Thursday, March 15, 2007

About a day ago 15 miles west of my house...

First Star Wars movie ad ran in Rapid City June 30, 1977

It was my birthday the other day and that combined with this year being the 30th anniversary of Star Wars made me feel really nostalgic. I'm still somewhat behind on my podcast listening since I returned from the ice so I listened to the last four episodes of Star Wars Action News all in a row and that contributed to the Star Warsy vibe I was high on. I decided I would spend my birthday in downtown Rapid City doing what I love most-looking at old newspaper ads.

Family Thrift Center Nov 12, 1978I decided I'd keep my newspaper browsing Star Wars specific and targeted the time frame from May 25th, 1977 through about Christmastime of 1978. I looked at lots of newspapers in those months trying to get a feel for how big of an impact the movie had on Rapid City in the early days of its showing. I came to find that Rapid was not one of the initial release locations of the first film. Star Wars didn't open here until July 1st, a full month after its launch in other larger cities. I didn't know that and it was mind numbingly boring as I scrolled through each page of June movie ads wondering when the heck Star Wars debuted here. I wondered if the buzz about Star Wars was spreading across the country before it got here or if the movie arrived without much fanfare.

Family Thrift Center Nov 22, 1978

After the first few movie ads announcing the arrival of Star Wars in July of '77 there wasn't much Star Wars buzz detectable in the Rapid City Journal. The months that followed from August through November weren't heavy with toy ads from local retailers. Not that it mattered anyways because Star Wars toys wouldn't hit the shelves until '78. I was only three in '77 so I wasn't aware that toys were to be expected from any movie. Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAs I paged through the ads I was holding out hope that maybe I'd find a local store advertising the early bird kit Kenner sold in '77, but I didn't find that. In fact I found no Star Wars realted advertising at all during the Christmas '77 holiday period. My parents never bought the early bird kit, either. I don't know anybody that did where I grew up in El Paso.

There's an absolutely fantastic series of articles titled "The Kenner Legacy" running in the last few months of Tomart's Action Figure Digest magazine that detail the early days of the Kenner Star Wars toyline. Each installment is a great read and I highly recommend tracking them down because they tell the story of the vintage toys through interviews with sculptors and other Kenner employees who were there when it happend.

Midland Mercantile Nov 29 1978I understood from the magazine that Star Wars figures and vehicles didn't start hitting stores in wide release until April of 1978. So as I was browsing the papers I knew not to expect too much from the papers of 1977. I wasn't dissapointed. I was kind of hoping that 1978 would be a lot better in terms of Star Wars toy ads, especially around April. I expected stores like KMart or JCPenny to flaunt their action figures in their 1978 ads boldy once they had them, and especially during the holiday season. If Star Wars toy demand was as big as I remember it then surely there would be at least one smart advertiser showing off with newspaper ads that had the Luke and Leia toys making out on the front page of their Sunday circular with "LOOK WHAT WE GOT BITCHES IT'S STAR WARS ACTION FIGURE TIME" in bold print with a lot of exclamation marks. But it never happened.

JC Penny 10 December 1978Instead all I found in the Rapid City Journal's newsprint advertising sections were stores cautiously offering up pictures of non-action figure Star Wars merchendise. I found ads for ancillary tie in product like puzzles, games, PlayDoh sets, role play rifles and those posters you 'painted' with felt tip markers. This was along the lines of what I was expecting during 1977. It's as if Rapid City stores were a year behind with their ads. I know that eventually they caught up because by '79 there were lots of Star Wars toy ads. But within the first year and a half of the movie's release it looks like there wasn't much Star Wars action figure action in Rapid City. It could be that figures did pop up but they would sell so fast that it wasn't worth advertising them for fear of pissing off customers.

JC Penny 22 Nov 1978

I found a grand total of one ad for Star Wars action figures from Rapid City Journal advertisers in 1978 and that was from JC Penny. It ran November 22nd, a bit before the holiday shopping season and strangely it described the figures as 'die cast'. It had some weird line art of C-3PO and R2-D2 that looked to be hand drawn. They could have been using the figures as reference but there's too much detail in the drawings that the vintage figures don't have. JCP also ran an ad for 'cast vehicles' on December 3rd of '78. Mills Drugs 05 Dec 1978I assume from the odd wording and the pricing that they meant they were selling the little die cast vehicles. Strangely they used line art that indicated lights coming from the same places where LEDs were placed in the larger vehicles that were scaled to fit the 3 3/4 inch figures.

