It’s the most self-indulgent, ultra-sized episode of Pop Culture Affidavit EVER!!!
Join me as I take a look back at the history of the blog and podcast; giving you its origin story; and respond to both emails and past blog comments on topics such movies, comics, music, and random stuff. Then I share never-before-heard outtakes and conversations with Michael Bailey, Stella, Donovan Morgan Grant, and Andrew Leyland before Amanda joins me for a brand-new segment about music from 1997 and 1998.
Plus, I introduce and preview my newest miniseries, which premieres in November!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently I discovered that I can no longer eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s without serious digestive repercussions. I have never been lactose intolerant or had any other dietary restriction or need, but on a Friday night a few weeks ago after downing an entire pint of Americone Dream, I found myself planted on the toilet, praying for the sweet release of death.
As someone who has been trying to lose weight for some time, this discovery should be a welcome one–a craving for a pint of ice cream can now be quickly subdued by the reminder that I will spent a significant amount of time testing the limits of my house’s plumbing–but it kind of annoys and saddens me because I’ve been eating Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for more than 30 years. Whatever middle age is starting to do to my body in these days of sleep apnea, anxiety, and gout, has now claimed one of my favorite desserts.
Ice cream in general has had a constant presence in my life since I was little. My parents usually had a half-gallon of some sort of ice cream–Breyer’s, Edy’s, or the abomination known as Sealtest Ice Milk–in the freezer; birthday cakes were always from Carvel; and I spent many nights of my formative years eating sundaes at our local Friendly’s. But truly the only thing resembling a scoop shop in the greater Sayville area was the Baskin-Robbins on Sunrise Highway and Oakdale-Bohemia Road, a store too far away to reach by bike. The names Ben & Jerry were completely unknown to me until a family vacation in 1987.
The sign for Pizza Chef and Arctic Dreams in New London, New Hampshire c. 2011. By then, the store had stopped serving Ben & Jerry’s and was serving Annabelle’s Ice Cream. Image courtesy of Yelp.
Arctic Dreams was an independently owned ice cream shop in New London, New Hampshire, which is one of those small towns in new England that you pass by or drive through on your way to somewhere else. My parents rent a cabin on Kezar lake, which is just south of New London in North Sutton, a town that literally has one intersection, and at least a few times ever year we would head up to New London for a meal at Pizza Chef followed by ice cream at Arctic Dreams. It happened so often that it became a tradition, even though Pizza Chef was one of the few restaurants in New London where you could take a family of picky kids who could be real pains in the ass when it came to what was on the menu. Then again, very few kids aren’t pains in the ass about at least something.
The Arctic Dreams menu/”flavor board”. Image courtesy of Yelp.
Anyway, I can’t remember if the food at Pizza Chef was any good–the fact that a Google street view shot had it still open as of 2014 with the same 1980s-looking logo on the sign suggests they’ve been doing something right–but walking into Arctic Dreams that first time was a revelation. The place was cold (you could expect that from an ice cream shop) and instead of the constant hum and pull of soft serve machines I’d been used to from Carvel, there was a billboard-sized list of ice cream flavors and the smell of freshly made waffle cones. My ten-year-old mind was completely blown the moment I first stepped into the place and I just stood there for at least a full minute reading every flavor on that board until I eventually settled on what would become my all-time favorite scoop shop variety: vanilla chocolate chunk. No, not mint chocolate chunk, but vanilla ice cream with huge chunks of chocolate.
Even though I wanted a waffle cone stuffed full of ice cream, I was probably crabbed at to “just get a cup”–I was a notoriously sloppy eater and we could finish cups faster in order to beat the imaginary traffic back to the lake–the trips to Arctic Dreams were some of the best things about those vacations. Sure, there were trips to tourist destinations, days spent rowing and swimming in the late, and tours of the campus of Dartmouth College that were truly memorable, but even when I was at my most surly level of teenager, the ice cream was worth it.
The Ben & Jerry’s pint in the mid-1980s. Image courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s.
But I didn’t get to be planted on my toilet at midnight doing an impromptu ab workout while slowly realizing I did this to myself by visiting an ice cream place in New Hampshire in the mid-1980s. It was the pint, that package of goodness now ubiquitous to the supermarket that 30 years ago was a novelty. Ben & Jerry’s introduced their pints in 1980 and the packaging was so lo-fi, I would have believed it if you told me that they printed the labels by hand in the back of Arctic Dreams. A cartoon drawing of a guy making ice cream was on the front and you could tell what flavor you were buying by reaidng the lid, which also had a picture of Ben and Jerry. There was something special about the Ben & Jerry’s pint, just like their competitor, Haagen-Dazs, made their pints seem like indulgence beyond the basic bitch half gallons of Breyer’s chocolate and vanilla you were fishing out of an icebox at Waldbaum’s.
