Thursday, September 08, 2005

Retro-Toy Flashback Thursday # 9: Walt Disney's The Black Hole


If inclined toward outer space entertainment, Christmas 1979 was a wonderful time to be a kid. Kenner releases Star Wars and Alien toys. Mattel joined the space race with Battlestar Galactica, and Mego offered goods from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

But there was another merchandise line based on a sci-fi movie in the toy stores that holiday season as well. In 1979, Walt Disney produced the most expensive film in its long corporate history: The Black Hole. Starring Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, Maximillian Schell, Robert Forster, and Joseph Bottoms, the film was essentially a futuristic re-make of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but bursting with neat robots, massive spaceships and laser battles galore. The story concerned the exploratory vessel Palomino discovering the "ghost" ship Cygnus on the edge of a powerful black hole. On board the latter was the mad Dr. Reinhardt, who had zombified his crew, built a Satanic robot with deadly propellor cutting blades (Maximillian), and who was determined to see what lay beyond the event horizon. The Black Hole opened against the much-anticipated Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and promptly fell into a financial black hole before disappearing all-together from the cinemas. Today the film is available on DVD.

Despite the box-office failure of Disney's space gambit, a Black Hole toy and merchandise blitz accompanied the film's December release in 1979. Today - over a quarter of a century later - many of these toys have become highly prized to two distinct groups of collectors: Disney fans, and space adventure aficionados. I count myself as the latter. To me, the film will always be a "guilty pleasure" but a pleasure, nonetheless. I have a shelf in my home office devoted to this film's merchandising.

To start with, Mego (mmmm, Mego....) unveiled a bevy of 3.5 inch figures in the same style as their popular Buck Rogers line. This meant that, among other things, the figures were held together at knee, elbow and shoulder joints by little silver metal pins resembling thumbtacks, and that their hands were not poseable. The figures torso were held together to the groin and legs by a tiny (and breakable...) black elastic. These design flaws often caused inarticulate thumbs to break, and jointed limbs to snap off. Additionally, The Black Hole figures lacked accessories such as laser guns or tools, making them markedly less fun to play with than those great (and durable) Star Wars figures, which sported retractable light sabers, capes, weaponry, back-packs, air masks and the like. Of the initial Mego release, the most popular Black Hole figures were of the devilish red flying robot Maximillian, molded in impressive scarlet, and the good "cute" robot, V.I.N.Cent, given voice by Roddy McDowall in the movie. V.I.N.Cent was gray and red, with a retractable helmet/hed compononet, and long black "pod" legs that could lengthen or shorten. I remember playing with these toys in a movie theatre seat while my parents watched Kramer vs. Kramer, which - to a 10 year old kid - was monumentally dull.

The human cast of The Black Hole was represented in action-figure form by Captain Holland and Exec Pizer, in their spiffy
white uniforms, Dr. Reinhardt - the film's Captain Nemo - in red, Dr. Durant, and reporter Harry Booth. The only female, Dr. Kate McCrae, came in a mauve uniform. Overall, the likenesses to cast members, uniforms and faces were outstanding. A highly sought-after figure today comes from a second Mego set: the robot Sentry, minion of Reinhardt. This auburn creation came with side holsters and even a laser weapon. Other figures such as Old B.O.B. and the "humanoid" are exceedingly rare today.

MPC was also pulled into The Black Hole merchandise orbit with three exquisitely detailed plastic model kits. Since this was the era of R2-D2 and C3PO, robots V.I.N.Cent and Maximillian were again spotlighted. The former was accurately molded in gray, with red and transparent parts, and he stood a whopping eight inches tall when assembled. Maximillian was molded in red, and towered at an impressive 11 inches when complete. The Maximillian kit was unique because, like his movie forbearer, he wielded a variety of murderous "action" arms (propellor blades...) which the Mego action-figure did not recreate. Perhaps the most impressive of the MPC models (and the only one I don't have....) was the two-foot long miniature of Reinhardt's ornate starship, the Cygnus. I...must...have...this.

Other manufacturers also saw The Black Hole as a major event on the horizon and offered additional items. Whitman released sticker, stamp, coloring and activity books ranging in price from 49 cents to 79 cents. It also marketed a giant "press-out" book with paper cut-outs of the Cygnus, the escape probe ship, and the good guy vessel, the Palomino.

Additional Whitman products included board games based on the film: Voyage of Fear and the "Space Alert." The goal of the Space Alert game was to escape the doomed Cygnus and reach the probe ship intact.

Western Publishing Company rocketed into space with two five-hundred piece Jigsaw Puzzles in attractive blue packaging. One puzzle was (again...) of the loveable V.I.N.Cent and the other revealed Dr. Reinhardt and Maximillian in the impressive, multi-deck Cygnus Control Room.

The Black Hole:
A Spaceship Adventure for Robots was A Little Golden Book (which I've already highlighted in another blog retro-toy flashback), and it sold originally for .69 cents. For slightly older fans, Western Publishing offered a comic book, "the illustrated adaptation of the exciting film," but the characters did not resemble the film actor's to any measurable degree, so the comic was more irritating than fun. The comic sold for $1.50 at the time.

From Harmony Books came another collectible: The Black Hole Pop-Up Book! As a kid, I collected tons of these pop-up books from a variety of franchises, and I plan to feature them as a "separate" flashback another time.

For those who would prefer to listen rather than read, Disneyland/Buena Vista released an album along with 12 pages of color photographs from the film, and a record with dialogue, music and special effects. This is a highly treasured item today because of the excellent (and rare) photographs, and the fact that LPs have gone the way of Betamax (and VHS?)

Some younger folks might not easily recall The Black Hole today, but for those who saw it on the big screen as a child, it was part of the great post-Star Wars outer space boom and merchandising blitz. Store shelves filled with everything from bed-sheets to colorforms. There were trading cards, novelizations, and the like. So for nostalgic toy colletors and Disney fans alike, the field of Black Hole collectibles remains as wide open as outer space itself. Hope you enjoy these photos from my collection, and let me know if you fell into collecting Black Hole toys.

3 comments:

  1. I remember The Black Hole. Not fondly, if I recall. Yeah, the post Star Wars environment was filled with so much scifi everywhere. Alien and Battlestar Galactica quickly come to mind.

    My disappointment with TBH was actually the downright anticlimactic ending of what lay beyond the event horizon. It's like Disney scripted a movie without an ending. I think the word I used at the time was 'Pointless.' Hey, it was scifi, so I was enjoying myself before that (I believe the words you used and I'll borrow are "guilty pleasure") but the end was a cheat. Didn't quite demand my money back, but I was thinking about it.

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  2. Anonymous9:17 PM

    I loved THE BLACK HOLE because I was a young child when I saw it. Reading through all this is a great trip down memory lane. I wish I had held onto a number of those BLACK HOLE items- I only have some cards and the novelization left. Muir has put some good content into this.

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  3. Liked the movie, liked the cast, I do admit the ending could have been more unexpected, I think the way it did end not only justified no sequel but also contributed to the movies failure at box office but others movies that were out may have allowed so many people to have higher expectations that what it delivered. but i still like it, it is adventurous no doubt..

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