toys

We’re #1 on This Demonstration

The Yamaha PSR-27 keyboard.

I have been playing the piano since I was about seven years old, and since I was in junior high, I have also owned an electronic keyboard. Keyboards were big-ticket items when I was a kid because they not only cost a decent amount of money, but also were pretty amazing. The better keyboards could synthesize a ton of instruments and had several present rhythms and one-touch chords.

My first keyboard was a small Casio PT-180, which I remember bringing into school to work on a project, but the first keyboard that I remember really being important to me was myu second one, a Yamaha PSR-27. In terms of keyboardness, it wasn’t much (compared to some of the more high end models), but it had way more instruments than that Casio, plus came with its own stand so instead of taking it out of the box, setting it up, and plugging it in whenever I wanted to use it, I simply set it up and plugged it in in the basement.

The coolest thing on the keyboard was a yellow button that said “demo.” This was pretty much exactly what you’d think it was–a demonstration of what the keyboard was capable of, done through a 90-second song that used several instruments, rhythms, and effects, including the orchestra hit, which was popular to almost an annoying degree in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My sister and I played that keyboard endlessly, fooling around with the different instruments, playing our weekly piano pieces on the “distortion guitar” or “church organ” settings, and even adding the one-touch chords and disco beat to songs like the Star Wars theme. But the most fun we had was with the demonstration because it was a crazy tune that used just about everything the keyboard offered and even if we figured out how to play it, we would never be that good because we were not very quick at changing instruments.

But more importantly, this was around the time when the two fo us were really into playing with her stuffed animals. Yes, I know that it seems weird that a twelve year old would play with stuffed animals, but Nancy was still nine and there were many days when the two fo us were stuck in the house together. By this time, stuffed animal play had evolved to the action-adventure stage. Each animal that was among our “main players” had a distinct character and we were even working on a semblance of continuity when it came to our stories.

That is, of course, when we weren’t playing Battle of the Stuffed Animal Bands. This was a regular contest that featured four of the most hard-rocking groups of animals: two frogs named Felix and Fred, otherwise known as “Fe and Fred;” the guitar-laden novelty animal Rockasaurus; the beaver-rabbit-raccoon combo known as the Woodland Creatures; and two dogs that we called the Nas. (more…)

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Sometimes, you learn that you have to settle for less.

The Autobot known as Huffer, who would play a more significant role in my childhood than it should have.

I am sure that in the annals of our toy collecting histories, there are toys that we remember so vividly and consider so important that the day we received them ranks as high as the senior prom, first kisses, and getting married. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but ask any child of the Eighties about Castle Greyskull, the AT-AT, or Optimus Prime and you’ll probably get an enthusiastic response followed by a wave of nostalgia appropriate to key toys to the era.

You probably won’t get the same if you mention Huffer.

If you’re unsure of who or what “Huffer” is, he was one of the Transformers “mini-bots,” a line of small, affordable Transformers that came out with the first wave of the toys in 1984. As most Transformers were sold in boxes, mini-bots were placed on cards and hung in aisles as if they were regular action figures, and although I don’t know their exact retail price, they probably cost as much. The most famous of the mini-bots was Bumblebee, who in his first incarnation was a yellow VW Bug (in the current iteration, he is a Camaro), but in that first wave, you had characters like Cliffjumper, the red car voiced by Casey Kasem on the cartoon series, and Huffer, an orange semi who was an Autobot that had very few appearances in the cartoon and seemed to be around when Optimus Prime needed someone to take his trailer. The times when he did have a speaking role or a spotlight, he was kind of gruff and obviously homesick for Cybertron. So for the most part, he was a supporting or background character.

Huffer as featured on the Transformers cartoon series.

But he was a supporting character who seemed to be everywhere. Huffer was the Transformers equivalent of Prune Face or Squid Head, a figure that seemd to come out for the toy line as a way to just suck more money out of our parents’ wallets but had little or nothing to contribute to the overall storyline. Plus, everyone seemed to have him because he was an “introduction level” transformer. Mini-bots were easy to transform (and probably easy to make) and were very cheap; therefore, they were ubiquitous in both toy stores and Christmas stockings. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Jetfire (Skyfire?), or Shockwave would set your parents back a decent amount of money and might require that they fight their way through a horde of shoppers in the early hours of Black Friday, but your lazy aunt could pick up Huffer on Christmas Eve and have money left over to buy Squid Head.

