Thursday, August 14, 2014

Beach Week: Jaws-Mania

Following Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster adaptation of Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel Jaws in 1975, "Jaws-Mania" hit America hard.  The film was rated PG -- which is hard to believe today -- but this fact made the (bloody) horror movie fair game in terms of merchandising and toys.  Soon, toy stores added Jaws-inspired items to their racks, and kids could relive the thrills and screams of the movie.

Prime among these toys was Ideal’s The Game of Jaws, which I’ve featured here before.  

Designed for 2 to 4 players (ages 6 and up), the game box noted: "It's you against the great white shark...One wrong move, and the JAWS go snap!"  

The goal of this game was to utilize a probe to fish out contents from the shark's stomach without those fierce jaws snapping closed.   Some of those stomach contents included a human skull, a fish skeleton, a tire, a camera, a pistol, a glove, a boot, a walkie-talkie, and a wagon wheel (!).  In the version of the game I own today, these delicacies are all molded in white or blue plastic, but the game box shows different colored items.

Addar, a model kit company, featured Jaws in its “super scenes” product line in 1975 as well.  Here, young modelers could create a detailed diorama from the a bottle.  Addar described this kit as an “exciting replica from the movie Jaws.”  It featured a miniature oceanographer, a diving cage, the great white shark and a full-color background.

I also remember a Jaws-Mania collectible that I found at the school Book-Mobile when I was in kindergarten, and promptly purchased.  It is a book from author Phil Hirsch titled 101 Shark Jokes: Biting Humor From Our Funny, Finny Friends (1976).  This book featured page after page of ridiculous, terrible shark-related puns and jokes like: What makes an ideal shark breakfast?

Captain Crunch.

I can’t stress enough how much I absolutely loved this book as a six year-old kid, and I must have read the darn book a dozen times.  For a spell, I took 101 Shark Jokes with me everywhere, especially when my Mom went shopping at the Fabric Ville store in Cedar Grove, NJ, which always seemed to take forever.  

The funny thing about the book, looking back on it, is that it featured a lot of pop culture references that, at six, I couldn’t possibly have recognized.  For instance, one joke included a reference to a shark game show, Tooth or Consequences, which would have been an allusion to Truth or Consequences (1950)…which I never saw.

I also remember with envy that my friend Stephen who lived on Ridgewood Avenue wore a custom-made Jaws Halloween costume to kindergarten that year. I don’t remember what I wore for Halloween in Kindergarten, but I absolutely remember every detail of that huge, canvas, toothy shark head costume to this day.  Also, Collegeville released a standard plastic costume of the Shark from Jaws for those kids without the wherewithal to create their own.

The mid-1970s also brought the Jaws knock-off movie by the veritable boatload.  There were sea-based movies such as Orca (1976), Tentacles (1977), Tintorera: Tiger Shark (1977), Barracuda (1978), Piranha (1978), and Killer Fish (1979).  There were also land-based knock-offs, including William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976) and Day of the Animals (1977).

Television programming wanted a piece of the profitble Jaws action as well.  

Chevy Chase memorably appeared in a Saturday Night Live skit during its first season in 1975 as a “land shark,” an “urban predator” capable of “disguising its voice”(!) and striking at any time or place.  On a more serious note, a 1977 episode of The Six-Million Dollar Man featured the Bionic Steve Austin (Lee Majors) tangling with sharks.

By 1979 and the franchise sequel, Jaws 2, the shark-based merchandising effort was at full steam ahead with photo-novels, trading cards, a novelization and the like, but by then, the manic moment had passed.  

Today, I recall this spell of my youth with tremendous fondness, especially as Jaws-Mania occurred pre-Star Wars, and shared pop-culture space with Bicentennial Fever, Space: 1999, and Logan's Run.

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