Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Top Ten Toys of My Childhood

Well, Christmas time is almost here again, and so it's time for an archival post focusing on...toys.

Listed below are my top ten toys from childhood.

10. The Strange Change Machine (Mattel; 1967):  

This "electrical toy" from 1967 is actually just a small oven -- or heating chamber of sorts -- though the box art colorfully describes the mechanism as a "mysterious strange change machine" that "changes time capsules" and offers you -- a mad scientist -- the opportunity to create "16 hidden wonders of the lost world" as they "appear and disappear into capsules over and over again."

What this comes down to, essentially, is that with a pair of blue plastic tongs (included), you would insert small red, yellow and green "capsules" into the heating chamber, and as they heated up, the cubes would unfold (in glorious slow-motion...) into the ships of plastic monsters, dinosaurs and bugs. Then, you could reverse the process, and turn the objects back into cubes.

I played with this toy at my granny Tippie’s house in the 1970s.  It belonged to my beloved Uncle Larry --a mad scientist by disposition (and now a chemistry professor…) – and we had great times creating dinosaurs, mummies, giant insects and other words of “the lost world.”

09. Flash Gordon Rocket (Mattel; 1981)

Straight from "the greatest adventure of all," this whopping rocket ship ("not for use as a flotation device," in case you were wondering...) is over 2.5 feet long (and was made in Taiwan). It's a giant of a toy, with room to hold two action figures from the Flash Gordon Mattel line. The box notes that the toy is over "2.5 feet [81.6 cm] long from nose cannon to tail fin when chamber is filled with air." 

The rocket's cockpit houses two figures and can "detach" to carry Flash or Zarkov (not included) on adventure. Yep, it doubles as a "modular space shuttle" that can be rolled out on "a recon mission." The nose cannon also detaches from the central rocket (and "re-mounts with cloth fastener!"). Also, the box suggests that kids can find "the eyelets and your own string" to hang the ship up.

I remember collecting the Flash Gordon action figures as a kid. I had four of 'em to be precise: Flash, Zarkov, Ming and The Lizard Woman. I bought them at a store called Newberry's in Verona, New Jersey...where they cost a dollar a piece. But I also recall seeing this massive inflatable rocket ship in the pages of a Sears catalog and desperately wanting it.  I never got it, but one of my best friends had one, and I always asked him if we could play with it.  I finally got my hands on one on E-Bay in the 2000s, and I cherish the inflatable rocket to this day.

08. The Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center (Kenner; 1976):

I might as well admit it: I've got some kind of weird fetish for 1970s sci-fi control rooms with their big, bulky reel-to-reel computers. I don’t know what it is.  I mean, basically action figures just sit in control rooms…yet I often preferred “the bridge” or “Main Mission” to other type toys (like vehicles). 

One of my favorite such control room s came from the popular Kenner The Six Million Dollar Man toy line. The Bionic "Mission Control Center" was the very place, according to the box legend, "where all the bionic adventures begin!"

This huge, impressive toy included a "giant inflatable dome, 17.5" high and 26" wide." Since the dome was inflatable by air valve (9 for strength and durability...), the toy even came with a repair kit. In case, I guess, Big Foot (Andre the Giant) happened by hoping to puncture it with a pin or something. And inside (or rather beneath...) that huge dome was the HQ for OSI agents Colonel Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers. It was protected, according to the dome specifications, by a "laser force field." Another exterior section of the dome was a computer, a "retrieval storage unit." 

The Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center also contains (from the bulleted points on the box): "radar scanner," "TV Monitor," "radio headphones" "bionic check-out panels and cables," "command chair and command console  and "mission control vinyl floor."  And at the "Bionic Check-Out Panel" you could "plug cables into your Six Million Dollar Man's modules" and "pretend you check out his bionics for special missions."  Today, my son Joel also loves this playset.

07. Star Wars Death Star Space Station (Kenner; 1978)

This giant play-set representation of the Star Wars (1977) Death Star -- a literal "pie slice" of the space sphere -- remains one of the greatest and most impressive toys of the late 1970s space craze.

Released by Kenner in 1978, The Death Star Playset recreates the central location of Star Wars, the Imperial battle station, with four different levels of intricacy and detail. The promotion material describes the toy in detail:

"Kenner's exciting play environment simulates the Death Star space station with manual elevator to take the Star Wars figures to any of the action play floors."

"TOP FLOOR: Laser cannon that swivels, emitting "clicking" sounds; it explodes from housing when hit by X-wing fighter.  Also has ledge for Ben Kenobi."

THIRD FLOOR: Manually operated "light bridge" that opens and closes, and an escape rope swing for Luke and Leia.

