In your childhood, I guess there are phenomena and there are milestones where toys are concerned. And then there are flash in the pans, those toys that are insanely popular for most of a school year but get shoved to the back of a toy closet by the summer. My first experience with a flash in the pan was Voltron.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll talk about the cartoon series that spawned this particular toy, but it’s worth mentioning that I only know what voltron was because an early episode was on at my neighbor’s house one afternoon when I was in the second grade. I didn’t know what the cartoon was, just that five robot lions that formed a much larger robot were pretty kickass.
Soon after watching those first few episodes of the lion Voltron (the vehicle Voltron came later), my schoolmates and I were compoetely hooked. We played Voltron just about every day and very often I was Keith or Lance and on at least a couple of occasions, my friend Lori wore her hair like Princess Allura.
Still, the tie-in toys alluded us, which was weird considering that every single cartoon we watched in those days was essentially a 30-minute toy commercial. Even some of the movies—Star Wars, for instance—had a toy line. But nobody, when those first few shows aired, owned a Voltron. That’s probably because we never saw television commercials for Voltron toys.
In fact, I would not come across any toy related to Voltron for the better part of six months, when I would be at a local stationary store, Sayville Card and Gift (which may have been known as Unique Cards and Gifts at the time), browsing through the toys while my dad was two doors down buying Chinese food, and spotted something called “Lionbot.”
But what was inside the “Lionbot” case was a die-cast metal Voltron lion.
This became the object of my desire for the better part of the year afterwards, and I bugged the hell out of my parents for a full set of lions. If I had spotted the lions at Toys R Us, it probably wouldn’t have been a big deal—trips to Toys R us were few and far between and I often forgot what I wanted soon after visiting. But I could go to Card and Gift whenever I wanted because it wasn’t too far to ride on m y bike and whenever my dad took me to Grand Union with him, he would duck in there to buy a magazine or cigarettes … or Life Savers, after he quit smoking.
So I saw what lions they had on a near-daily basis, and slowly but surely I managed to get enough lions to form “Lionbot” … er, Voltron. This was the first toy I remember actually needing all of the components because with previous toys I could have some of them and it wouldn’t matter. With Voltron, I ran into problems. Missing the blue, green, red, or yellow lions made Voltron an amputee, and you couldn’t do anything without the black lion, which was his torso and head. It made for a good social life sometimes because when I didn’t have all of Voltron, I would hang out with friends who had other lions and we would do our best to put all of the lions together. Granted, my friend Chris’s black lion with my yellow lion made him look more like the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it was pretty cool to connect them.
The problem with the toy, and which I think led to its rather quick demise, was that there wasn’t much you could do with it aside from collect all of the lions and put them together. Voltron towered over most of my Transformers and there were no action figures, so you couldn’t really have anyone “pilot” him or fight against him, unless he was like Mechagodzilla and trying to destroy something.
Furthermore, there were often times when either the blue or yellow lion would get stuck to the black lion and separating the two was damn near impossible. I remember standing in my kitchen one time trying to separate the blue lion while my mother nagged me to “not force it.” Such overexertion eventually led to either giving up on the toy or dropping it on the floor and breaking it, as I did with one of the blue lion’s hind legs. In fact, after breaking part of the blue lion, losing the head of the red lion (because it “fired” off the body), having one of the black lion’s “wings” lose its ability to stay up, and a thin layer of rust starting to form on the yellow lion, my “Lionbot” started to look a little worse for wear and did wind up in the back of the toy cabinet. Its final fate was probably Goodwill.
Panosh Place did put out a line of plastic Voltron toys a couple of years after the cartoon premiered and those figures, which were about the size of Star Wars figures, would fit inside the lions. I wound up owning three of the five lions as well as the Castle of Lions playset. That playset, was completely worth whatever it cost, as were the lions that I did. Panosh Place did an awesome job, and what was more awesome was that these particular action figures were similar to the Star Wars figures I owned as well as the G.I. Joe figures I was a year away from collecting.
But as impressive as that toy line was, it was too little, too late. Had Panosh Place put the Voltron figures out before Matchbox’s metal lions (and their rip-offs) came out, they would have seized on a golden opportunity and made a ton of money. But nobody I knew had the plastic lions and when I was buying them, they’d already been relegated to Toys R Us’s “Aisle of Forgotten Toys” and second-rate toy stores like Play World, waiting to be bought by aunts or grandmothers who didn’t know much about what was popular that Christmas. Which, by the way, is how I wound up getting that Castle of Lions playset.
Voltron … well, Lionbot, was a valuable experience for me as a kid because it introduced me to the “Now what” effect that eventually hits every toy collector. I coveted those lions for months and finally, after my birthday and Christmas came and went I had all of them. Even when I was a junior in college, when I found a Voltron at the Toys R Us behind the Smith Haven Mall for $25 and snatched it up, I never appreciated it as much after I’d assembled it as I did when it was on the store shelf in a box.