When I hit my twenties, that novelty wore off, and the pint was more or less a standard-issue single serving. Oh sure, the nutritional label on the pint says that a serving is half a cup and that meant that four people coud share that pint of Half-Baked who probably sat at home eating gallons of the stuff while playing three video games simultaneously and barking commands at his parents. So I made up for this childhood injustice by buying whatever the hell I wanted whenever the hell I wanted no matter how slow my metabolism got.
And you’d think that because Ben & Jerry’s was bought by Unilever in 2000 and therefore became even more widely available, getting the right pint would be one of the easiest things in the world. I mean, it was if you weren’t picky, and there were times when I would choose the Helvetica that is Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough (Ben & Jerry’s very first flavor, by the way, is vanilla, the Times New Roman of ice cream; the jury is still out on which flavor is comic sans). But then there were those times when I didn’t want just any ice cream and if I were to indulge a sweet tooth and take the calorie hit, I was going to do it at mach two with my hair on fire by wolfing down a pint of Brownie Batter.
The problem often was that not every place carried the same flavors and some of the more limited batches could only be found in a few select stores. At the height of my Ben & Jerry’s love, I had committed to memory exactly where I needed to go for what. For instance, the Harris Teeter in Pentagon City had vanilla caramel fudge but if I wanted a pint of Festivus (The Flavor for the Rest of Us), I had to drive to the Shoppers Food Warehouse at Potomac Yard. And I wanted some sort of limited edition batch that I actually read about in the news, I had to Indiana Jones it by constructing The Staff of Ra so I could figure out which Giant within a five-mile radius carried Marsha Marsha Marshmallow or something.
Of course, such quests had fleeting rewards and over the years, I got more interested in expanding my waistline via cookies and cake, which I’ll now have to stick to lest I turn my digestive tract into the very bowels of hell. Then again, you never know … I may want to dance with The Devil again.
It’s the first of two “milestone year” episodes where Amanda and I sit down and take a pretty thorough look at what was going on in a particular year of the 1990s. First up, 1995. Join us as we talk about where we were in our lives in ’95 and then run through the television shows, movies, and music of that year.
When you trade in nostalgia, the idea of a milestone anniversary for something you cherished in your formative years is constantly on your mind. Since starting this blog, I have watched the 20th, 25th, 30th, and even 40th anniversaries of pieces of popular culture that were personal milestones come and go. Some, I have celebrated; others, I have acknowledged but decided not to cover because the idea of constantly chasing such anniversaries sounds exhausting.
That being said, today marks 30 years since New Year’s Eve 1988. Nothing significant happened exactly on this day, but when I was thinking about what to write for my annual New Year’s Eve post, the thought of the 1988-1989 school year kept popping into my head and the more and more I thought about it, I discovered that in hindsight, this was a year that was more important than I once thought, both personally and culturally.
Why? Well, for a number of reasons (and not just mathematically), 1988 was the beginning of the end of what we commonly celebrate as the 1980s and as we moved into 1989, we would see our culture shift into that odd post-1980s hangover that was the pre-Nevermind early 1990s. It was, as the title of this post suggests, a time when we were on the brink. The Cold War was ending, we were heading toward a new decade, I was hitting puberty, and there were other societal shifts that we as a culture were both seeing and wouldn’t realize were there until they were over (or in my case, 30 years later).
So, to take us out of 2018, here is my list of … Eight Significant Things about 1988-1989. (more…)
Throughout history, we have been drawn to the great love stories, both triumphant and tragic. We cheered when Odysseus was finally reunited with Penelope and we cried when Romeo and Juliet met their fateful (though, I would argue, avoidable) ends. Yet none of those compare to the epic saga of the two lovers in a Wind Song commercial from the early 1990s.
Wind Song is an inexpensive perfume produced by Prince Matchabelli, which has been around since 1926 when its founder, Norina Machabelli fled the Soviet Union for the United States. It began making Wind Song in 1953 and the perfume has been available at drugstore counters ever since. I personally have never smelled it, so I will post the description provided by FragarenceX, where a bottle is currently on sale for $15.70:
A unique woody perfume, Wind Song was released in 1953 and has been enchanting consumers with its bright combination of flowers and spice ever since. The top notes include coriander, tarragon, orange leaf, and neroli, with gentle hints of mandarin, bergamot, and lemon. The heart opens with a flush of carnation and cloves, gently spreading to reveal touches of rose, ylang ylang, orris root, jasmine, and rosewood. The base slips in softly with the poignant scents of sandalwood and cedar, along with the faintest hints of vetiver, musk, benzoin, and amber. This refreshing fragrance is lovely for a day out in the spring or summer.
If I personally have smelled it, I don’t think I would know, which is not a knock against the perfume and more a testament to my inability to distinguish any one perfume from another (except maybe Axe Body Spray, but that’s because I teach high school). But I certainly remember the commercials that ran in the 1980s and 1990s and the famous jingle, “I can’t seem to forget you. Your Wind Song stays on my mind.”
