Sunday, May 22, 2022

'Chive Cast 122 - Lumat's Ewok Junk

The short 79 Back season begins with Ewok Bowman and Woodcutter, Lumat. Mattias Rendahl joins to talk about "mechanicals," foreign carded figures, unlicensed ceramics and an epic, consequential MarketWatch game.

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08:00 – Grumpy Lumat’s Story and History
16:47 – Unproduced Zephee
19:45 – Skye-Ku
21:28 – Mattias joins the show
24:54 – What is the deal with 79 Backs?
29:21 – What are all the Lumats? 
33:41 – Ledy is NOT THE SAME as Made in Mexico
34:57 – Trilogo Madness?  
41:02 – Vintage Vocab: Mechanical / Final Comp 
1:01:21 – Unloved Item: Bootleg ceramics
1:04:09 – MarketWatch Game and Outro

Show Note Links:

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Turn On Your Force Light: The Great Knock-Off Lightsaber Wave of 1977-78

Ron writes:


 If you've read my other articles, especially this one, you know that Kenner, the principal Star Wars toy licensee, was in a bit of a pickle come late 1977. 

Though Star Wars was a smash hit, Kenner wasn't able to meet the demand that it generated among the toy buying public. This wasn't Kenner's fault: The company had only acquired the toy license that spring, just before the movie hit theaters, and toy development takes time -- over a year in some cases. 

And so the Cincinnati-based company entered the holiday season with a lineup boasting only a few Star Wars products. Eight to be precise: two coloring sets, four puzzles, a board game, and the novel Early Bird Certificate Package. 

The last was a glorified gift certificate that children could redeem for action figures -- to be delivered after a few months of agonized waiting. Because it asked consumers to pay for products that didn't even exist, it generated quite a bit of controversy in the press.

Obviously, a lot of iconic Star Wars paraphernalia was missing from the above list. Spaceships, blasters, and droids were nowhere to be found. 

Neither were lightsabers.

Of all the gadgetry in Star Wars, nothing was as likely to captivate the imagination of a child as the glowing weapon of the Jedi Knights. In 1977, as the movie wowed audiences across the United States, kids everywhere supplemented their Star Wars roleplaying adventures with sticks, cardboard wrapping paper tubes, and broom handles. Anything that could compensate for the lack of a licensed lightsaber toy.

But these were poor substitutes for a proper lightsaber. For one thing, they didn't glow. For another, they were dangerous. Have you ever been whacked with a broom handle? It was clear that something better was needed. 

Fortunately, Americans are plucky, entrepreneurial, and (perhaps most crucially) somewhat dismissive of copyright law. In the waning days of 1977, they rose to the challenge, and marketed their own damn lightsabers. 

This is the story of their efforts.

* * * 

John Joyce Has a Bright Idea

In the fall of 1977, just as the holidays began to weigh on the minds of American shoppers, Rochester, Michigan resident John Joyce was struck with a bolt of inspiration. 

Just 12 years of age, John fell smack within the demographic most impacted by Star Wars. And like a lot of kids, he yearned for a toy lightsaber. "Why," he wondered, "can't a lightsaber be made from a simple flashlight?" 

It was an inevitable question, and (as we'll see) it wasn't unique: scores of folks around the country wondered the same thing. 

But John was in the unique position of having a father who manufactured plastic housewares, selling them out of his family-owned hardware business. He was also something of a junior tinkerer, having already tried his hand at developing -- of all things -- a perpetual-motion machine. 

Fortunately, developing a lightsaber toy is a little more achievable than a refutation of the laws of physics. Upon pitching his flashlight idea to his dad, the two of them got down to business -- literally.

The resulting product was dubbed the "Star Force Ray." 

It was a rudimentary thing. As the above newspaper article from the Detroit Free Press recounts:
Selling for $5.98, the toy consists of nothing more than a flashlight with a long plastic tube attached to reflect the light.
Hey, ideas are like relationships: the best ones are rarely the most complicated. Simplicity is the essence of most great inspirations. 

And, simple or not, the Star Force Ray was fun to play with. It sure beat a broom handle! 

