Friday, January 21, 2022

A Match Made in Capitalism: Kenner, Star Wars, and the Junior Achievement Program

Ron writes:

 Quick, off the top of your head, name the rarest Star Wars item produced by Kenner for sale to the public.

Here's a picture of Rian Johnson to antagonize you while you think over your answer. I'll wait.

What did you choose?

The X-Wing Aces Target Game

The Return of the Jedi electric toothbrush

Maybe the version of the Remote Controlled R2-D2 that came with an "obstacle course" playmat

All solid guesses, none of them provably wrong.

But I'm curious: How many of you chose the Star Wars Message Center?

How many of you were even aware of the Star Wars Message Center? 


A Message From Stawarco

The Star Wars Message Center was available in late '77 and early '78 in a quantity unlikely to exceed 1,000 (more on that later). And it was available only in the Cincinnati area. So not only was it scarce, it was highly regional -- much more so than any of Kenner's regularly marketed products.

I can almost see the savvier among you leaping at the screens of your computing devices in a rush to correct me and probably report me to Snopes. 

"But that wasn't a Kenner product," you're saying. "Fact check false!"

Okay, okay, Kenner didn't "produce" the Message Center; they sponsored it. 

But still, Kenner had a hand in producing it. And let's agree to not split hairs. Without Kenner's involvement, the Message Center would never have been made -- which to my mind makes it more or less a Kenner product.

The Message Center emerged from Kenner's involvement in the Junior Achievement program.

Founded in 1919, the JA program encourages businesses to partner with young residents of their localities to produce, market, and sell a product. 

The program still exists. I'm not sure what it's like today, but back when Kenner was involved my sense is that it was pretty dang American. By inculcating school kids with respect for the ways of capitalism, American companies could play as big a part in the defeat of communism as Ronald Reagan, famine, and the producers of Red Dawn

Kenner was a big supporter of Junior Achievement. So big, in fact, that its president served on the organization's board of directors. Generally, Kenner staff members, acting in the role of "advisors," shepherded each Kenner-sponsored JA product. In that capacity they worked closely with the involved kids to ensure everything kept moving. According to an item from the June 1978 issue of the Kenner newsletter:

During the school year, the advisors help these enthusiastic students develop a project, do the sourcing and costing... set up the manufacturing process, supervise and run the line, and market and distribute their finished product. To complete their year, they liquidate their assets, issue an annual report and pay dividends to their stockholders.

Sounds like a lot of work. But I guess when your boss is on the JA board you don't have much of a choice. You either "advise" and get your hands dirty with the local kids or give up all hope of promotion. 

In any event,  by the time Star Wars was released, Kenner was sponsoring a JA product on a near-yearly basis.

As stated in the above article, the Message Center consisted of a piece of black plexiglass silkscreened with the Star Wars logo and Kenner's iconic "double racetrack" border motif. It also featured a piece of corkboard glued to its right side to which important paper messages could be affixed. Though I didn't realize it until I researched this article, it came packaged with thumbtacks and a grease pencil. The grease pencil could be used to write in the black area of the plexi, as you would today on a whiteboard. 

The company created by Kenner to produce and sell the Message Center was called Stawarco. Obviously, it was short for "Star Wars Company," or something along those lines. I suspect the first "R" and second "S" in "Star Wars" were eliminated for legal reasons: The existence of an independent company with "Star Wars" in its name may have been problematic for Lucasfilm and Fox.

During the 1977-78 academic year, Stawarco competed against 143 JA companies in the Cincinnati area, eventually winning recognition as Company of the Year. The Message Center itself took Product of the Year.

Above you see Kenner VP Mike DeSantis being recognized for Kenner's efforts by a guy who looks just like William Friedkin circa 1978. By the way, that elongated white object you see near Wild Billy's thumb is probably the grease pencil.

So Stawarco garnered a lot of accolades for their Star Wars Message Center.

With all due respect to the folks behind Stawarco, I suspect they had an unfair advantage. How many other JA companies in the Cincinnati area were able to produce a licensed Star Wars product that was designed by representatives of the hottest company in the toy industry? 

I suspect none. 