December 5th saw the first use of an actual packaging photo in a Star Wars toy ad when Mills Drug Store advertised the X-Wing fighter for $10.88. So at least they had some cool stuff. Meanwhile on December 17th JC Penny had the R2-D2 cookie jar advertised with the line "as a gift it would be a hit with any youngster." I wouldn't give any kid a cookie jar to play with seeing how ceramic breaks into shards like it does. Man I guess some stores were hurting for figures.

JC Penny 17 December 1978

JC Penny 03 December 1978On my next trip to the library I'll be taking a look at newspapers from the Christmases from 1979-1982 when Star Wars was at its strongest. All in all I was pretty dissapointed with the realization that Star Wars in 1978 wasn't the marketing behemoth that it is today. In an age where it's the right of every American to be able to buy a Darth Vader figure at any hour day or night, it sure is tough to imagine what true scarcity was like during a time when toy distribution was even more crappy than it was in the 80's. The 70's were a nice place to be born but I wouldn't want to collect there. Collectors always talk about how it would be great to have a time machine and go back to buy all those old figures, but from what I see in the papers those time travellers would do best if they avoided 1977-1978 (and Rapid City altogether).

Midland Mercantile 13 December 1978While documenting the lack of Star Wars toy ads from 30 years ago makes for hours of fun, I still decided to hit up some of Rapid City's antique stores. Before I hit the library I got lucky at one of them and I found a carded R2-D2 from the Return of the Jedi line. While the card is pretty bent up, the bubble is fantastic with just about no yellowing and Artoo looks great. He's really really white. I don't know anything about secondary market values for vintage Star Wars figures but they wanted 30 bucks for it so I got it because it was my birthday. There's one right now on ebay with a really yellow bubble with a BIN of $60. I figure I made out good. It made for the most Star Warsy birthday I've had since my sister got me Bespin Han 26 years ago in 1981.


Smurfwreck said...

Talk about progress, now I'm surprised if I don't start seeing movie swag five months before a flick even hits theaters. I was sick of Superman Returns toys this time last year, and even then I was anticipating the first barrage of Transformers movie figures.

The last time I can remember waiting for an action figure off of a movie was when McFarlane started the Movie Maniacs line and didn't get off his butt to license Army of Darkness for a couple years.

In fact, the only time I've ever found myself wanting for toys was when I first got into comics in the late 80's. I wanted some X-Men figures so bad and I couldn't afford the Secret Wars Wolverine that was floating around the secondary market at the time. I was scampering around for all the little PVC figures that were horribly molded and miss painted like they were gold. Little did I know that just a few years later I'd be hip deep in Marvel action figures for the next two decades...

Evil King Macrocranios said...

Not until I read your comment did I realize how much times have changed. Imagine if Kenner would have marketed Star Wars in '77 as aggresively as Hasbro did with the release of Revenge of the Sith. They probably missed out on millions of dollars by not having product on the market by Christmas of '77. Oh well. That was a different time and place.

But even if Kenner could have predicted demand back then I don't think they would have had the technology to meet it anyways. I feel like they were a bad choice to handle the toyline. One of the stories in the Tomart's Kenner Legacy series was how the license was originally offered to Mego but since they just acquired the Micronauts they didn't want another space line. What a shame. Mego would probably have been able to do a much better and more timely job of meeting the Star Wars fans needs. Then again, those Micronauts toys are so horrible looking I'm kind of glad they didn't.

I think this sort of licensing disparity still happens occasionally. One modern day equivalent to the '77 Star Wars situation where there is a media presence but no toys is current Battlestar Galactica. The only toys I see of that are the Titanium Vehicles. Where is the toyline for this property?

Honestly I'm still more in love with classic BSG anyways. I think today I'll go down and buy a bunch of classic Colonial Vipers. I would really like to see a classic Cylon Raider in that line.


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Evil King Macrocranios was voted king by the evil peoples of the Kingdom of Macrocrania. They listen to Iron Maiden all day and try to take pictures of ghosts with their webcams.