In the laconic words of John himself:
I think they're really neat. I just like to take them out in the snow and swing them around or whatever.
Kids in the Michigan area agreed: Per the Detroit Free Press, 20,000 examples of John's saber were sold during the 1977 holiday season, with an additional 10,000 being on hand as of January 1978. 

Those may be rookie numbers, but they're good rookie numbers. 

That's 30,000 more lightsabers than Kenner managed to produce over the same period of time.

Joyce and his father employed a sticker to cover the logo molded into the handle of the flashlight. 

These flashlights, by the way, were surely bought in bulk from an American manufacturer, most likely Eveready. More on that later.

In case you're wondering, Stac-All was the name of the Joyce hardware and home goods business. 

Above you see a household organizer produced by the company. In avocado green, naturally -- 'cause it was the '70s.

Because the sticker on the saber mentions a Star Force Ray patent, I searched for and found it. It was granted in late 1980. Surely something to brag about to the kids at school!

Less brag-worthy was the image that Stac-All generated to promote the product. I'm guessing that by the time John turned 15, he strenuously downplayed all involvement in it. 

While the image doesn't quite have the punch of Jung's iconic one-sheet art, it conveys a similar compositional idea.

Well, it sort of does.

Maybe just a little?

Embellished with airbrushed sparkle effects and featuring a girl as Princess Leia, the Spirit of the Force, or someone equally mysterious, it was a glorious piece of '70s kitsch that made any resulting embarrassment worthwhile.

Embarrassing photo aside, the Star Force Ray was a big success. But it was a regional one. As we'll see in our next segment, the popularity of a different faux saber was more widespread.

* * * 

The Force Beam: Capitalizing on the Star Wars Mystique

Probably the king of all faux sabers was the "Force Beam." It was surely the most widely sold lightsaber product of the fall of 1977.

As we'll see, its sales may even have rivaled those of Kenner's licensed Star Wars products.

Here it is in an ad from Sibley's of Syracuse, New York.

And another from B. Babbitt's of Arizona.

In Northern California, Daly's was bold enough to use the Hildebrandts' official marketing image to advertise what was by any standard a very unofficial product. 

Maybe they figured it was okay since "Darth Vador" was appearing there on the weekend?

Kids on the East Coast weren't unfamiliar with the Force Beam: Regional retailer Caldor had 'em covered.

Advertising on the part of JC Penney makes it clear that even national retailers couldn't resist the sales power of the Force Beam.

Amazingly, the Force Beam also made its way across the Atlantic, as this colorful British advertisement reveals. 

Is the use of the Star Wars logo bold or just obnoxious? I'm not sure, but the "TM" is definitely obnoxious.

At least the ad depicts Luke Starwalker and not Luke Skywalker (TM).

Like the Star Force Ray, the Force Beam was comprised of an Eveready flashlight and a long semi-translucent plastic tube.

As illustrated by this photo, some examples featured a plastic guard on the blade end of the hilt. As these represented an additional cost input, I wouldn't be surprised if the manufacturer dropped them upon realizing that, from a sales perspective, they didn't really matter. No one bought the Force Beam for the guard.

More integral to the Force Beam's impact was the black cap that was welded to the flashlight's butt end: In addition to obscuring the pesky Eveready branding, it announced the name of the product. It also revealed that it was distributed by Jack A. Levin and Associates of Los Angeles, California.

As you may have gleaned from the above advertisements and photographs, the Force Beam came in three colors: white, red, and green. The last was a prescient choice of color: It was six years before Luke Skywalker would wield a green lightsaber in Return of the Jedi.

How popular was the Force Beam?

According to this item, from the December 10, 1977 edition of the Syracuse Post Standard, it was "fashionable" among Christmas shoppers.

Yes, that's some weirdo dressed as Darth Vader in this (very cool) vintage toy store photo

In many papers, such as the Tampa Times, the Force Beam was positioned as a competitor to, or even a substitute for, Kenner's licensed products -- the Early Bird Certificate Package in particular. 

