Eighties

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 1

Fallen Walls Open Curtains Episode 1 WebsiteIt’s the first chapter in a brand new podcast miniseries that looks at the fall of the Iron Curtain and the popular culture of the Cold War.  To start us off, I look at the watershed event from 30 years ago that marked the beginning of the end of four decades of conflict and tension between the super powers: the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.  I look at the history of the wall, talk about Berlin’s importance in the Cold War, and go in depth about what brought about the wall’s eventual demise.  Plus, I talk about songs inspired by the wall as well as my featured piece of pop culture, John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

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After the cut, here are some extras from this episode …

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Brand Me! (My Favorite Non-Toy and Giveaway Merchandise)

So my son and I were at at our LCS this weekend and we took some time to sift through their selection of Funko Pop! figures.  We do this pretty regularly, and while we’re not hardcore collectors or anything, we do like seeing what the company is able to license and sometimes even buy them because we’re suckers for a brand. Then again, we all are and have been since my parents were little and could buy merchandise that tied into Howdy Doody and the George Reeves Superman television series. My generation, of course, took it a step further and spent the 1980s immersing ourselves in the franchises that made up our childhood, gobbling up not just toys but everything from trading cards and video games to the most random piece of merchandise that had a logo or character slapped on its side.

Not surprisingly, seeing these items posted by people on Twitter, in scans of old Sears catalogues, or up for sale on eBay gets me nostalgic and so I decided to sit down and talk about six non-toy merchandising tie-ins that I remember with serious fondness.

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The G.I. Joe Flashlight (image: yojoe.com)

1. The G.I. Joe Flashlight: I think this is the closest thing to a toy that is on this list, and I am including it because it was the first G.I. Joe item that I ever owned and was the second-coolest thing that I got for Christmas when I was five (the coolest thing being my General Lee Big Wheels). When the Joe line was revived in 1982 under the “Real American Hero” subtitle, Hasbro came out with a superior line of figures and vehicles. But as anyone who flipped through the Sears catalogue int he 1980s will tell you, there was also a slew of other stuff. A quick look at YoJoe.com shows that in 1982 alone there were 48 different products ranging from the typical sheets, pillows, cups, and beach towels to Colorforms, View Master reels, and Lite Brite sets.

But the coolest stuff was the merchandise that had you playing army as hardcore as possible. There were dog tags, pins that showed off your rank, a whistle, walkie talkies, a canteen, and even a mess kit. The official G.I. Joe flashlight was a real working flashlight that took the same batteries as the red Eveready in my parents’ closet, but unlike the Eveready, it was colored army green and was positioned “military style” so that you had to hold it vertically. It also had a belt clip so you could take it with you on secret missions, unlatching it when you needed to crawl around and look into tight spaces like the ventilation shafts of Cobra HQ or under your parents’ couch because you think that’s where Han Solo’s blaster got kicked.

2. Masters of the Universe Puffy Stickers. Quite possibly the greatest things that ever came out of a box of cereal were the puffy stickers featuring five Masters of the Universe characters in Rice Krispies. A quick look at this old commercial shows that they were: Battle Armor He-Man, Skeletor, Teela, Evil Lyn, and Orko.

These prizes were given away in the summer of 1984 and this is one of those instances in my life where my parents’ strict adherence to non-sugary cereals paid off. Basically, the only cereals allowed in my house were Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Chex, Kix, and Raisin Bran (yes, I know the raisins are coated in sugar, but it wasn’t Frosted Flakes, and my sister’s love for Pro Grain Cereal is a topic for another day). That meant that for the entire time the promo was active, I was eating boxes of the stuff just so that I could collect all five stickers. Of course, collecting them wasn’t easy because the box didn’t tell you what sticker was inside, so any time you opened up a fresh box, you ran the risk of getting yet another Orko sticker instead of the Skeletor sticker you so desperately needed.

My big get, by the way, was Evil Lyn because I negotiated that with my cousin Brian when we were staying at my grandma’s house and came across her sticker in the Rice Krispies box. I can’t remember what sort of bartering went on between us as seven year olds 35 years ago, but I remember feeling pretty psyched because I really liked Evil Lyn. Who wouldn’t? She’s second only to the Baroness when it comes to awesome 1980s cartoon villainesses.