I mean, Kroger is headquartered in Cincinnati. What did their JA company sell, broccoli?

When I say that the Message Center was licensed, I'm not joking: Kenner got Fox to authorize the product in exchange for a royalty on sales. Fox then donated those royalties back to Junior Achievement. How nice. Ultimately, sales of the Message Center grossed $3,000, with additional revenues being obtained through sales of tickets to a JA trade fair and a rock concert. I wish I had additional information on the rock concert. Sounds pretty wild.

Unfortunately, I don't know the cost of the Message Center itself; therefore, I can't use the $3,000 in gross sales to calculate the number sold. But based on Kenner's sponsorship of a similar JA product a few years later, which retailed at "under $10," I'm going to guess the cost was around $6. That would yield a total of 500 Message Centers -- which sounds about right.

The bulk of the Message Centers were sold through grass-roots efforts: door-to-door campaigns and the like. But 280 were also pre-sold to local retailers Shillito's and Pogue's -- quite a coup for Stawarco! Hey, I wrote a bit about Shillito's back here.

About the trade fair I mentioned a few paragraphs ago: I was fortunate to find this item, from the Northern Hills Press of February 15, 1978, which provides a peak into the event. It looks like the Stawarco booth was decorated with a rad banner displaying Star Wars imagery; it also featured an appearance by someone named Jean Miller, who dressed as Darth Vader. 

Hardcore toy collectors will note the presence in the photo of Kenner's inflatable lightsaber toy, which was either purchased at the store or provided by the kind folks at Kenner. As detailed in this post, the lightsaber was not available for Christmas of 1977; in February of 1978, it was a brand-new product.

Above you see another local news item, this one from the Hilltop News of June 1, 1978. It shows Ed Miller, president of Stawarco, dressed to the nines in what looks like a rented prom costume and beaming with pride over the JA awards he received as a result of his work on the Message Center. Looks like he got a trophy in addition to some mounted certificates.

Hey, Ed -- if you're out there, sell me your awards! I'm a buyer.

By the way, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Ed was related to the Jean Miller who dressed as Darth Vader at the trade fair. JA seems likely to have been a family affair.

Before moving on to our next subject, I want to mention that I know of at least two variations that affect the Message Center. On some examples, the corners of the corkboard area are rounded rather than square. Also, some feature a sticker on the reverse containing legal information. It's also worth mentioning that at least some of the items are known to have been packaged in a nondescript carton. It's very possible that all of them were packaged that way.


Sta(r)warco Strikes Back

I know what you're thinking: "If Kenner sponsored a JA product nearly every year during the Star Wars era, surely they sponsored another JA product with a Star Wars connection."

Even if you weren't thinking this, I'll give you credit for it.

Kenner's second sponsorship of a JA product connected to Star Wars occurred in the 1980-81 academic year, a period which saw the theatrical roll-out of The Empire Strikes Back

It's nice to see some rad Kenner signage in the inset photo

In fact, the Kenner newsletter you see above was issued after Empire had been in wide release for a while, in spring of 1981. The highlighted story, which graced the publication's back page, reveals that Kenner's latest JA product was a clock that featured "Yoda and many of the favorite Star Wars characters." 

As I discussed here, Yoda was the most popular new character in Empire. So he was a natural fit for a JA product released in 1980.

The product changed and so did the name of the JA company that produced it -- sort of. 

The Kenner newsletters that refer to the clock repeatedly cite the production company as Starwarco, a name that leaves in place the first "R" in "Star Wars." At first I thought this was a typo, but the spelling is too consistent for it to be a mistake: It seems obvious that it was Starwarco rather than Stawarco. If it's true that a legal concern had caused the "R" to be dropped in 1977, that concern no longer prevailed come 1980.

The product as it was released was very simple: just a piece of acrylic housing a graphical insert and an off-the-shelf clock mechanism. 

Simplicity must have been key for Junior Achievement: a successful JA product needed to be cost effective. It also needed to be capable of quick assembly by '80s-era high school students, who, let's face it, were probably more interested in hanging out in the woods and drinking Löwenbräu than sucking at the teat of corporate America.