[Darth] Vader, [Luke] Skywalker and the rest of the cast . . . won't be around this season. Not exactly that is . . . [but] there are some amazingly close imitations of "Star Wars" toys already on the market. Remember the weapon of the Jedi Knights, that nifty little glowing sword with the beam of light?

Well, Burdines' toy department is carrying something called "The Force Beam" ($7.99) consisting of a flashlight with a plastic tube attached.

Both priced at around $8, the Early Bird Certificate Package and Force Beam were natural competitors. 

You walk into a store with $10. Which do you choose, the piece of cardboard that promises action figures sometime in the spring, or the glowing instant gratification of the Force Beam? 

For toy shoppers, it was a battle waged on the field of time preference. 

It's here that we should pause for a moment and ponder the annoyance this must have inspired in the good folks at Kenner.

In Maine, the attitude of toy sellers was less sanguine -- towards both the Force Beam and the Early Bird Certificate Package.

In the words of a reporter for the Biddeford Sanford Journal:
The season is not without its duds. And surprisingly, two flops are based on the hit movie Star Wars

One is a $7 plastic wand called a "force beam," and another is nothing more than a brightly-colored package with a gift certificate enclosed.

"You send the certificate in and sometime between January and June they send you back three or four Star Wars dolls," says Karen MacLean. "I guess they wanted to sell them for Christmas but the dolls weren't ready yet. Anyway, neither the force beam nor the gift certificates sold very well."

Hey, Karen, it's 2022 and the Early Bird Certificate Package is worth thousands while those anatomically accurate baby dolls you like so much are just as creepy as ever.

But probably nothing demonstrates the popularity of the Force Beam quite so well as the letters that kids wrote to Santa in the fall of 1977.

Kansas resident (and apparent Trekkie) Mike Townley didn't bother asking Santa for any of Kenner's 1977 products. 

But he did ask for a Force Beam. 

At the office of the local paper in Cazenovia, New York, the Force Beam generated confusion and a call to the local toy store.

Sneaking a look at the second graders' letters to Santa published in this issue, we were baffled by requests for "fores bemes." But our resourceful staff telephoned the toy department of a department store and the mystery was solved. FORCE BEAM is the name, and it's part of the Star Wars mystique. 

Speaking of mystique, based on this item, from the December 23, 1977 edition of the Naugatuck Daily News, even some celebrities received the Force Beam for the holidays:

Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler breaks into laughter as he is presented what appears to be an oversized baton from a surprise visitor during a Christmas Show at Symphony Hall. The gift from Santa is a new toy on the market called a "Force Beam" taken from the movie Star Wars. The toy is like a giant flashlight and lights up. Man playing Santa Claus is unidentified.

Hey, jerky caption-writer guy, the man dressed as Santa isn't unidentified. He's, uh, Santa. Jeez.

Anyway, either Santa had so many Force Beams on hand that he was just handing them out indiscriminately, or the marketing department of Jack A. Levin and Associates was working overtime garnering press coverage for their prize product. 

I can almost hear their marketing guy now: "Fiedler is a big get!"  

In case you're wondering, the Force Beam's appeal wasn't limited to the holiday season of 1977; it competed with licensed Star Wars merchandise into the 1980s.

Here it is on display at JC Penney, where its unauthorized disreputableness undoubtedly endured the accusatory stares of Kenner's earliest Star Wars action figures. Based on the products on display, the photo dates from the middle of 1978.

And here it is being marketed as a costume accessory for Halloween 1980, at a price point considerably below its $7-$8 peak.

Well, I think we've established that the Force Beam was a success. And, naturally, success breeds imitation. As we'll see, a bevy of similar products surfed in the Force Beam's wake, most of them using flashlights as their principal component.

* * * 

Flashlight Wars: Force Beam Imitators 

As we've discussed, the key component of both the Star Force Ray and the Force Beam was a red Eveready flashlight. Likely purchased in bulk, the sales must have enriched Eveready nearly as much as the sabers' producers. It's not often someone tries to corner the flashlight market.

The Space Sword, produced by Hanstai International of Sante Fe Springs, California, was identical in most respects to the Force Beam. But it appears to have utilized a different brand of flashlight.