Anyway, I am sure that if we wanted to back then, we could spend our allowance money on a sheet of Masters of the Universe puffy stickers at the local stationary store, but that would have kind of been like cheating. What made the stickers so special was the snap, crackle, and pop of the hunt.

Return of the Jedi Party Favor

Party favor bags from a galaxy far, far away.

3. Return of the Jedi Party Supplies. I can’t remember which birthday was my Return of the Jedi birthday. I turned six when the movie came out, and since the Star Wars franchise as a merchandising juggernaut by then, it’s very possible that I had an Jedi-themed party one month after it premiered in theaters. But it could have been the next year, considering how long Jedi stuck around in my life before it got replaced by Transformers.

Anyway, I have to say that a kid’s birthday party in 1984 was pretty much your friends coming over to your house for Carvel cake one afternoon and not your parents renting out an entire trampoline park for three hours on a Saturday, so a Jedi-themed birthday meant that mom and dad bought a bunch of cups, napkins, and plates that had the movie logo on it and that’s what you ate cake off of and drank punch out of after you ran around in the backyard for two hours. And hey, they might have even been feeling fancy and sprung for the paper tablecloth.

I think my parents did, anyway. Those supplies were easy to find and weren’t very expensive–they were always right by the entrance to Toys R Us and there were usually piles of them for sale at a decent price. Plus, they managed to get a Carvel cake with Darth Vader’s picture on it (back in the days before entertainment companies started cracking down on copyright) and they even wrapped the party favors–which I think were Star Wars coloring books–in Star Wars wrapping paper. I am sure there is a picture somewhere of said birthday party in an old family photo album and my mom has pictures of the cake or at least the cups and napkins in crowd shots, but just looking at an eBay listing has me feeling cool for being a Star wars party kid when I was young.

4. Masters of the Universe Plastic Cups. Another giveaway that really had us captivated was this Burger King promo from 1983.

These were plastic cups with original Masters of the Universe comic strips printed on the side. I don’t know if these comics were four separate stories or if they were four parts of one big story, but what I do know is that BK released one each week for four weeks in the fall of 1983 and my sister and I spent four weeks begging my parents to take us for burgers.

This wasn’t exactly a small feat in 1983. My parents had nothing against fast food, but going out to eat, even at Burger King, was definitely a “sometimes” type of thing, so to do it for four straight weeks to get a souvenir cup? That was pushing it. I mean, I was six years old and couldn’t care less about that because I stopped everything–even my umpteenth watching of Star Wars–when He-Man came on. I wanted those cups and would eat as many Whalers or Whoppers as I needed to.

Or just hamburgers. I was big on just the BK hamburgers. And the Italian chicken sandwich. Come to think of it, those cups may have been what started what became a pretty regular trip to the Burger King in Blue Point, especially after our weekly piano lessons. And I honestly don’t remember if I got all four cups–I think that I might have only wound up with two of them and they lasted a year or two before the comics peeled off and faded because of repeated trips through the dishwasher.

Voltron Lunch Box

The 1984 Voltron lunchbox.  Kind of makes me wish that I had it now.  I’d be the king of the break room.

5. Voltron Lunch Box. I blogged about Voltron years ago, but I still can’t get over how Voltron just sort of was there one day without prior notice. The cartoon dropped right around the beginning of second grade and beyond my insane quest to collect all of “Lionbot”, I rarely, if ever, saw much merchandise until probably the end of that school year and into the beginning of third grade when Panosh Place’s toy line came out and there was a lot more merchandise in the stores, including this.

Manufactured by Aladdin, who made a number of lunchboxes of mine back in the day, this was one of the plastic lunchboxes that were becoming more common as the Eighties wore on, replacing the metal ones that ended, I believe, with a Rambo lunchbox circa 1986-1987. The illustration on the front was straight from the cartoon and the thermos inside was a wraparound image of Voltron and the lion force. I never used the thermos, though, since I bought milk every day or packed a boxed Yoo-Hoo.

