Saturday, October 29, 2005

Retro-Toy Flashback # 15: Movie and TV Trading Cards

Well, as regular readers have probably noticed, I've been falling behind on the blog this week. I didn't get to post this on Thursday (or Friday...) because I was working on a deadline, but here - just a few days late - is Retro Toy Flashback # 15!! And the subject is indeed one close to my heart: trading cards!

My childhood fascination with movie and TV-related trading cards started with - of all things - a loaf of Wonder Bread.

It must have been late 1977 or early 1978, and Star Wars was the one-and-only blockbuster of the day and my constant obsession (I was 8, I guess...). Well, those canny makers of Wonder Bread decided to slip special collectors cards from the George Lucas space opera in each and every loaf of their product, and that made every trip to the local Shop-Rite a wondrous one! What an incentive to eat loads of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!! In fact, I remember trying to slip my beautiful calico cat, Penny, some pieces of wonder bread when no one was looking, so we could get the next loaf faster. Had...to...collect...Star Wars...cards...

But then I discovered (thanks to my parents), a flea market in New Jersey called Englishtown, and one cold Saturday morning in the late 1970s, I found a vendor there selling packs of bonafide Star Wars cards from a manufacturer named Topps! About ten or so cards came in each carefully wrapped pack, and each pack included a stick of crumbly chewing gum, stickers (which I quickly adhered to everything I could...) and information about the making of the movie on the back side of the cards. The front of the cards always featured wonderful photos from the movie and were even sequentially numbered for easy collecting.

Naturally, I had to have them all. But then the first "blue" set of Star Wars cards gave way to the "red" set, and I was still collecting. Then the red set gave way to the yellow set, and I kept buying. I also remember an orange set...but the point was, there were something like 300 frickin' cards to collect just from the first Star Wars movie. Honestly, I don't actually remember trading many of these cards with friends, just keeping them in a drawer and trying to find the ones I didn't yet have. Today, I have what's left of my Star Wars collection (and I fear I've misplaced many over the decades...) in a nice loose-leaf notebook, with each card in a plastic holder. Geek alert! Geek alert!

Yet Star Wars was merely the gateway for more and more hardcore (!) trading card experiences. I've written on this blog before about how 1979 was one of the greatest years of my childhood because it saw the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Moonraker, Alien and on TV, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica. It was a hell of a time to be a young fan of science fiction "space adventures," and it was just great (especially that Christmas...)

Well, I lived in a town named Glen Ridge in New Jersey, on a street called Clinton Road, and our house was only about two blocks away from Bloomfield, where there was a small convenience store (we called it a "milk store" back then for some reason). Anyway, that store sold -- wait for it - trading cards from all these great sci-fi productions. My grandfather (who passed last January after a long illness), used to give my sister and me silver fifty-cent pieces every time we saw him, and I would save these up and use them to purchase trading cards.

I think that even as a kid, I was most "into" collecting things from Star Trek. And Star Trek: The Motion Picture truly fascinated me. It seemed so different from the space combat shows like Star Wars, Galactica, Buck Rogers and even, to some extent The Black Hole and Moonraker. Well, Topps did a great job with their set of 88 cards (and 22 stickers) from the movie. Many of their cards featured close-up views of the re-crafted U.S.S. Enterprise, the new "pajamas" uniforms and other interesting details. For one thing, there were a lot of new and really weird aliens in Star Trek: The Motion Picture that barely appeared in the film. But suddenly, on the cards, you could see all the weird costumes and make-ups close-up, and I thought that was fantastic. It opened up my eyes to the diversity of the Star Trek universe, So I enjoyed these cards tremendously. I still have 'em too. A complete set. Also stored safe and proudly in a notebook.

I was only nine or ten when the Sigourney Weaver blockbuster Alien came out, so I understand why my parents wouldn't let me see it. It was R-Rated, after all. But my next door neighbor, David, was the same age as me and he got to see it, and consequently was always talking about it. The movie sounded so cool, and naturally I felt inferior for not having seen it, so it was back off to the "Milk Store" (by then operated by Krausers, maybe...) to purchase cards from the Ridley Scott movie. Like the Star Trek: The Motion Picture set, these trading cards were fascinating to me because some of them revealed early designs of the spacecraft and set designs (By Ron Cobb). The cards were also - frankly - my first look at this now-classic alien design and the movies' main characters.

By 1983 and the advent of Return of the Jedi, I felt I was too old to be collecting trading cards, so I put my various collections away, and didn't think about them much. But, by 1992, I was back on my crazy science fiction kick, this time as a young adult. I was working at a chemical "flavoring" factory in New Jersey that summer, and I met a guy in the warehouse who was selling trading cards from Alien 3. Although a lot of people hated that David Fincher film, I thought it was pretty awesome - even artistic - and the price was right, so I bought the whole series and re-commenced my long tradition buying whole collections and displaying them in books.

The Alien 3 cards were nicely done, and fascinating because - again - some of the cards seemed to refer to events that weren't in the film. For instance, in the movie released, a dog was infected with the alien chestburster, but in an earlier version, it had been an ox, I believe. So there were some interesting discrepancies to chart in the set.

In 1993 and 1994, I began my adult obsession with the mid-1970s TV series, Space:1999. I collected all the laserdiscs, bought a laser disc player, and set about watching all of the episodes and recording my observations in a journal. This is how my first book, published by McFarland, actually came about.