Though not much is known about this product, it's clear Hanstai knew their market: The logo and the "Force is with you" slogan left little doubt as to which space franchise it was referencing.

A faux saber marketed by the New York-based Durham Industries utilized yet another brand of flashlight.

The base of their Star Beam reveals that it was manufactured by BMG. The conical collar piece connecting the hilt and the blade may have been custom manufactured for the product. 

The Star Beam, like the Force Beam, came in red, white, and green variants. The graphical wrapper that adorned the product depicted a boy dressed as Luke Skywalker.

All of the above ads for the Star Beam date from the early part of 1978, leading me to believe that Durham was late to the game with their product, and mostly missed the 1977 holiday season. It may be that the news stories related to the Christmas success of the Force Beam (and perhaps even the Star Force Ray) inspired Durham to rush a similar product to market.

Similar to the Star Beam in that it utilized a BMG flashlight and a conical collar piece was the very peculiar Laser Light.

I call it peculiar because it was -- surprisingly -- marketed to magicians. 

Uncle Owen did call Obi-Wan a wizard, so maybe it's actually not all that surprising? 

The Star Beam was sold under the imprimatur of Peter Lee Gensemer, whose Sophisticated Sorcery operated out of Medina, Ohio.

Do people still do magic these days? When I was young it was a pretty common: Every kid had an oddball friend whose hobby was magic, and magicians were popular entertainers at birthday parties, school functions, and the like. Now I rarely hear about it, and I suspect it's pretty uncommon that a young person takes up magic as a hobby. Maybe our lives are so filled with semi-magical pieces of technology that analog magic has become superfluous. I think I like the old magic better.

Magic played no part in Funstuf's Space Sword, just good old fashioned ingenuity.

Presumably in order to save on costs, Funstuf eschewed the flashlight entirely, opting instead for a novel design that was all tube. In place of a proper hilt was a sticker bearing the name of the toy.

The instructions and an apparently hand-rigged battery assembly were housed in the lower portion of the tube. Pretty clever!

Advertising for the Space Sword was clustered in the New York area, causing me to suspect it was an East Coast thing. The above ads date from 1977 (left) and 1979 (right), suggesting that the product's sales window was relatively wide -- though by the time '79 rolled around it was selling for a measly 50 cents.

With all of these unlicensed lightsabers floating around in '77 and '78, you may be wondering how Kenner and Lucasfilm responded. Did they take legal action? I think we can be sure they at least considered it.

Lucasfilm was certainly aware of the problem. As a representative of the company told Bananas magazine:

I was walking in a department store one day, and there they were -- laser swords. I couldn't believe my eyes. They were stolen from us and marketed without a license. 

The toy known as the Light Beam offers an additional peak inside the official reaction to the great faux saber wave of the late '70s.

Consisting of a tube affixed to a red flashlight, the Light Beam resembled the Force Beam in most respects. It was even marketed, like the Force Beam, out of Los Angeles. In this case by two companies: Moon-Lite and Hotline.

This item, from the collection of Gus Lopez, shows that Kenner's legal department queried Lucasfilm about the legality of the Light Beam. 

Interestingly, this occurred in 1982, several years after the Light Beam hit the market -- and probably well past the period of time during which it was a significant seller. The delay suggests that Lucasfilm and Kenner may have been unable to keep up with the flood of these products, let alone respond to them in a timely fashion.

These ads, from the same SoCal retailer, both date from late 1978, suggesting that the Light Beam was a later addition to the family of faux sabers. 

Given its similarity to the Force Beam and its SoCal derivation, it's possible the Light Beam was the result of an attempt on the part of the producers of the Force Beam to rebrand and thereby stay one step ahead of legal complications. If true, that might also explain the attribution of the Light Beam to multiple manufacturers. [1]

We've seen a lot of references to the Los Angeles area. For some reason, it was a hotbed of faux saber activity. 

Which brings us to my favorite of all of these products.

* * * 

Adventuring with the Soldiers of Light: The SST Lazer Sword

Also hailing from Los Angeles was the "SST Lazer Sword." 