I treasured this thing. It was, quite possibly, the coolest lunchbox that I ever owned and I walked around the halls of Lincoln Avenue Elementary feeling so boss because I carried a much-coveted Voltron lunchbox. So you can imagine how terrible I felt when I left it somewhere and never saw it again. I think my parents were pretty annoyed because my absent-mindedness caused yet another thing they had to pay for to go missing, a motif throughout my childhood that also included jackets, a camera, and a mountain bike (which was stolen but I wound up taking the blame anyway).

Thankfully, the lunchbox was recovered. Sort of. I found one in the school’s lost and found but I knew it wasn’t mine because it had a thermos in it. Still, I had seen only one other kid with a Voltron lunchbox and thought that maybe he picked up mine by accident one day and what I was holding was his. Not having yet developed my social anxiety, I approached him at lunch one day and politely suggested that we had accidentally switched lunchboxes. He responded by yelling something at me–I can’t remember what it was but even at the age of eight, I knew that this kid lacked in basic social skills. My parents told me to keep the lunchbox, which I guess is technically dishonest, but it had been unclaimed, so Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk, and Princess Allura continued to protect my sandwiches.

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When the four puzzles were locked together to form the mural, they would look like this (although these are just the boxes put together).  Image: 3Djoes.com

6. The G.I. Joe Mural Puzzle Closing this out where we began, there is the most action-packed exercise in patience you will ever see or experience. According to YoJoe.com, this came out in 1985, but it was still available in stores as late as 1987 when i was at the height of my Joe fandom. And I wouldn’t have wanted it if my mom hadn’t dragged me to go clothes shopping with my sister at Swezey’s, a local department store that I still associate with off-brand clothing and mind-destroying ennui.

Anyway, Swezey’s had a random rack of accessories and pseudo-toys near the girls’ clothes (purses, pencil cases, some stuffed animals, games) and among all of it, I spotted a puzzle featuring G.I. Joe. It was a 221-piece puzzle that, as I saw on the box, could be linked to three other scenes to form a giant mural.

Now, badgering my parents to schlep to Burger King when I was six was one thing, so asking my mom to make special trips to buy puzzles was probably something else. Surprisingly, getting all four of these came easy because puzzles were always an approved form of entertainment–they were challenging, they kept you occupied for a long time, and they were done without the television being on. I can’t remember how long it took me to get all four puzzles, and I’m pretty sure that I paid for one of them with my birthday money one year, but I eventually did get them and assemble them and when the day came that I was ready to make the mural, I got ready to connect them, and … nothing.

To this day, I have no idea what I did wrong that prevented the giant awesome battle mural from coming together, as i stared at the directions on the box for several minutes, made multiple attempts to connect the puzzles, and ultimately said, “Forget it.” I am sure the puzzles were eventually donated to charity, so if I wanted to try one more time as an adult, I’d have to track them down at a thrift shop or on eBay.

Toys, comics, movies, and television shows will always be in the front of my mind whenever someone mentions Star Wars, Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Voltron, or anything else I was into as a kid. But what’s special about these things is that although they eventually faded away or were set aside for something new, when they were there, they shared a part of my life and became attached not just to entertainment nostalgia but memories of significant events as well as the everyday.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 100: Deeds Not Words

Episode 100 Website CoverAfter nine years of blogging and 99 podcast episodes, it’s time to take another look at the movie that started it all:  MEGAFORCE!  In this episode, I take a look at the 1982 Hal Needham film, which stars Barry Bostwick as Ace Hunter, the commander of a super-elite international military unit.  I give a summary of the movie, talk about my Megaforce origin story and re-evaluate my opinion of it.

You can listen here:

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Some extras for you …

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When Clothes Shopping Became Cool

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The Kids R Us in the Nassau Mall in Levittown, NY.  Image from siteride on Flickr.

Based on the commercials from the decade, I wonder if today’s youth is under the impression that the 1980s were just one protracted neon-lit dance number.  There are several commercials from the era that were obviously a product of an advertising executive’s viewing a six hour block of Staying Alive, Xanadu, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun while hoovering cocaine because it’s the only way that anyone would think that kids singing and dancing their way through thirty seconds of television like they were auditioning for Starlight Express was cool.  And ridiculous as that protracted sentence sounds, so many of us fell for it, even to the point where we would willingly go shopping for clothes.

