Monday, March 27, 2023

Was the "Happy Birthday" Poster Nearly Sold as a Commercial Poster?

Ron writes:

 We haven't featured much poster content on the blog over the years. So when I saw that Danny Katzel posted some interesting poster-related content on a Facebook group, I thought I'd ask him to work it into a blog post. Happily, he agreed. Although posters are one of the most heavily collected areas in Star Wars fandom, certain examples remain mysterious. Questions abound, like: How exactly was the Happy Birthday poster distributed? and What was the intended forum for John Alvin's Concert poster? Danny's post touches on both of these longstanding questions, and raises a few others. I hope you enjoy it.

Danny writes:

The Happy Birthday test print

Once a neglected collecting niche, preproduction posters from the Star Wars franchise have really taken off in recent years as more examples have hit the collecting market. Most preproduction posters are an inch or more larger than their production counterparts and still have their color bars attached to one border. They sometimes also have guide and registration marks, which are trimmed off during a production run. Most preproduction posters are snuck out of the printing facility during the proofing phase before the poster is approved for production. Printers need to print many preproduction posters in a batch even when only a few are needed for quality control and approval sign off. The rest of the run is trashed. Luckily, some posters are occasionally saved by employees who liked the artwork.

I find the most interesting preproduction posters are those that are different than the final production versions. Rather than proofs, these kinds of posters can be considered “test prints” intended to demonstrate what the corresponding production posters would look like. Unfortunately, in the intervening decades since these posters were saved from the scrap pile, institutional memory clarifying why they exist at all is lost, as the people who are the custodians of that memory pass away and related documentation becomes hard to find.

This test print of the infamous "Happy Birthday" poster was originally found at the sale of the estate of a former Lucasfilm employee who worked for the studio back in 1978. For some reason, he took a few test print and proof posters home with him. This poster was in poor condition and was probably rescued from the garbage. To add insult to injury, this person then folded over the edges of the poster to hide the color bars, guide, and registration marks, which caused still more damage. Then he taped the borders all over to attach it to a backing board when it was framed. 

On the bright side, at least nothing was cut off.  

When he passed away, his family had an estate sale. Unfortunately, no Star Wars collectors knew of the sale, and a local record picker bought the posters. Happily, the record picker's haul included this Happy Birthday poster, a John Alvin Concert proof poster, and two proofs of Ralph McQuarrie prints originally sold at Supersnipe, the Manhattan store of which George Lucas was a partial owner. These are the only known versions of any of the aforementioned items. Unfortunately, the posters were sold separately by the record picker, and the whereabouts of the two McQuarrie proofs are now unknown.

It is thought that all four posters were printed at the same time, possibly even on the same day.  

A production Happy Birthday poster

Interestingly, this Happy Birthday poster is the wrong size. 

The production version of this poster is a one sheet measuring 27" x 41" with a white border, in which the now infamous crooked “Star Wars Happy Birthday One Sheet” text is printed. There is a Happy Birthday one sheet proof poster that has all of that and is the expected size, 28" x 41", the extra inch of width allowing for the color bars. But this is different. This poster is approximately 25" x 38" and was designed to be “full bleed,” with the color image going all the way to the edges with no white border and no “Happy Birthday One Sheet” text. The color bar is right up against the image, leaving no space for a white border on the right side. If you were to cut off the color bars and borders with the registration marks, the trimmed poster would be the exact same size as the production Concert poster: 24" x 37". In fact, this Happy Birthday test print is exactly the same size as the proof of the Concert poster found alongside it. 

 If these two posters were printed at the same time, it's likely the same size of paper was used for both. But why? Why would they print this Happy Birthday poster smaller than the intended one sheet size? This Happy Birthday print does not match any known size for any reprinting of the Happy Birthday poster, and the print quality is better than any reprint. In fact, the image quality is as good as the one sheet, and there are subtle details that are more visible on it than on the final poster.

Is it possible that they considered printing this image at a smaller size suitable for commercial sales? That's one of the theories attached to the Concert poster -- that it was intended for sale at a series of Star Wars concerts. I could not find any documentation that a similar mode of distribution was ever considered for the Birthday Poster. I reached out to several fellow collectors and people who might have insider knowledge, and no one had any evidence or remembered ever discussing making this poster anything other than a one sheet. 

If this was meant for commercial sale, why would it have a PG logo? That is usually reserved (at least back in the '70s) for US theatrical releases. I guess it’s possible 20th Century Fox did a small print run of this image as a commercial poster to see how it would look, but then scrapped the idea. But, again, I can find no corroborating evidence that this ever took place.

There are other instances in which Star Wars posters were printed in smaller versions. For example, the test print of the Return of the Jedi "Style B" international one sheet with the grey title has, printed on its reverse, smaller versions of the three-sheet, six-sheet, and twenty-four-sheet posters. Some of those smaller versions are more purple in color than the production versions. 

A test print consisting of two scaled-down Back to the Future one sheets on half-sheet-sized paper

I also have a Back to the Future test print where two identical one sheet advance images are printed side by side in a smaller format to fit on paper sized for a half-sheet. So perhaps these smaller prints were commonly used to test how the designs looked prior to the start of the full-size print run.

Production poster (left) and test print (right)

Looking carefully at the poster and comparing it to the production one sheet, this smaller version is a bit brighter. The reflections of the action figures on the table are clearer, and the mirrored table is more blue.  This is most noticeable on the bottom, near the PG logo. There is a stark contrast between the bluish table and the black background of the PG logo. This might be evidence of a mock-up PG logo.

While the poster size is smaller, the image itself is the same, as is the scale. Even all the text at the bottom -- the PG logo, the statement referring to the Kenner toy company, and the 20th Century Fox logo -- is printed at the same size as it is on the production poster. It's just more cropped at the edges.

It is interesting that this poster was printed along with a commercial poster, and the Lucasfilm employee who took this home had only other commercial proofs. 

Crooked text resulting from slipped plate (not present on test print)

We know the “Star Wars Birthday One Sheet” text in the lower left corner of the one sheet was added at the very last minute using an extra stripped-in plate, which slipped in the press, resulting in its peculiar slant. We also know that if the white border of the Happy Birthday poster was trimmed off, it would be the exact same size as the Concert Poster. 

Maybe the Happy Birthday poster was designed so that it could be either a theatrical poster or a commercial poster? 

John Alvin's Concert poster, one of the rarest of all Star Wars posters

I have read that the Concert poster was commissioned in April of 1978, which would have been around the time the Happy Birthday posters were being printed to distribute to theaters in May and June of that year.

This leads me to conclude that my poster is a true “test print.” It was printed to demonstrate what the image would look like printed as a commercial poster. Perhaps the idea was floated of making the one-year anniversary poster as a commercial print to sell at the Star Wars Concert along with, or instead of, the well-known John Alvin poster. And if the Concert (or series of concerts) was cancelled, as is often speculated, then perhaps this smaller Happy Birthday poster was scrapped at the same time. Maybe the image was even purposefully brightened to make it more suitable for a kid’s room?

Again, this is pure speculation; I can't say for certain either way. But it seems logical considering what I have been able to learn these past three months. Why else would this poster have been found among a stash of commercial proofs? Why would it have been printed at a facility that focused on commercial posters?

We may never know...

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