SECOND FLOOR: Control room for piloting Death Star and escape hatch to trash compactor.

FIRST FLOOR: Trash compactor complete with removable foam garbage; has turn-screw to close end of compactor, which stops in in time for Star Wars hero to escape."

This description doesn't indicate one of the coolest aspects of this great toy, however: the Death Star comes complete with a figure of the Dia Noga -- or trash-compactor monster -- thus allowing us to see its full body shape for the first time.

I received this impressive toy for Christmas as a nine year old, I believe, and I loved it.  I was disappointed that the station was not in the familiar sphere aspect from the movie, but the "pie slice" structure allows for easy access on all sides, and makes playing Star Wars easy.

06. Big Trak (Milton Bradley; 1979)

On the cusp of the futuristic 1980s (!), Milton Bradley's electronic toys seemed truly amazing and forward-looking.  The toy company created the Star Bird , and of course, Big Trak, the "fully programmable electronic" vehicle. As you can see from the box photo above, Big Trak is a land rover-type vehicle, one with a nice futuristic sheen.  The craft is sleek and it looks bad-ass.  On the dorsal side of the tank is a rectangular computer panel, fully programmable.  As the box establishes: "BIG TRAK's computerized Control Center -- with its intricate electronic memory -- can accept complex programs of up to 16 separate commands.  Big Trak can go out of the room and return to you; it can maneuver around furniture.  Detailed instruction booklet (with sample programs) included."

So Big Trak could "respond to your commands" and the box invites kids to "watch Big Trak perform!  Goes forward and reverse, turns, spins, and fires." An accessory (sold separately, naturally) was the Big Trak Transport, which could be attached to Big Trak to "haul light loads for long distances."  You could also deploy the transport as a kind of dump truck, which was very cool. 

05. Interplanetary Star Fortress (Sears; 1979)

In the years following Star Wars (1977), outer space-related toys flooded the American toy market.  Many of these toys were what collectors today uncharitably term "knock-offs," meaning that the toys don't originate with a license like Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century...but from an incredible simulation.  In other words, these toys didn't belong to a specific set, but could easily co-exist with the other sets in terms of size and general "look" and vibe.

And -- I have to admit it -- I have a sort of crazy love for these knock-offs or so called "generic" play sets.  I guess it's because as a kid ,the knock-off toys offered me an opportunity to put  my Jedi Knights, Starfleet Officers, or Directorate Agents into "new" adventures; ones that didn't come specifically from any movie or TV episode.

It seems like an alien concept in the era of the Internet, but getting a Sears Catalog near Christmas every year was an incredible experience for kids back then.  I remember eagerly getting my hands on the catalog (after my sister was finished looking at Jordache jeans...) and leafing through the toy section, absolutely agog at the new toys being offered up for sale.  I remember one year, my Mom purchased for me the Star Wars Cantina, complete with Blue Snaggletooth.  The next year (I think...), I got this Interplanetary Star Fortress from the catalog.  And I loved it.

04. Star Hawk/S.T.A.R. Team (Ideal; 1977)

The Star Hawk is another knock-off toy from the Star Wars era.  This is the “Star Team spaceship with motorized hatch and space-like sounds.”  The large red and gray flying saucer-type craft came “complete with Zeroid, moveable landing pods, revolving platform, exit ramp and clear dome.”  And “Zeroid’s spaceship, the Star Hawk transports your Zeroid from one daring adventure to the next.  When you activate the special motor, the hatch slides open, landing pods go into position, exit ramp lowers, and space-like sounds announce the arrival of Zeroid, to help you save the day.”

As for the Zeroid himself, he is a modified version of the popular (and now incredibly expensive...) 1960s Zeroid line.  He’s a “highly detailed action robot with moveable arms. ZEROID rolls on a twin-tread base.  Flip on his special flishing signal lamp and send messages to his friends.”

My grandparents (now both deceased…) bought me the Star Hawk (w/Zeroid) when Star Wars toys were new and at first I was disappointed with the generous gift because I would have preferred the Millennium Falcon, Darth Vader, R2-D2 and C3PO.  But it wasn’t long before I became intrigued by theseStar Wars knock-off toys, and came to see that they allowed me to create my own play universe.  In particular, I remember that the Star Team Knight of Darkness camped out in G.I. Joe’s Adventure Team Headquarters.

Today, I’m really glad I still have these particular toys in my home office.  Even today, Zeroid’s dome lights up, and the Star Hawk hatch still slides open (with a springy rat-a-tat sound).  The decals are coming off now, after all these years, but these toys remain…ideal for the imagination.  

