For many constituents of Generation X, memories of Kenner Star Wars toys are interwoven with memories of the holiday season, that special time of the year when we celebrate religion, solstice, and the wonders of consumerism -- and not necessarily in that order.
In the '70s and '80s, walking into a store during the holiday season was like walking into a new world -- you felt a little like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as she opens that monochrome door and beholds the Technicolor vista of a more glamorous realm.
There was the sense that, for a few weeks at least, the world was changed. It was more colorful and beneficent, and less bound by the drabness of rules and everyday prudence. During the holiday season, teachers made exceptions and parents made cookies. We stayed up late and ate things we shouldn't. And when we went to a retail location, it seemed as though the emphasis had been taken off of adults and placed on us.
It was probably this sense of inversion that made the holiday season so powerful. Indeed, it was as though a whole society had conspired to put aside grownup concerns and cater to childish fancy. Even mom and dad seemed a little more childlike during the holidays.
Maybe it's still like this in some locales during the holidays. But my general sense is that today the holiday experience is less communal, less bedizened, and less, well, magical.
But, then, I'm an adult, and maybe I just lack the ability to recognize the magic. After all, the adults back in Kansas didn't see what Dorothy saw; they didn't even believe her when she told them about it.
|SWCA editor John Wooten lounges like a boss on Christmas of 1980
As the above article from the Hanover Evening Sun demonstrates, adults have always had trouble harmonizing their holiday expectations with those of their children. Published in December of 1978, it indicates that grownups of the time were confused.
Specifically, they wondered: What is the deal with all of this space nonsense?
Toys and Christmas may be a traditional combination, but if you're looking for nostalgia in the gifts you give to children this year, someone is going to be disappointed.
According to the salespersons in local toy stores, Saturday morning television has more of an influence on what children want for Christmas than any family memories.
The sleds and footballs of yesteryear, the cowboy guns and dolls and tea sets -- all have been replaced at the top of children's Christmas lists by computerized games and the laser firing craft of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.
Winnie the Pooh, although still a favorite, now has some stiff competition from Chewbacca, the ape-like creature who was the hero's sidekick in Star Wars.
Wow, I've never imagined Chewbacca kicking the sh*t out of Winnie the Pooh, but now I can't help it.
Regular readers of this blog are probably aware that the holiday season of 1978 was a big deal for Kenner and Lucasfilm.
Though the first Star Wars products debuted just prior to Christmas of 1977, availability in that year was limited to paper and cardboard items, as traditional plastic toys typically require a full year to develop and produce. Star Wars debuted in May of 1977. Kenner was granted a license by Lucasfilm a few months before that. Consequently, Kenner's 1977 range of products was limited to a few puzzles, a board game, a couple of paint sets, and the infamous Early Bird Certificate Package, the last basically a promise of toys at a later date.
So 1978 was Kenner's first real go at the holidays with a full slate of Star Wars product. As you can imagine, they wanted to make the most of it.
|Robyn Willer looks pretty happy getting Star Wars for Christmas
Not only were 12 action figures available, a whole range of action-figure accessories was released alongside them: the X-Wing Fighter, TIE Fighter, Land Speeder, even a huge playset representing the Death Star space station. But that wasn't all. Kenner also released an extensive slate of side products that had no relationship to action figures: inflatable bop bags, electronic games, roleplay weaponry, a toothbrush.
It was Kenner's largest range of products ever, and they hoped to sell the heck out of it.
As the Evening Sun reporter mentions, it was the action figures in particular that people were crazy for.
All the Star Wars figures, the X-Wing fighters and Tie fighters, head the list of fast-selling items, say store managers . . . "We can't keep enough of that Star Wars stuff in stock," says Bill Negley, retired manager of Joe the Motorist's Friend who's back filling in at Christmas time.
Dang, Star Wars was so hot that Bill came out of retirement to sell it!
This article, from the November 23, 1978 edition of the Frankfort Star, repeats the emphasis on the overthrow of tradition, as spacemen replaced toy soldiers in the fantasies of children across America.
"We can't keep Star Wars items on the shelf," explained Dede Dubois, manager of Toys by Rizzi at the Lincoln Mall. Other related space toys, such as the Star Bird, a flying object that emits all sorts of pertinent sounds, are also doing well, she said.