I wanted to feature a section in my Exploring Space:1999 book about collectibles (how convenient!) and my then-girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife, Kathryn, patiently indulged me buying up comic books, magazines, action figures, model kits, water pistols and the inevitable trading cards from the series. The card set had been produced by Donruss in 1976. There were 66 cards in all, but no stickers, and all the scenes were from the first year. Hence no Maya, to my dismay. Still, these cards are great because they adroitly capture the minimalist, visual appeal of the series, and many cards display the fantastic miniature special effects work from the show (particularly the hanger bay where the Eagles are grounded between flights).

During the years from 1995 - 2005, I've been on a sometimes-passionate mission to collect trading cards from the franchises I missed between 1966 and 1992. One of my favorite finds (and I paid 35 dollars for it) was the entire trading card series from the short-lived 1974 Planet of the Apes series starring Mark Lenard, Roddy McDowall, Ron Harper and James Naughton. I had a special Planet of the Apes day at a flea market called Metrolina in Charlotte: I picked up the trading card set and a Planet of the Apes lunch box on the same day (total price: $70.00).

Over the years, I have also begun collecting cards from the 1984 David Lynch film, Dune (which I guess turned out to be a bomb...), from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters, from the Bond flick, Moonraker and on and on.

I have to say, I enjoy owning trading cards from almost any TV series -- from Happy Days to ALF. Also, my dear friend, Christopher Curry, recently gave me as a gift an unopened pack of Jaws 3-D cards from 1983. I'll tell you, I didn't even know that Jaws 3-D card existed.

Anyway, I think that as a rule, trading cards provide the same joy that colorforms, novelizations, storybooks and Little Golden books do. They're a way to nicely experience a favorite production again and again, but without a VCR or DVD player. Collecting trading cards isn't as passive an experience as watching TV can be, and I think it even teaches one a degree of patience. It also happens to be an entertaining pastime.

You'll notice I haven't ventured into the modern world of trading cards here. I'm aware that this collecting niche/market has just really, really taken off in recent years, but ultimately I'm a nostalgia freak. I like the cards from the productions of my childhood, and the new cards just don't hold the same appeal for me. Not that there's anything wrong with collecting or enjoying them, it's just that I prefer the universe of Space:1999, Planet of the Apes, and so forth.

So, let me hear your stories, folks! Who collected trading cards growing up? Who still does? And what's your greatest trading card story?

6 comments:

  1. dune is widely percieved as a flop on the level of ishtar, yet it made money.
    an often overlooked factoid of david lynch's career (and i consider him one of our greatest fantasists and surrealists, albeit adult ((ie r rated))) is that all of his films have turned an international profit.
    dune is confusing and doesn't reconcile itself into a coherent cinematic experience, yet it does boast some of the most indelible images ever put to film, even surpassing star wars.
    looks better on trading cards, i figure.

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  2. I'm a big fan of Dune. I love the film. Frankly, it was the film that led me to the books; and my love affair with the novels. So I agree with you completely!

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  3. :-) We had milk stores in RI, too; I don't know why folks in NJ called them that, but ours were milk stores because they were all run by the dairies (Cumberland Farms, Sunnybrook Farms, etc., etc., etc.).

    I found a bunch of my old "gum cards" for Star Wars and Star Trek when we cleaned out my mom's house after she passed away. I think they're somewhere in one of the boxes we packed...

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  4. Save those cards, Linda!!!! Save 'em! I wish I had kept even more of mine.

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  5. Brian Himes6:58 PM

    Hi John,

    Not sure if you'll see this post, but here goes.

    Yes, I collected LOTS of trading cards whne I was a kid. Like you, my first set was the Wonder Bread Star Wars set.

    I still have each and every set that I collected as a kid. Several of those sets it took me years to complete. Some, I have yet to complete. Thanks to eBay and several other non-sports card sites I've managed to get my hands on mint condition sets of some cards. Namely Planet of the Apes. My Star Wars cards have seen better days, but I have all 330 cards in the set. Plus all of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi cards.

    I guess my most valued set is the first two sets of Charlies Angels cards (1-121). Those sets took me twelve years to complete. I started when I was in 6th grade (77-78) and I finally purchased the last 12 cards and 11 stickers at a flea market in 1989.

    Most of the cards from my early days as a collector, mainly when I was in 6th and 7th grades (77-80) are in pretty bad shape. But they're mine and I treasure them. I really need to get a new set of the Topps 1978 Battlestar Galactica cards.

    Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    Brian Himes

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  6. Hi John!

    Yet another area of interest that we cross paths!

    I'm pretty sure my trading card collecting started with Wacky Packs in the early 1970s. I also bought some Space:1999 cards (of course!) from a local corner store that had a wax box on the counter. That was pretty cool in the day! I don't think I finished off that set until a few years ago. I actually purchased a "sealed" wax box of Space:1999 cards (from eBay) - complete with stuck-on gum! Of course, that top card with the gum was basically ruined - but I got yet another set of Space:1999 cards plus several extra singles!

    A few years ago, a UK card company got the Gerry Anderson license and released sets based on Thunderbirds, UFO, Stingray and Captain Scarlet. They were supposed to do Space:1999 but things (mysteriously) ran aground. They did release 2 "preview sets" - one 6 card set and another 9 card set. They also released a card with a swatch of material worn by Martin Landau in the show. It's rumored another UK company may release a set!

    My renewed obsession with card collecting started about 10 years ago when a company released a new set of cards based on the Lost in Space TV series (to coincide with the movie - which they also released cards for). I saw some packs at my local mall and the rest is history!

    I understand your quest for oldies, but there are new releases of classic material out there. Perhaps not as nostalgic as what you seek, but satisfying on another level of its own.

    Happy Collecting!

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