It was an L.A. kinda thing -- flashy, a little out there, and stacked with commercial appeal.

Whereas the faux sabers discussed above were all sold either sans packaging or with very rudimentary packaging elements, the SST Lazer Sword was different: It came in an impressive graphical box. That box communicated the idea that it was special. It also gave the impression that the product was something more than just another flashlight rigged out with a plastic tube.

While Kenner typically featured innocuous and often goofy-looking children on their toy packaging, SST took a different tack: The package for the Lazer Sword featured the coolest, most dangerous looking kid in America. 

Seriously, David Bowie would ask for this kid's autograph. 

In addition to a Lazer Sword, he (or she?) probably had a switchblade or maybe even ninja stars.

By contrast, the kid used to illustrate this article, from the November 20, 1977 edition of the Fresno Bee, was closer to the Kenner aesthetic: That's a child who probably thinks ninja stars come in Lucky Charms.

Although the article focused on Kenner's then newly released Star Wars product, it didn't feature any photos of that product. [2] Instead it featured a photo of the company's plastic milking cow -- and an even larger one of the SST Lazer Sword.

The Lazer Sword isn't even mentioned in the article. And yet there it is in all its shining glory at the top of the column, where it undoubtedly impressed thousands of children in the Fresno area. 

It's here that we should pause once again to ponder the annoyance this must have inspired in the good folks at Kenner.

SST's PR folks must have been working overtime in the Golden State: Up north, the Oakland Tribune ran a story about Star Wars toys that -- like the article in the Fresno Bee -- pictured no official Star Wars toys, but did picture the SST Lazer Sword. It was shown in the hand of one James Duncan, who looked as though he was about to go to war with that thing and take no prisoners.

The relevant portion of the article reads:

The Lazer Sword, a three-foot plastic column beaming light from a flashlight-like handle, has been popular since reaching local stores in October. Manufactured by Super Sonic Toys, the light saber imitation sells for $8 and under.

I grew up in the '80s and '90s. To me, SST was (and always will be) the independent record label that released Sonic Youth's Sister and scores of other cool albums. The SST responsible for the Lazer Sword was an entirely different outfit: As the above newspaper quote makes clear, the acronym was short for Super Sonic Toys.

Funnily, one of Kenner's biggest product lines of the time was SSP, short for Super Sonic Power. Yes, another potential source of annoyance for the good folks at Kenner. 

Having your toes stepped on sucks. Having both sets stepped on at the same time sucks even more.

As we've seen, some faux sabers -- for example, the Force Beam and Star Beam -- were released with beams that glowed in a variety of colors. But in those cases the color of each model was fixed: If you wanted Force Beams in two colors, you had to buy two Force Beams. 

The Lazer Sword was different in that its users were able to change the color of its beam. Each example came with gels in blue and red. These could be inserted between the light and the beam to produce color effects. 

In this the Lazer Sword was similar to the lighsaber toy released in Japan by Takara. But the Takara saber didn't hit stores until 1978, meaning the Lazer Sword beat it to the punch by almost a year. 

The base model Lazer Sword utilized the red Eveready flashlight familiar from other faux sabers. 

But, perhaps due to shortages in the supply of these suddenly in-demand implements, it could also be found in varieties utilizing flashlights produced by Burgess. Above you see models built on blue and black Burgess flashlights.

Collector Pete Vilmur has even found a Burgess-mounted version that mimics a Winston cigarette. 

The only thing known about the SST Canzer Sword is that it tastes good like a canzer sword should. It's possible they were used or given away at a Tobacco industry show or similar event. 

By the way, you may have noticed that in some marketing images, including the one published in the Fresno Bee, the Lazer Sword was shown with a pointed tip. These images may represent the product's original design.

Intriguingly, on most of the Lazer Swords boxes I've seen, the tip of the product is covered by a strategically placed sticker.

If it's true that the design of the Lazer Sword was modified to eliminate its point, I think we can assume that safety concerns were at the root of the change. 

Safety concerns also undergirded the Lazer Sword's rather pedantic set of rules. They made it absolutely clear that the toy should never be used for destruction -- especially of a friend!