The situation is the same at other stores. Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica action figures, space ships, and command stations are popular at Toys-R-Us in Burbank . . .
At the J.C. Penney toy department in Orland Square, Star Wars is the biggest, and most sold-out item, according to Sharlene Ballard. The stuffed Chewbacca figure and remote control R2-D2 and land speeder are also big sellers, she said.
Of course, the Land Speeder in question was the Sonic-Controlled version of the toy, a J.C. Penney exclusive. No wonder it was so popular!
Kids probably loved it until it inevitably broke on December 28.
So popular was Star Wars in late 1978 that in some areas shoppers couldn't find the products they desired.
Santa Claus may have to disappoint a lot of kids this year, especially if they put a "Star Wars" toy or electronic game on their Christmas lists . . .
[Milton Schulman, editor of Toy and Hobby World magazine], says the shortage in "Star Wars" toys was an intentional decision by Kenner, the exclusive manufacturer of such toys.
He said Kenner, which makes 40 different "Star Wars" toys, wanted to keep the demand for the toys high into next year by producing a limited amount of them. He noted the sequel to the movie probably won't be released until late 1979 or early 1980.
This derivative piece, from the News of New Castle, Pennsylvania, expands on this rumor by describing a situation in which Kenner had not fulfilled long-standing product orders.
"We couldn't get half of the Star Wars toys," related the assistant manager of one store, "and we ordered them in August."
Gosh, maybe Kenner really was throttling supply?
Could it be?
You know what this reminds me of?
You guessed it, the great Stormtrooper shortage of 1979, when California was plagued by a dearth of Stormtrooper figures that still haunts the memories of those who survived it.
It was seriously rough out there.
People were so starved for Stormtroopers that in some localities they were making them out of wadded up paper and toothpaste.
I wrote about it back here.
I bring this up now because, in 1979, this and similar shortages were attributed by retailers to a number of causes, including Kenner malfeasance and a mysterious factory fire.
Fortunately, in this case, the reporter did Kenner a favor by contacting their PR guy Dave De Mala, who calmly explained that the product pipeline at a large toy company entails a lot of logistical finessing. Sometimes it's just not possible to keep all retail outlets filled with product, especially during the busy holiday season.
"The problem is, in the toy industry, you never know when a toy is going to get hot -- every year you get some toys that are suddenly very, very hot, and there's not much you can do about it. You can't predict it."
For instance, De Mala explained, if a toy becomes popular between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there is no way the company can increase production.
"We are finished with production by October 15," he said.
As for the factory fire, De Mala denied it.
The lesson of this digression is that popular toys are always hard to get during the holidays.
There was even a movie made about it starring the tall guy from Twins.
The toys need to be manufactured (often overseas), shipped to the toy company, distributed, and put on store shelves. And then restocked when needed. All in a short timeframe, and at that time without the aid of computers.
It was, and is, difficult.
Certainly, Kenner kept a tight rein on inventory, as no company wants to carry a ton of unsold stock; it affects the balance sheet and looks bad on shareholder reports. And, sure, they probably gave some thought to maintaining the demand for Star Wars. But I don't think they were intentionally shorting supply -- not to any significant degree, anyway. Christmas of 1978 was Kenner's big opportunity. No one knew if the sequel to Star Wars would be a success, and they wanted to sell lots of product while they could.
And they succeeded: According to De Mala, Kenner sold 40 million Star Wars items in 1978 alone. Does that sound like a company that's limiting supply?
Conspiracy theories addressed, let's get back to 1978.
As the above article, from the Sandusky Register, attests, supply issues were also a topic of conversation in Ohio.
It's a well-balanced piece, reflecting the opinions of retailers who were quite satisfied with their allotment of Kenner product, and others who weren't.
Local stores said they had received at least three shipments of the Star Wars toys this season. The hottest items seem to be the 3-to-4-inch dolls and the vehicles such as the land speeder, Ty-fighter, and X-wing fighter. Also selling rapidly are the cardboard cantinas and Death Star stations.
Those few merchants with well-stocked supplies of the items are K mart, JC Penney, and Circus World.
Dan Lafferty, at K mart, said an ample supply of most items is available. "We're right where we want to be for right now," he said.
