Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Toy Stories - Christina's Toys of the 80s

By Christina

A depressing night hit me recently, with sad events occurring that left me in a mix of anger (at not only others, but at myself in all honesty) and in shock and sadness/tears.  In an attempt to alleviate the pain I went from some time on the PS4 killing Trinity soldiers in Rise of The Tomb Raider (which killed virtual men, but not the sadness) to Netflix.  

In the midst of my “Flix-Surfing” my heart jumped for temporary joy when I saw a new show that had joined the online ranks:  The Toys That Made Us.  Only a few episodes seem to be up at this point, but it was enough to send me back in time to the best days of my life.  The days of the thirty minute commercial, when cartoons were awesome even though they were just an advertisement for the joyful playthings that we all opened up on Christmas Day and birthdays.  The time when, thanks to these action figures and play sets, we spent most of our years either singing or screaming the likes of “I have the power!” “Yo, Joe!”  “Thundercats, hooooo!” or whatever we were into in that moment. 

I can’t help but look back on some of my favorites from my childhood thanks to this Netflix gem taking me back thirty years to a much better time.  Toys were never as good as they were in the 80’s.

Yes, I had a few girly toys.  I will even be talking about them in this piece.  If you look at pics of my bedroom when I was four, however, you see it covered in posters from the monthly He-Man magazine.  You see the large He-Man action figure carrying case, Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain, plus the Crystal Castle, all battling it out for the supreme spot in my bedroom floor.  It was hard to decide if my He-Man or She-Ra costume were going to be the wear of choice any given Halloween.  Starting to get the picture?  

I had an addiction to all things Masters of The Universe/Princess of Power.  Coming out in 1982, the original line first included eight figures, the likes of which included some of our most beloved characters such as He-Man, Teela, and Man-At-Arms.  A comic book accompanied it as well as the monthly magazine.  The TV show came after the toy line as it was basically an advertising prop, which was the jumping point for a very popular 80’s tool of using the cartoons as a marketing ploy to sell the toy lines that came before them.  When new characters were introduced in a TV show or in a toy line it would inevitably appear in the reverse to entertain the masses, so the He-Man line quickly grew.  

Snake people, extending people, battering ram people, even the beloved and horrid smelling Stink-Or (My husband left him in a hot summer window once, along with Moss Man.  His mother never forgave him when they came home to that smell.)  He-Man was one of the longest running show and product lines of the 80’s, making it a total of five years; an unprecedented mark for this era and for the attention span of children.  It spanned two more cartoon reboots, one live action movie, and three toy line re-launches that include the live action movie toy line.  There was also the the cartoon movie that introduced She-Ra and joined both both she and He-Man on the whirlwind adventure that officially introduced the Princess of Power into the mix.  This even including the run of minis, the stamps that were figures, the special edition "Snake" figures (Snake Teela, Snake He-Man,) etc.  You just can’t argue that He-Man most obviously has the power.

In my time with Needless Things I have reviewed the Jem movie, soundtrack, tribute album (made in prep for the movie,) and discussed how the Jem doll collector’s world works.  So yes, you guess it.  I was totally hard up for Barbie.  Ha…kidding.  Honestly, Jem was my absolute life in the 80’s.  The show, the toys, the clothes, the music…all of it.  I immersed myself into this show as much as I did into Power Rangers in the 90’s.  In all honesty, I never saw Jem as girly.  I saw it as everything that embraced my all-time favorite decade.  The big hair, the wild clothing, the amazing synth-laden music, the works.  It was everything bright colored and laser light show driven that I loved wrapped up in one thirty minute extravaganza, and the toys just drove the imagination aspect of it all home for me.  

I got to take those wild and wacky clothes home with me and mix and match them.  I got to have the dolls with their crazy 80’s makeup in my little hands at all times.  We even got stage playsets and big cars with tape decks built in to play the Jem music and reenact those awesome concerts.  It just got no better than that.  Jem’s earrings lit up, the playsets grew bigger and crazier, and the dolls kept coming.  We even got the Starlight Girls.  How awesome was that?  Sadly, the line was discontinued during the time that Season Three was cranking out more awesome music.  We at least managed to get Raya, the newest Hologram, that was introduced in Season Two of the show.  Because the doll line was cancelled just as she was set to release she didn’t get her own personal face mold; they borrowed the mold of Misfit Leader, Pizzaz, and created the doll around that face mold with a limited run.  

Raya is now one of the most expensive dolls in the Jem collector’s world, coming in beside the highly coveted Pink Llama mail-in figure. 

From a brief look in the Hasbro catalog that was passed around the office for next year’s prototypes, we know that some major players from the later seasons were due for release, such as Astral and Regine.  The hopes for the Stingers to have their own line was even high on the list.  But as did happen with most cartoons of the 80’s, the attention span of the kids didn’t last long enough for the show or its toy lines to stand the test of time.  The fact that the show lasted three seasons when many didn’t have that kind of staying power says a lot about it and the toys that sparked the imagination of both Jem Girls and Jem Boys worldwide.  Just look at the video testimonials from the concert at the end of the Jem movie if you need proof; those are real videos from real fans that producers requested from around the world for filming of this sequence. That should tell you something.  This TV show/toy line really was truly outrageous.