The instructions were included in the Lazer Sword's Basic Manual, which is my favorite thing related to the product. As the cover warns, its contents were confidential to all but the anointed Soldiers of Light, who I guess were like intergalactic Stone Cutters or something.

As silly as the manual is, you have to appreciate its ambition: It was a pretty savvy attempt by SST to nurture an immersive play experience. It also established an ecosystem of ancillary merchandise.

Who were the Soldiers of Light? According to the Manual:

They travel from planet to planet, bringing peace. When they find evil, they end it. When they find danger, they overcome it. When they find injustice, they set things right. For hundreds of years these brave men and women have protected the people of Space.

They are the Soldiers of Light.

I mean, do these guys sound unbearable or what?

Kids who received the SST Lazer Sword surely experienced FOMO upon realizing they'd never be true Soldiers of Light without first acquiring the official Lazer Fighter uniform and scabbard. 

The former looks to be a repurposed karate getup, the latter a plastic cup. 

To inspire the imaginations of children, SST (through Marquise Enterprises) offered Adventures of the Soldiers of Light, which contained 20 fictional stories, all of them probably better than Splinter of the Mind's Eye

I think we can safely assume the stories included plenty of tie-ins to salable merchandise. 

There was even a fan club with its own newsletter.

Does anyone reading this have one of these Lazer Fighter posters? I'd love to see one. The image used on the poster pictured on the right was also offered on a t-shirt. 

Advertising for the Lazer Sword was clustered in the fall of 1977, though stock was still available through some retailers into the summer of the following year. 

The product was widely available: I've documented ads from locations on the two coasts, in the Midwest, and New England. 

Kids all over the country loved the Lazer Sword.

* * * 


Are you tired of looking at knock-off lightsaber toys? 

I am. 

I think that's a sign that it's time to wrap this up. 

In doing so I don't mean to suggest that we've exhausted the subject. Other knock-off lightsaber toys were released during the period of 1977-78. Collectors will probably be documenting them forever.

They'll probably also continue documenting products, like the glow-in-the-dark Space Sword, that were merely lightsaberish.

Released by Toy Box Inc., the Space Sword was widely sold in both the U.S. and Canada during the summer of 1978, often being advertised beside licensed Star Wars product. There was even a matching shield.

But by the second quarter of '78, Kenner had caught up to Toy Box and the other DIY innovators. 

The company's official lightsaber toy utilized a familiar element, a hilt that was basically a flashlight. 

But its blade was inflatable, composed of limp vinyl rather than rigid plastic. [3]

In an apparent acknowledgement of its own impotence, it shipped with a dedicated repair kit.

Was Kenner's toy an improvement on the sturdy simplicity of the Force Beam? Was its authorized connection to the Jedi Knights enough to make fans of the SST Lazer Sword forget the Soldiers of Light?


We like authorization because it guarantees the fulfillment of our baseline expectations. We dislike it because it limits our options -- and perhaps our imaginations.

Life is all about tradeoffs.


[1] I own three sabers (in red, green, and white) that are identical to the Force Beam in all but their branding. In fact, they feature no branding at all, consisting of nothing more than Eveready flashlights with plastic beams attached to them. Their existence may be an additional indication that the producers of the Force Beam mixed up brands and manufacturers as they attempted to avoid legal action.

[2] Though the article mentions the battery-powered toothbrush as being planned for Kenner's fall 1977 lineup, that product was neither included on Kenner's wholesale order form nor featured in the company's 1977 Star Wars catalog. On top of that, I've never seen it in an early advertisement. I believe it was put off until early 1978.

[3] Maybe Kenner deserved points for innovation? Only if you aren't aware of the knock-off inflatable saber released in 1977 by an outfit called Skyline, Incorporated. 

Thanks to Yehuda Kleinman for providing a few Lazer Sword photos. Thanks to Eddie for providing the vintage store photo. Thanks to Steve Sansweet for permitting the use of the photos of the rare Star Force Ray, which is a part of the incredible Rancho Obi-Wan collection. Extra special thanks to Pete Vilmur, without whose assistance and photographs this article in its final form would not have been possible.