Most importantly, though, or at least to me, is a symbol. He’s the toy you got because you couldn’t get anything else. There were others like this in the line–Thundercracker was a blue version of Starscream, but still a pretty cool toy–but Huffer was relatively useless. Going to a toy store and walking out with Huffer meant that you were either a completist or it was a consolation prize. In my case, it was the latter.

In 1984, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was still pretty popular, especially because the cartoon was still on the air and Mattel had started releasing action figure versions of some of the characters on the show. One particular character that got his own action figure was He-Man’s alter ego, Prince Adam of Eternia. Now, looking at that figure now, it’s kind of ridiculous that you’d want it–he was basically He-Man with purple pants, a white shirt, and a maroon jacket. I mean, it wasn’t even a good alter ego figure like the Super Powers Clark Kent figure. Still, I watched He-Man every day (and my sister would watch She-Ra) and there was a point in every episode where Prince Adam would hold aloft his sword and say “By the power of Greyskull … I HAVE THE POWER!” and transform into He-Man, then transform his tiger named Cringer into Battle Cat. Playing with my He-Man figures, I wanted to be able to “play” that transformation. Transforming Cringer into Battle Cat wasn’t hard–Battle Cat’s armor came off–but I had no way of transforming anyone into He-Man.

Prince Adam, the alter ego of He-Man. A toy that I broke down and cried over, something which defies rational explanation now that I think of it.

Until, that is, I first spotted Prince Adam in the toy aisle of TSS. It was in the middle of the fall and I had no idea that Prince Adam had been made into a figure and despite the purple pants and maroon jacket, I wanted him right away. I wanted to be able to take him, have him hold his sort aloft, say “By the power of Greyskull … I HAVE THE POWER!” and become He-Man (either original recipie or battle-damaged … I had both). I ran and got my mom, dragged her over to the aisle, and enthusiastically declared that I wanted the action figure and that I’d been a good kid and wanted it right then and there. Her response was something along the lines of, “Not right now but if you’re good, dad will take you back tonight.”

This seemed like a good enough response to me and we left TSS. My dad got home later that night and took me up to TSS because apparently I had “earned” my Prince Adam action figure. Remembering what aisle in the toy section it was found, once we entered the doors, I ignored the smell of fresh soft pretzels (which I lived for back in the day and to an extent still do) and made a bee line for the toys.

But it wasn’t here.

I began to cry, and my father probably got the same “Are you kidding me with this?” look that I get on my face when my son cries over insignificant things–only my son is five and I was seven at this time so you think I would have gotten over it by then–and he did what so many dads have done in that situation over the years, which is said, “Well, you can get something else.” Since TSS was not Toys R Us and what was there wasn’t much, so I grabbed which was the most readily available toy at the moment, and that was Huffer.

We went home, and while I did eventually get Prince Adam that Christmas, I never forgot that I missed out on my chance to get something because my mom had said, “Oh, we’ll come back later,” which is one of the most rookie fo mistakes you can make when shopping for toys, a mistake I’m sure I’ve made a few times these past few years (although my son doesn’t realize that). And every time I looked at Huffer, I thought of that moment and the disappointment I felt and how I made solemn vow to never let that happen again.

Okay, it wasn’t that dramatic, but the seven year old me hated that toy for that reason and nearly 30 years later I still kind of do.

Oh my Power Lords …

“Push his secret action button and he’ll move, turn, twist and change from human to the Power Lord.  With powers to save the world from Arkus, The Evil Dictator.  And only you can control him.”

Uh … what?

Our nostalgia for the 1980s and its various toy lines tends to stay with the stuff that is considered “landmark” or awesome:  G.I. Joe, The Transformers, Masters of the Universe, The Thundercats.  But for every one of those toy lines, there’s something that never really leaves a mark.  While I was reading an old comic book the other day, I noticed that the back cover had an ad for Power Lords, which Revell released in 1983.  Based on the timing and the size of the action figure produced, I think that they were trying to compete with He-Man; and the science fiction back story suggests that perhaps they were also taking a shot at Return of the Jedi, which had come out that May.

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It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … Supershish?