He said there seemed to be a short supply earlier in the season and the supplies are "going down daily."
The JC Penney store at the Sandusky Mall is also well-stocked with Star Wars gear for the holiday season.
Roger Rigby reported sales there of the popular figures and vehicles and other items was "selling real good. We should be able to handle any customers' needs (in the Star Wars line)," he said.
Circus World, also at the Mall, reported the store was able to get most items, including the Death Star station, which came in with a recent shipment.
"We get a truck in every week which is pretty well stocked," said John Schweser. "The games are selling fairly well and the laser pistols moderately well. We've sold several of the R2D2 remote control robots, too."
Others were less sanguine.
"The Star Wars items are very hard to get," related a Sears representative, "We can't get any more in." Though he did note that "the cantinas are selling very rapidly."
Of course, this being Sears, he was likely talking about the Cantina Adventure Set that was exclusive to the company. You know, the one that included the infamous blue version of Snaggletooth. Let's hope Mr. Schweser bought some of those for himself and stored them away!
While we're on the topic of specific Kenner products, it's worth noting what the spokesperson representing Montgomery Ward told the Register reporter regarding the line of large-size action figures: "The bigger Star Wars dolls don't seem to be going nearly as fast as the small ones," he said. "We have several of the larger dolls left and some more coming in."
Famously, the large-size line lasted only two years, Kenner deciding to axe it early in 1980. Such expressions of dissatisfaction on the part of retail representatives went a long way at Kenner. They were surely one of the factors behind the line's eventual cancellation.
This article, from the News of Port Arthur, Texas, emphasizes the salability of Star Wars toys over their absence from store shelves. In other words, it characterizes their occasional scarcity (correctly, I think) not as the result of Kenner scheming, but as the natural upshot of extreme popularity.
The toys were popular. Of course they were hard to find!
In the words of Nettie Smith at the Toy Palace: "The hottest thing agoin' is Star Wars."
And Sylvia Miller at The Toy Box in Beaumont adds, "It comes in and out of here so fast, it makes your head spin."
The Force is definitely in force.
Star Wars was around for Christmas to a minor extent last year. The problem this year is that Star Wars has continued its popularity and no store has a full stock of every item available.
That's mostly because there are more than 60 items, which run up a tab of more than $500 for all. That doesn't include all the T-shirts, costumes, and posters available in the Star Wars series.
You can buy something from the series for anywhere from $3 to more than $90 for one item. Most expensive is the X-Wing Aces Target game by Kenner. It's just a fancy version of a shooting gallery.
There are lots of other fancy names floating around in the Star Wars series, too. You can buy Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, Han Solo, See Threepio (C-3PO), Artoo-Detoo (R2-D2), Darth Vader, among others.
The Death Star Space Station is the hardest to get, though, local store managers say. That's followed in scarcity by the Land Speeder, the X-Wing Fighter, and the Tie Fighter -- vehicles featured in the movie.
There are plush toys, a painting set, a poster set, an Action Play set which makes Playdoh figures, a Luke Skywalker A.M. Headset Radio, a laser pistol, a rifle, an electric toothbrush, bop bags, jigsaw puzzles, a movie viewer, a van set, books, a scale model kit and tape cassettes with music and narrated story.
That's not all. There are several Star Wars games available too. The Electronic Laser Battle Game by Kenner costs about $30. The winner is the first player to reach Death Star and trigger the planet's destruction. Adventures of R2-D2 and Escape from Death Star are two other games.
And if you want more, there's also jewelry, available with the Star Wars characters featured.
It's interesting that the Death Star, the priciest item in the Kenner action figure line, was so scarce. Though that may have had more to do with production numbers than popularity.
|Steven Latta gets a Death Star for Christmas
If you're wondering why the Millennium Falcon features in none of these stories, it's because it didn't exist. The Falcon was a 1979 product. As of December 1978, Kenner's action-figure vehicle line consisted of three products: the X-Wing, TIE Fighter, and Land Speeder.
Also discussed in the News piece: The popularity of products deriving from other space-centered media properties.