 

Now, hitting the mall for clothes at some trendy store may have been a rite of passage for teenagers in the 1980s, but when you’re a kid, clothes shopping can be agony.  I am not going to go through all of the details of what I was put through as a child except to say that I still only trust one person enough to accompany me when it comes to buying clothes, and that is my wife.  Otherwise, I go clothes shopping completely by myself or not at all.  But for a brief period in the 1980s, this wasn’t the case and that’s because Kids R Us opened up across from the Toys R Us in Bay Shore.

Existing from 1983 until it eventually went defunct in 2004, Kids R Us was the Toys R Us corporation’s foray into children’s clothing retail.  This, according to a New York Times article I found from 1983, was already a very competitive market and Toys R Us was taking a big risk, especially since they were going up against huge department stores like Macy’s.  From what I could tell, it worked at first because they were able to undercut their competition by offering some popular brand names at lower prices, and they made the stores themselves attractive to kids.  The NYT describes one of the original Kids R Us stores in Paramus, New Jersey, as “a place that seemed to blend the essential elements of an upscale children’s clothing outlet and a suburban theme park.”

And that much was true–the color scheme of the store was bright with kid-friendly “cool” colors, there were at least a couple of distraction stations where you could play games or look in funhouse mirrors so that you forgot for a moment that you were there to try on clothes and had gotten sucked into those awesome dance numbers on the commercials:

When you watch this, you can see that it’s vibrant.  Moreover, if you listen to it, it sounds like so many of the other commercials of the 1980s–in fact, I’m pretty sure that the “Kids R Us” song from this commercial is the same tune as the “Coke Is It!” ads from around the same time.  This one even has a similar start to the one that I looked at a number of years ago in that it begins with set design.  But then … then … THEN … it gets SO FREAKIN’ COOL.

These images are everything that was awesome about the 1980s:  killer sax solos, wearing leotards 24-7 and Sha-Na-Na cosplay.  People, these clothes weren’t your siblings’ or older neighbor’s hand-me-downs.  Oh no.  These were the clothes that you knew were going to make you be seen on the first day of school–that is, until you actually wore them to school and realized that you looked like a total moron.

Popped Collar Kid

Unless, of course, you are this kid.  I mean, he pops his collar and doesn’t even need to ski the K-12.  He just is.  And I really don’t need to say much more than that.  This, guys, is the impossible benchmark of cool that you will never achieve.  Not back in 1985; not in 2018.

Weep for your lack.

Group Shot

Anyway, the commercial goes on to show more kids dancing and showing off the clothes–there’s even a couple of dressed-up nerdy-looking kids in there because there was always one parent who was always on the lookout for a new place to buy slacks–and we get to the big finale.  Said big finale?  A freeze-frame jumping group shot, the type that leads us kids to believe that shopping at Kids R Us will be this fun, this exciting, and that we will want our parents to bring us there right away.  The reality, of course, was that we would walk into the store while catching a glance of Toys R Us and would spend the next hour wondering why we weren’t getting any toys.  It was all a cruel joke perpetrated by the lies of Corporate America and our parents, who for at least a few years found clothes shopping to be a little easier.

“That’s Not a Star Wars Movie”

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The Return of the Jedi bedsheets I had as a kid.  Image courtesy of “Mighty Jabba’s Collection.”

It’s late August or early September 1995.  I’ve just started classes at Loyola and I’m sitting in my freshman seminar course for the college’s Honors Program.  Our professor is doing a classic icebreaker where we talk about ourselves.  I listen to all of the smart and worthwhile ways my classmates spend their time and immediately feel like the dumbest person in the room–after all, renting movies and playing roller hockey are not the most academic pursuits–and then hear another guy in the room profess his love for Star Wars.  After class, I catch him the quad and tell him that I’m into Star Wars as well and just watched Return of the Jedi the other night.

He pauses for a moment and said with a sniff, “That’s not a Star Wars movie.”