Silvan the cat, manufactured by Dakin in the 1980s. This picture is from a recent eBay auction.

“Vintage Dakin 1980 Japanese Artists Black Cat Silvan,” the listing says, “He has a slight musky odor but due to his age I do not want to wash him–he was surface washed with disinfectant wipe and sprayed with allergen spray lightly.”  Next to the description is the price:  $179.10. In another auction with a similar discription, Silvan is wearing a Santa hat and the seller is asking for $129 [note: these prices were in 2010 … another look at eBay in 2017 sees prices run from $10-$75].

I was looking for a gag gift for my sister’s 30th birthday, which happens to be today.  It was an old tradition of ours–give a “cheesy gift” with a real gift for birthdays and Christmas–that we gave up a couple of years ago after running out of good ideas that weren’t going to cost too much money.  I brought it back because when your younger sister turns 30, you bust her chops as much as possible.

Finding her gift meant combing eBay for something that was appropriate or reflected whatever idiotic inside jokes we’ve shared over the years.  I spend the better part of an evening doing so, and in the midst of my searching, I typed in “Silvan cat” and found the listings I described above.

Had I been able to afford such a high-priced stuffed animal, I’m sure I would have sent it her way because she would have laughed her ass off (I know she did when I sent her the link to the auction).  Back when we were kids, Nancy had a menagerie of stuffed animals, most of which were gifts from grandparents and other relatives, and with the exception of some Pound Puppies or various stuffed Garfields and Odies, none of them were really from a series or line of characters.  Most, I believe, were purchased at random from toy stores or stationery stores.  Silvan, however, was a little bit different and wound up being a little more important.

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Legions of Power: Guardians of the toy closet

The Legions of Power "air team" set, complete with thermonuclear warhead. (graphic courtesy of Virtual Toy Chest.com)

I have often wondered what goes through the heads of those aunts who seemed to give you the most random toys for Christmas every year.  You know the ones I’m talking about–they seem to be able to find the last remaining Star Wars figures five years after anyone stopped collecting Star Wars figures, or hear you like He-Man and buy you a figure from a completely different line of toys that sort of looks like He-Man but isn’t.  During my childhood, I had several of these relatives, both aunts and great aunts, who bestowed upon me figures, vehicles and playsets from toy lines that were out of style or had never really been heard of.  It’s how I wound up with the Castle of Lions playset as well as much of the Panosh Place line of Voltron toys.  And It’s also how I wound up with several vehicles in the Legions of Power.

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Cars and Trucks and Things That Go!

The vehicle Voltron, an also-ran in 1980s anime-based giant robots.

When the casual observer hears the word “Voltron,” he definitely thinks of the famous robot that was formed from five lions; however, those of us who watched the show religiously every afternoon know that “Voltron” can be either one of two robots: the famous lion robot and one made of many vehicles (and the truly hardcore know there was a third Voltron, but I’ll get to that later).

The vehicle Voltron snuck up on the country as quickly as the lion Voltron did.  One day, we were sitting down to watch the mighty Voltron fight King Zarkon and Prince Lotor and the next, there were a bunch of people we’d never seen and a completely different robot.  This one had fifteen characters to follow, all of whom made up a Voltron force that fought against the Drule empire.  It was kind of like a mash-up between Voltron and Robotech, and it would have made sense if it seemed like it had anything to do with the other series (like Robotech did — each series took place after the other), but there didn’t seem to be much of a connection except that both robots were named Voltron and the people who piloted the vehicles were cheap knock-offs of characters on the other show.

So the introduction of the vehicle Voltron after the lion Voltron never really actually ended seemed abrupt, like they were interrupting everything to push something else on me, or trying to Coy and Vance me.  I think that’s one of the reasons this one never caught on; the other was that with fifteen characters behind fifteen parts of Voltron, it was really hard to remember who was who.  Sure, there was a land, sea, and air team that altogether formed the mighty robot, but whereas I could recite the entire lion transformation scene and knew exactly who I wanted to be when we “played Voltron” on the playground, telling my friends that I wanted to be “Cliff” from the land team seemed really awkward.

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Go Lionbot Force! Wait … that doesn’t sound right.

The Matchbox-produced lion Voltron. According to the package, he's the "king of the space jungle."

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.

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