Those of you with any knowledge of the vintage Kenner toy line immediately recognized the graphic featured on the clock's face: it's the graphic from Kenner's redesigned version of their popular action figure carrying case. In repurposing this graphic, Kenner redesigned it slightly, adding the Empire logo in the lower right corner as well as four white dots to mark each quarter hour.

Here's a view of the back of the clock. Simplicity itself!

The square-shaped residue you see in the lower left corner of the stand is what remains of a sticker identifying the clock as a Junior Achievement product. Once the clocks were in the hands of consumers, the stickers were often removed from them. Either that or they simply fell off.

As mentioned in the above newsletter item, Starwarco didn't stop with Yoda; they offered clocks featuring several different graphics, including scenes depicting a still life, Cincinnati, a mountain, and the sea.

The item also mentions wall clocks in addition to desk clocks. Since I've never seen any of these clocks aside from the Yoda one, which is most definitely a desk model, I can't describe their graphics or explain how the wall clocks were formatted. 

Frankly, I'm pretty surprised that two different formats were available; that would seem to add a lot of unneeded complexity to the operation. Maybe there was less Löwenbräu involved than I thought. 

This item, from Kenner's newsletter dated summer 1981, tells us that Starwarco was named Company of the Year for the Cincinnati area. Obviously, the unfair advantage provided by Kenner's association with the Star Wars license was still bearing fruit!

I am unaware of evidence indicating that the clocks of 1980-81 were sold at a trade fair, as was the Message Center of a few years prior. However, the above item from Kenner's winter 1980 newsletter makes it clear that they were available to employees of the company, who could purchase them during the weeks leading up to Christmas by seeing the lady on the 13th floor of the Kroger Building.

There is one mystery concerning the Yoda clock. 

Don't you just love mysteries? Without them life would be so straight, so rational, so boring. 

A few years back, while rereading Poe, it occurred to me that mysteries -- and through them our engagement with the irrational -- are what keep us going; without them, life would be a series of insipid confirmations. I'm no philosopher, but I think many would benefit from welcoming a little mysticism into their lives. Only an uninteresting man believes he knows everything, and the man who tells you he knows everything is either stupid or ill-intentioned. 

In any event, this particular mystery would appear to be pretty mundane: it concerns the existence of a similar, but very distinct, Yoda clock that was also the result of Kenner's involvement in the JA program. This clock features a photo of Yoda rather than the airbrushed montage familiar from the action figure carrying case.

This particular example retains its sticker identifying it as a JA product.

Although I am aware of around 10 examples of the clock bearing the montage graphic, the photo version appears to be much rarer: I know of only two or three examples.

I can think of four possible explanations for the existence of two different Yoda clocks:

1) Both clocks were available concurrently in 1980-81.
2) The photo version represents an early iteration of the clock, later replaced by the montage version.
3) The photo version represents a late iteration of the clock, having replaced the montage version.
4) The photo version is a JA product of a period other than 1980-81.

Recall that the spring 1981 newsletter described the clock as featuring "Yoda and many of the favorite Star Wars characters." That can only be the montage version. On the other hand, the summer 1981 newsletter uses broader language, referring to a "Yoda-faced clock" -- which I think is vague enough to refer to either version.

Regardless, at this point in time I think explanation (1) is the most likely: that both clocks were available more or less concurrently during the 1980-81 period. After all, it was during that period that Starwarco offered clocks bearing still life and landscape scenes. If landscapes, then why not two different Yodas? Clearly they weren't afraid of variety.

Still, it's weird, and I wonder if there isn't a more interesting story here that we just aren't aware of. 

Before I close out the Star Wars portion of this piece, I want to mention two other Junior Achievement products that were related to George Lucas' universe: a Star Wars magnetic dart game and a board game with the curious title Star Wars III. These were mentioned by Steve Sansweet in his 1992 Star Wars: From Concept to Screen to Collectible. They weren't Kenner-sponsored products but rather JA products sponsored by groups located outside of the Cincinnati area. For years, I've kept an eye out for evidence of either product but, alas, I haven't found any. If you know something about these items, or have one of them, please don't hesitate to contact me.


What Else?