The actual Hasbro prototype catalog photo showing Regine and Astral's mock-ups.
If we have learned anything from merchandising, it’s that everyone is always going to knock off your product.  Fidget spinner has a million different knock offs with so many names I can’t count.  The Stars Wars line makes it so fun to collect when you see how many countries robbed the line (and robbed it poorly.)  And when Hasbro sold all of the Jem doll parts to clear their warehouse after the line was closed, the “Rock Star Doll” was born, which had male heads on female bodies, girl hair on guys heads, and only served to make those that wanted to make customized dolls very happy that they had twenty-five cent gas station dolls to cannibalize for parts.  

So when Strawberry Shortcake came out with her wonderful scents and her fruit shaped houses, yes I was hooked.  I admit it freely; I even had a Strawberry Shortcake beanbag that I wore holes in.  But what did I wear out just as much? What was I just as obsessed with, if not more?  Their knock-off competition, the Rose Petal dolls. 

The doll line itself was small; only six dolls were released, with six more produced, but never released for sale.  Those six dolls, however, were so glorious.  They had the poofiest dresses that were designed right out of the Victorian age, with hats to match the style that at the same time kept with the theme of the doll and its flower/scent of choice (Daffodil, Orchid, Rose Petal, Lily Fair, Iris, or Sunny Sunflower )  They came out with enough play sets to keep us occupied as well and the sets were just as huge and colorful as the dolls themselves.  Houses in the shape of flower themed Tea Cup.  A bed shaped like a shoe.  Houses shaped like flowers that opened by blossoming.  The theme of beauty was as important as the fashion and the scented concept.  The 80’s were the decade of scratch and sniff so anything scented was a big deal.  The Rose Petal dolls were one of many that capitalized on this market and did so in the most girly way possible...mixing smell and fashion.  Boo-yah.

There was another obscure line that only lasted a year in 1985.  It had no cartoon to make it popular, but yet it still spawned six hero figures, five villain characters, two play sets, horse and chariot sets, and even 27 outfits in the clothing line.  I also had storybooks and there was even a board Parker Brothers board game.  They were Golden Girl and The Guardians of The Gemstones (Not to be confused with anyone that spent time with the immortal Betty White.)  

These action figures occupied a good portion of my time and with good reason.  They were unique.  Even as a five year old I could appreciate that there was nothing else like them out there.  There was no cartoon out there to try and promote them to the masses, nothing but the box art (until little storybooks came out) to tell their tale and spread their back story.  They mixed in perfectly with He-Man and She-Ra, G.I Joe and Transformers.  Or I could take them on their own solo missions if I wanted.  

The figures were gorgeous.  I mean look at them; some of the best and most amazingly molded and painted figures of their time, especially given that the 80’s was a decade of mass production to get the toys out there and please the masses as quickly as possible, which sometimes sacrificed good detail and/or materials.  The pieces were functional in that the shields were used for the dolls as well as designed to use as a broach for the person playing with them.  

And the box art.  Oh man, the box art.  Just look at it.  Way ahead of its time and not what you would expect for a kids toy box design.  These girls looked like they belong on the side of a van.  Even as a child you almost didn’t want to open this box because you were afraid of damaging the beauty of this artwork.  

The product line only lasted for that one glorious year before Galoob pulled the plug, but that was enough for me to go into a frenzy over them and take them with me everywhere I went, imaginary adventures taking place with the Guardians of The Gemstones as I sat in my parents car or walked the aisles of TG&Y or Winn Dixie.

We all have those toys that as adults we just can't let go of.  They are the memories of our childhood.  Time with friends, with parents, with ourselves.  The things that made us who we are.  It's why many of us reading here (and writing/talking here) have entire rooms full of the collectibles that we refuse to stop gathering.  They mean something to us.  What are some of yours?

Christina Sizemore is trained in only four things:  writing, fighting, paranormal investigating, and being a mom.  At this point in her life she truly feels that she is not qualified to attempt to learn any new field.  A twenty year martial artist, mother of three, and writer who is working on the publication of her first book titled “Finding Your Way: A Guide To Your Path In The Martial Arts,” she spends her days working out, writing, making fanvids, going to DragonCon, and playing board games/video games/out in the yard with her kids and husband who are just as geeky as she is.  She is convinced that one day her skills will be of assistance in the Zombie Apocalypse and that while she is of no use in the kitchen, she can Buffy that zombie for ya or teach you the best way to get the blood stains out of your clothes (Psst…the secret is mixing Crown Cleaner and Shout.  Just sayin’.)

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