I don’t exactly remember how I reacted at the time–I might have laughed it off or half-agreed with him–but that moment stands out to me because it was the first time I encountered a snobby nerd.

It seems odd that it took me until my freshman year of college to have such a moment, especially since reading comics and watching science fiction movies was not the domain of the popular crowd in junior high and high school, and I had dealt with a number of rock snobs by then, but this was the first time I had run into one of my own looking down upon the way I approached a shared interest.  It was also one of the first times that I realized that there were people who had a problem with Return of the Jedi.

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The Return of the Jedi trash can that sat by my bed for a few years.  Image from DJbrian.net

I have always had a fondness for Return of the Jedi.  That movie, which came out 35 years ago today, was the only film in the original trilogy that I saw upon its initial release (twice if you count the 1985 re-release).  Sure, I watched my copy of Star Wars on VHS endlessly and I had a number of toys from the first two films, but Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back were movies that came out when I was unaware of movies. Jedi was the one that I was old enough to go see in a theater and the one I talked about with my friends on the playground at school and whose scenes we re-enacted during recess (especially the speeder bikes and the lightsaber fights).

Moreover, it was the film whose logo was emblazoned on just about everything I owned. This isn’t hard to picture, of course, considering that the merchandising for the movie was a juggernaut that I think was so unavoidable that parents were issued at least one piece of Jedi merchandise for Christmas in 1983.  And while this isn’t a comprehensive or accurate list, I am sure that I owned, used, or consumed, in addition to toys: bedsheets, a garbage can, a calendar, posters, a lunchbox, an iron-on sweatshirt, records, books, Dixie cups, wrapping paper, cookies, and party favors (for my birthday in 1984).  I wore out the “read along” book/cassette and played my picture disk record with sounds from the movie endlessly on my parents’ stereo.  I was six years old and in heaven.  It was, to say the least, my Star Wars movie.

Return of the Jedi Fan Club Poster

A special Return of the Jedi poster that was available only to Lucasfilm Fan Club members.

A critical look at the film will tell you that out of the original trilogy, it is the weakest–I personally consider Empire to be the best, which isn’t controversial–and it suffers from the pressure of what it had to do after its predecessors, which is wrap up loose ends and complete the saga in a way that was bigger than anything that had come before.  It doesn’t do its job as well as it could have–for instance, there are two particular adventures in the movie that feel like two separate movies shoved into one and I wonder if it were made today, Jedi would have either been a three-hour movie or two movies altogether.  Plus, Han doesn’t have much to do aside from being comic relief, and the Tattooine stuff does drag up until the battle on the sail barge (and that’s before the godawful “Jedi Rocks” segment from 1997’s Special Edition).

But “That’s not a Star Wars movie?”  It certainly felt like Star Wars when I was six; it feels like Star Wars now.

If this were an isolated incident, I would probably be able to let it go.  But even before I graduated college, I remember being fansplained to about the way the Ewoks were the worst thing ever to happen to Star Wars (I never had much of a problem with the Ewoks), and since then I have seen more than a few “Here’s How Return of the Jedi Ruined Star Wars Forever” takes on the Internet.  I even had a moment in my LCS around the time of The Force Awakens when a guy scoffed at my then-eight-year-old son’s saying he loved the Ewoks and I had to say, “Well, he’s eight, you know.”

And while I understand that there were earlier versions of the plot that kept the tone of Empire and that the movie is criticized for the sheer amount of tie-in products that were available, I still can’t look down my nose at Return of the Jedi as less-than.  It’s disappointing that its legacy seems to range from snark to sneering that it’s “not a Star Wars movie” because when I sit down to watch it, I’m always taken back to being six and listening to my records, reading the storybook, and looking at the poster that I got from the Lucasfilm Fan Club.

For the next four years of college, I don’t think I had another conversation with that guy from my honors class.  Apparently, since I couldn’t Star Wars right, that gave him license to be a total prick to me whenever we were in the same class.  I’m sure he’s out there somewhere, perhaps lamenting the presence of a little kid holding a porg or something.  I’d rather not think about his pretentious ass and instead will laugh at an Ewok stealing a speeder bike.