Wars Postage Stamp Collecting Kit as a new product for 1978. The advert boasts: “The STAR WARS SALES FORCE is with Harris. The STAR WARS SALES FORCE can be with you...and the profit potential is out of this world!” 

How could any self-respecting retailer NOT stock this product?

The Star Wars Stamp Collecting Kit included a stamp album, 24 Star Wars seals, 35 space-themed postage stamps from around the world, 300 stamp hinges (used to mount the stamps in the album) and a plastic magnifier. You can find a nice breakdown of the kit contents in this Fantha Tracks blog post  by Richard Hutchinson.

The kit was available for purchase in several different formats. The boxed versions retailed for $4.95.

This version of the boxed kit, with black-and-white photos and text on the back side, was presumably the first version offered. The image of the Star Wars seals on the box back is different (and a bit cruder) than the final product.

This shipping carton contained two dozen of the boxed kits with black-and-white backs.

This version of the boxed kit, with color photos and text on the back side, features an updated image of the Star Wars seals in their production form. The contents of the kit remain the same, but the box back layout is a definite improvement over the black-and-white version.

The kit was also available in this bagged format, with a lower retail price of $3.95. I find it a bit odd that the Harris name isn’t featured on the header card, although it is visible on the package of cancelled postage stamps within the bag.

This awesome store display is from the collection of Ian Regan. It's filled with two dozen of the boxed kits with black-and-white backs.

This is the shipper for the store display, also from the collection of Ian Regan.

This is the set of 24 Star Wars seals that were included in all of the kits. Although perforated and backed with adhesive, these seals were not official postage stamps. The sheet is pre-printed with a price of $2.00.  I’m not aware of evidence that the sheet was sold individually. My guess is that this was just a way to add perceived value.

This cachet uses the Chief Jawa seal. It’s a one-off, or possibly one of a handful, made by philatelic cover artist Hideaki Nakano. The cancellation applied to the seal is from the 1983 Motopex, a local stamp show in the Detroit, Michigan area.

Harris released a set of six supplemental packs (Assortments 1 through 6). Each shrink-wrapped pack included six Star Wars seals that are unique to the pack, 10 cancelled space-themed postage stamps, and 300 stamp hinges. The packs were pre-printed with a $1.79 price. I believe that these were available at retail.

This is the full set of supplemental packs. The Star Wars logo on these packs is an unusual one. It seems to be based on a modified version of the logo used on the Style “D” Circus Poster. These supplemental packs are, in my experience, pretty challenging to track down.

This is the glassine envelope containing the stamps for Assortment 5. The space-themed postage stamps included within the envelope match the stamps featured on the cover of the supplemental pack. I don’t have open examples of the other packs, but I expect that they are similar.

This is the set of six seal sheets from the supplemental packs. These seals are formatted consistently with the seals from the original kit, with the green Star wars logo and a caption.  

Some of the captions featured on the seals from the supplemental packs are pretty lame, as if the person writing the captions just couldn’t be bothered to figure out an appropriate name to match up with the image. 

“Fighter Ship." Really?

The "TM" symbols appear universally, whether they make sense or not, including on the aforementioned “Fighter Ship” seal and on this “Heroes” seal.

This is one of my favorites. It’s everyone’s favorite cantina patron...Gator Head!?!

Last but not least, this seal features a poorly cropped photo of the “Sand Citizen”.

There must have been a ton of stamp kits left over after production ended. Both of the boxed variations remain readily available in sealed condition to this day. When you adjust for inflation, they still typically sell at about the same cost as the original retail.

This clipping, taken from an issue of Boy’s Life Magazine, offered the Stamp Kit for only $1 plus 50 cents shipping, a substantial savings from the original retail. In order to take advantage of this offer, the consumer committed to receiving other offerings as part of the Harris approval program.

This offer from the Approval Department of Harris offered the set of 24 seals from the kit plus all 36 seals from the supplemental packs for a mere $2.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this look at the Star Wars Stamp Collecting Kit and related promotions. As is often the case with these things, there is more to collect from this promotion than it first appears.