That concludes our look at the Star Wars items sponsored by Kenner in conjunction with the Junior Achievement program. 

But since I have you here, and since I've done all this research, I thought it'd be worthwhile to share what I know about other Kenner JA products of the Star Wars era. 

Kenner's newsletter of April 1979 mentions Kenner's JA product of that year: "an authentic replica of a wooden lantern used during the 1700's." Kinda lame when compared to Star Wars. I think I'd rather have Kroger's broccoli.

Note that a Jean Miller is mentioned as a staff member of Lighthouse Unlimited, the JA company created to produce and market the wooden lantern. I wonder if that's the same Jean Miller who played Darth Vader at the JA trade fair two years prior. 

We just can't get away from Jean Miller -- she's the Zelig of this particular blog post. 

According to this item, from the fall 1981 newsletter, the JA product for 1981-82 was Strawberry Shortcake Soapcakes -- basically a jar filled with soaps and one of Kenner's Strawberry Shortcake PVC miniatures.

Based on the evidence of the summer 1982 newsletter, this Strawberry Shortcake product may also have involved candies, though it's unclear to me how these candies interacted with the soaps. 

Maybe they filled some jars with soaps and others with candies? It's always good to give your customers some options. Does your grandma have a sweet tooth? Just plain dirty? We gotcha covered either way.

The winter 1982 newsletter makes it clear that Kenner's 1982-83 JA product was a pair of message centers: one based on Knight Rider and another on Strawberry Shortcake. I've never seen either product, but I think you can be pretty sure they were identical in format to the Star Wars Message Center of 1977-78. 

By the way, if you're the low-level employee responsible for Kenner's newsletter, and you misspell the name of one of the company's big new licenses, how hard do you kick yourself after it goes to print and is distributed to basically every employee in the company?

The Message Center wasn't the only Star Wars-focused JA product to be resurrected in a later year: In 1984-85 Kenner sponsored a pair of desk clocks exhibiting the same format as their earlier Yoda clock. The one you see above was devoted to the Super Powers line.

Another was devoted to Care Bears.

The final Kenner-sponsored JA products I'm aware of are a trio of plastic mugs devoted to popular Kenner brands of 1985-86: Centurions, M.A.S.K., and Hugga Bunch.

By the way, is there anything more detestable than the Hugga Bunch? The Hugga Bunch were a hideous combo of Cabbage Patch Kid and Chucky from Child's Play. They were so saccharine they made the Care Bears look like Rambo. 

According to Wikipedia, the TV special based on the Huggas was the most expensive ever made up to that time (!!) and involved "a girl [who] travels through her mirror into HuggaLand to find a way to keep her grandmother—the only one who knows how to hug—young." 

Holy effin sh*t that sounds worse than The Book of Boba Fett.

Fortunately, the Annual Report related to this project exists in the collection of Peter LeRose. As you can tell by looking at its cover, the Kenner-sponsored company behind the mugs was known as Cups R Us. 

Hmm... It was only about 10 years after the founding of Cups R Us that lawyers representing the now defunct Toys R Us began harassing the founder of this website over his use of the domain name I wonder if they also reached out to the folks behind CRU to harass them about their mugs.

This page of the report provides some insight into the JA program. Interestingly, it says that a set of four mugs was available, making me wonder what the fourth mug looked like. Maybe if you bought all three they threw in a second Hugga Bunch mug -- for Löwenbräu

Interestingly, the report makes it sound as though the Centurions mug was especially popular among Kenner staff, whose demand necessitated a special high-volume order of 250.

That's about all I have on Kenner Junior Achievement. If you're trying to hunt down all of these, first of all: good luck; it's a tough set to complete. Second, the below chart might be of some help to you. It's my best shot at a summary of what may be out there.

Obviously, 1978-79 and 1983-84 constitute gaps in my timeline. Kenner may have made JA products in those years, but if they did, I am ignorant of them. 

And maybe it's better that way. Keep in mind what I wrote earlier about mysteries.

Thanks to Todd Chamberlain, Chris Georgoulias, Peter LeRose, Michael Mensinger, and Eddie for their assistance with this article.

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