Now, if your kid is not a Star Wars fan but is a space fanatic, you've got other choices to make. Ideal manufactures the Star Team action figures and cosmic cruisers. Mego puts out the Micronauts, Galactic Command Center and interplanetary headquarters. Mattel has the Shogun Warriors. New this year in Shogun is the three-inch die-cast metal figures.
Besides Star Wars, the next space vehicles to get attention are the Star Birds put out by Milton Bradley. The craft makes realistic cosmic sounds as it dives or ascends.
Milton Bradley had the Star Bird, as well as the very popular electronic game known as Simon, but probably the bigger threat to the ascendancy of Star Wars during the Christmas of 1978 was Battlestar Galactica.
As SWCA editor Tommy Garvey mentions here, Star Wars and Battlestar had a contentious relationship right from the start. Fox sued Universal. Lucasfilm almost sued the Battlestar effects firm, led by former ILM whiz John Dykstra. It was like a schoolyard tiff or something. So Kenner must have been especially annoyed to enter the Christmas season of 1978 and find itself facing off against Mattel and its line of Battlestar toys.
How do I know Mattel was a real challenger in 1978?
Letters to Santa seem like a pretty good indicator.
Of the dozens of letters featured in this edition of the Chillicothe Constitution Tribune, two mention Star Wars while three mention Battlestar Galactica.
So Battlestar wins this round. Take a bow, Battlestar Galactica. You've earned it.
I guess it's a substantial marketing advantage to have the ability to pipe your show into homes around the country on a weekly basis.
As a perusal of the below excerpt will show, Travis chose to be diplomatic and ask for toys representing both popular space properties.
Bryan, on the other hand, chose violence.
Actually, I take that back, because in addition to legit Kenner product, Chad asked for the definitely not-Kenner figures that appeared in the 1978 Montgomery Ward catalog under the somewhat dodgy label "Barroom scene figures."
There they are right beside Kenner's licensed toys.
Like I said: Dodgy!
Chad's home must have been on the mailing lists of both Montgomery Ward and Sears, as he also asked for the legitimate cantina figures, which at that time were exclusive to the latter retailer, and proudly advertised in their holiday catalog.
It's funny how he lumps them all together without distinction: "I want the . . . Barroom scene figures: Yog, Ridal, Lago [actually Tago], Bico, Greedo, Snaggeltooth, Hammerhead, and Walrus Man . . ."
Assuming Santa brought him all of these figures, how do you reckon he reacted upon unwrapping the Montgomery Ward figures and realizing they were eight inches tall?
Maybe he pretended they were giants?
I think we've demonstrated that the 1978 holiday season was a pivotal moment for Star Wars merchandise. There were shortages, conspiracy theories, knockoffs!
But what about subsequent holiday seasons? How did the public interface with Star Wars during those seasonal merchandising bonanzas?
1979 we've already discussed, albeit briefly. No need to revisit the Stormtrooper shortage of that year. Frankly, it's too upsetting.
But I do have some datapoints from 1980, which of course was the year in which the first franchise sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, debuted in theaters.
|Jason Shoemaker's 1980 Christmas haul
The first is a column containing letters to Santa published by the News of Monahans, Texas.
By that point in time, Kenner's large Millennium Falcon toy had been released, and it topped Danny's want list. The remainder of his wants, with the exception of Darth Vader, derived from the 1980 line of ESB product. That makes a lot of sense. What kid of the era didn't want new toys from The Empire Strikes Back?
Gotta love that mention of the die-cast TIE Bomber, an item that remains scarce to this day.
|Jeff Bowen got the Millennium Falcon for Christmas in 1980
In the Ottumwa, Iowa area, Star Wars continued to hold sway, if 1980 letters to Santa are any indication.
I have to confess, though, that my favorite letter in the December 1, 1980 edition of the local Courier has nothing at all to do with Star Wars.
Missy apparently confused Santa with the Tooth Fairy -- a fairly understandable blunder!
More pertinent to our current line of questioning is the below letter from Casey.
This kid asked for Enpire Sricks Back everything: recherds, cards, underues, lundhboxes -- he wanted it awl!
But the absolute best thing about the letter is that Casey took the trouble to append trademark notations to most of the official Star Wars names.