03. U.S.S. Enterprise Bridge, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Mego; 1979)

It must have been 1980 or 1981, I guess; a bitterly cold winter's day as I recall. I was at the massive (and legendary...) Englishtown flea market in New Jersey with my family, searching out toy treasures. At that time in my life, that would have meant Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Space:1999 or Star Trek figures, to put a fine point on the matter.

Bundled in a warm winter jacket and sipping hot chocolate out of a Styrofoam cup, my lips shivering, I soon came across a toy that I had never seen before and have only rarely seen since. And which today, I prize.  It's the Star Trek: The Motion Picture "U.S.S. Enterprise Bridge" from Mego Corporation, released 1980. I found it mint in its box at the flea market that day...selling for one dollar. Needless to say, I bought it. And I still had allowance to spare...

I've kept this toy with me ever since - during all my geographical moves from New Jersey to Virginia to North Carolina, though the toy box is long, long gone.  A few years back, I bought a new one (with box...) on E-Bay for significantly more than one dollar. Why? Well, I had always promised myself that if I saw another of these rare toys, and it was under a certain price threshold, I would get it, since I had played mine out and all the decals had basically rubbed off.

To explain further about this toy, it is not the famous "spinning transporter" Bridge playset from Mego; from the original TV series.No, this is the movie Enterprise bridge from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The box legend says it all, capturing the glory of this toy: "take command of the helm and recreate all the adventure of the crew of the starship Enterprise."

How many of us X'ers, as kids, wanted to do just that?  I know I did, and since the movies were from my era growing up, the 1979 -1991 era, this was the bridge I wanted. The bridge V'Ger's probe attacked. The bridge Kirk returned to after a 2.5 year absence after the five year mission; the bridge from which he faced "KHAN!"

02. The Star Bird Avenger (Milton Bradley; 1980)

The spaceship you are gazing above at is the Milton Bradley Star Bird, or in this case, the second incarnation of the cruiser, the Star Bird Avenger. Featuring "new exciting electronics," this nicely-designed "space transport" features "exciting engine sounds, firing photon beams, battle sounds, and special target!"

The Star Bird (sans the specification "Avenger") was first released by Milton Bradley in 1978, shortly after Star Wars took the world by storm, and my next door neighbor and best friend from West Milford, David, was the first kid in Glen Ridge (and particularly on Clinton Road...) to have one.

The ship was truly state-of-the-art for the time, because if you owned two Star Birds they could electronically duel with one other. Or as the box put it: "Fire your photon beams and hit the alien spaceship. Hear distress signals and sputtering engine sounds!"

In other words, the Star Birds were relatively interactive, at least for the disco decade. In the event you didn't have two ships, the Star Bird also was sold with an "alien target." The box noted: "Attack the special target with the flashing photon beams and Avenger signals your victory!"

The other interesting aspect of the Star Bird was that it was actually several starships housed as one. For instance, mounted on the dorsal rear of the ship was an "escape pod" and cannon, in case of battle damage. Per the box: "Rotating gun turret - rear gun turret doubles as an escape pod. Just release the retainer and go whirling through space."

01 Space 1999 Eagle 1 Spaceship (Mattel; 1976)

The Mattel Eagle 1 Spaceship (1976) remains my all-time favorite toy, hands-down.  ,In part, I favor this 1970s Mattel toy because it comes from my all-time favorite science fiction TV series, Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977). But in part it is also because the toy is downright colossal: over 2.5 feet long, as the box trumpets. 

Beyond these values, the Mattel Eagle also comes apart into a smaller ship, a combination of the command and engine modules. This aspect of the toy seems very realistic to the series (or “show accurate,” to use collecting lingo) and the modular design of the Eagle (from SPFX maestro Brian Johnson).   The separated command module resembles some of the incarnations we saw of the Eagles in episodes such as “Missing Link” and “Dragon’s Domain.”

I was given this really awesome toy shortly before my sixth birthday, in 1976, by my Mom and Dad.  I remember that I was sort of depressed because my older sister didn’t want to play with me on a Saturday and I had nothing to do.  My Mom noticed I was down in the dumps. So she led me into my parents’ bedroom and told me to look underneath the bed.  I did, and there was Eagle 1, ready for action! The surprise gift made my day…and I’ve never forgotten it, or my Mother’s kindness. She was always doing things like that for me (and still does, for my son Joel, to this day.)

Then, as my real birthday approached, my Mom and Dad took me aside and told me that my Uncle Glenn, who recently passed away, had also bought me an Eagle One toy. They asked me if I wanted a second one, or something different.

Well, of course I wanted a second one. The only thing better than having Eagle One was having an Eagle fleet!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:12 PM

    Still have my Mattel Eagle Playset ( with replacement decals, missing the tiny guns for the figures, but still in great shape ) hanging from the ceiling of my geek room.