It's tempting to speculate that Casey had his eye on a future legal career, or that one of his parents was an intellectual property lawyer, but I suspect the real explanation is that he copied the names directly out of a catalog or something similar, and figured the "TMs" were essential information that Santa should be made aware of. Otherwise, he might leave some untrademarked POS under the Christmas tree come December 25.
Who knows, he might leave Montgomery Ward's barroom figures, or perhaps something even worse.
|Jeff Tangeman and the ESB figures he got for Christmas in 1980
So, yes, Star Wars was still on kids' minds come the holiday season of 1980 -- though by that time the gift requests had become pretty ESB-centric.
As far as I can tell, shortages stopped being much of a concern after 1979. Either shoppers became less mad about Star Wars or Kenner got better at managing the supply chain (I suspect the latter).
But, as the below item from the Times-Advocate of Escondido, California demonstrates, Kenner-related conspiracies continued to be mooted by the toy-buying public.
America does love a good conspiracy!
Fortunately, in this case, the conspiracy theorizing was more than a little facetious.
As we learned in our discussion of 1978, parents of the era were often perplexed by their kids' rejection of traditional fare in favor of toys focused on electronics and space. In this piece, columnist Larry Littlfield expresses similar confusion related to Kenner, the suddenly hot toy company that seemed to monopolize his kids' holiday want lists.
Having conquered the boys market with Star Wars, Kenner had, by 1980, conquered the girls market as well. Little girls were just wild about the company's Strawberry Shortcake line.
So parents were getting the Kenner hustle from both sides of the gender divide come Christmastime.
"Apparently," notes Littlefield, "there's a Kenner conspiracy going on among my offspring."
Littlefield's musings on Star Wars are likely to strike a chord with anyone who was a parent during the initial Star Wars craze of the '70s and '80s.
They also provide a yet another peek into the wonderfully inverted holiday world so many of us experienced as children, a world in which, for a brief moment, kids had the upper hand, and their parents couldn't help but engage with the frivolity of toys.
I just wonder how stilly I look standing there trying to choose between Bossk, the alien bounty hunter; Lando Calrissian, the leader of Cloud City's Bespin mining colony; FX-7, the medial droid and some of the original 21 figures.
1 spot popular R2-D2, but where did R5-D4 come from? I must have missed something in the movie.
Kenner's surprise figure -- he's not even listed in the catalog -- is Yoda, the 900-year-old Jedi master. Randy Hogan, manager of The Play Company in Escondido, tells me 48 Yoda figures lasted just six days in his store.
Along with the figures, there are "adventure sets" that include such things as Hoth Ice Planet; an Imperial Attack Base; Darth Vader's Star Destroyer; a Death Star Space Station and even a radio-controlled Jawa Sandcrawler.
Says the catalog, "With 33 interchangeable parts, a child can build five different robots at a time, including R2-D2 with three legs or a four-wheel robot that rolls."
Hey, what's this "a child can build" stuff?
What about ol' dad?
I'll get him a Droid Factory, but I just might get myself an Imperial Tie Fighter and if he doesn't let me build robots, too, I'll blast him off the floor with my red laser cannon!
I'll tell you, they didn't build toys like these when I was a kid. My wife will say that was just last week.
Of course, it's now 2023, and toy stores have practically ceased to exist.
I wonder how Larry would feel if you were to travel back to 1980 and tell him that.
What if you told him about malls -- that they're being abandoned, and no longer take pride in decking themselves out as holiday wonderlands?
And how do you reckon he'd feel learning that toy giant Hasbro, the inheritor of the Kenner Star Wars license, is closing offices and laying off employees, because, to put it bluntly (and maybe exaggerating just a bit), no one wants toys anymore?
He probably wouldn't believe you.
Shoot, I don't believe you, and I live in 2023.
But I guess that's an upshot of that perceptual disjunct I mentioned at the top of this piece. I'm an adult, and my understanding and expectations of the world were formulated in a different era.
They'll probably stay there.
Special thanks to Tom Berges and Igrewupstarwars for providing the children-at-Christmas photos. Credit to Darrin Frizzle, Steven Latta, Brad Bishop, Dante Martinez, Denny, Erik Arek, Matt Arek, Robyn Willer, Jason Shoemaker, Jeff Tangeman, Jeff Bowen, and John Wooten. Check out their excellent website and Facebook page for more childhood photos.