There were a number of variants of this commercial over the years, but they more or less had the same premise. A woman wearing Wind Song perfume sprays a little bit on a letter or note and sends it a guy. He opens it, smells it, and … well, “I can’t seem to forget you. Your Wind Song stays on my mind.”
I’d imagine that if you aren’t familiar with the commercials, this description could provide you with a mental picture that is either very romantic or very awful. Wind Song could remind the guy of his lover, it could cause a terrible allergic reaction, it could trigger a PTSD flashback, or it could result in something much worse. For instance, in one of the commercials that ran during the 1980s, the woman spots her lover in a restaurant with a bunch of business colleagues and has a waiter send the note. It’s meant to be a reminder of romance, but it could also be the framing device for a flashback in a Skinemax movie, or the note could also read “I will not be ignored, DAN!”
Anyway, the commercial that I’m most familiar with, and which I mentioned briefly in my VHiStory episode, was from the 1990s and did not involve restaurants or possible Fatal Attraction scenarios.
It is a simple plot, but one for the ages. We have Rick, whose biceps strategically sweat while he shapes metal into various shapes. He is just going about his day in whatever dusty shop this is, one that is run by Old Man Weatherby (a guy who has been trying to get at those meddling kids for years). But then, the shaping of various metals must stop because the mail comes.
And yes, the Maguffin has arrived. It’s so important, in fact, that we get an artfully done special effect that even George Lucas is envious of with the letter flying toward him. What could be in this letter? Is it his electric bill? A notice that his metal shaping tools are being repossessed? Could he have finally gotten into Harvard?
No, it’s from Kate. She misses him and she sealed the letter with a kiss. I guess the perfume is strong enough to cut through all of the manly sweat and metal shaping smells, because Rick is definitely interested. He takes a big whiff of that letter and we cut to Kate aimlessly riding her bike on a bridge.
And she’s thinking: “Did I forget to turn off the coffee maker? I think I did. Wait, that’s not a big deal because it has an automatic shut-off. The house isn’t going to burn down. But did I lock the house? I’m pretty sure I locked the house. I remember getting my bike out of the garage, shutting the garage door, putting my keys in the … yes, I locked the house.”
Rick is so ready that he gets into his classic car and peels out of work. He probably didn’t even put his tools away and left everything a mess. Old Man Weatherby is going to be pissed. But who cares? Kate misses him, too, and that means someone’s gonna get lucky. He then reaches the bridge where he just happens to know where Kate is riding her bike, and is all: “Hey, baby.”
Kate: “Oh, it’s you.”
Seirously, that’s the expression. Like she’s the lady in Rupert Hine’s “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).”
Well, at first, anyway, because he eventually pulls over, they have this moment where he picks her up and swings her around and they kiss and then we end with the two of them standing on the bridge and kissing. Totally blocking traffic, by the way. What if someone else was commuting home and got stuck because of these two? That’s really rude.
The commercial ends with a shot of the box and a voice-over and I have to say that I have a number of unanswered questions. What kind of force is guiding that letter? Is it supernatural? I mean, Old Man Weatherby can’t have that good of a wrist, right? And what is Kate really like? Is she the good girl and Rick is the guy they can’t stand? And where exactly are these two living where he can work in shaping metal all day and afford a classic car while she can spend her days riding her bike aimlessly across bridges?
There’s some untapped fanfiction potential in this entire 30-second ad, if you ask me. I can see entire books being written on the moments that inspired her to send the flying letter. I can see erotica depicting the ten minutes that follow these thirty seconds. Maybe there’s a literary masterpiece detailing their suburban ennui years later. Or maybe a fantasy trilogy where he actually wants to escape but she has him under the spell of her Wind Song.
The possibilities are as endless and unforgettable as their love.
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.
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.
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.
Blank VHS tapes. So many of us had them. So many of us still have them. But what happens when you unearth a pile of vaguely labeled blank tapes in your parents’ basement and you pop them into your VCR? Well, that’s exactly what I did. In this episode, I talk about my personal history with VCRs and VHS tapes as well as what I found in a pretty large pile of tapes that I grabbed on a trip to Long Island back in April. It’s an hour of me rambling about Seinfeld, Baywatch, holiday cartoon specials, and anything else I taped in the 1980s and 1990s.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Grab your aluminum poles and get ready to air your grievances and best each other in the feats of strength because it’s Festivus for the Rest of Us yet again! This year, I’m joined by Professor Alan of the Relatively Geeky Network. We air our grievances about popular culture in 2017 and then test our mettle in the feats of strength as we review Malibu Comics’ The Ferret #5 and #6!
Below are some extras, including the cover to issue #1 (which was mentioned but not covered), issue #5’s cover with and without the polybag, the Skycap, and the DS9 ad I mentioned that kind of looks like it has Phil Jimenez art.
There is a saying that is cliche by now: “You can’t go home again.” Entire songs have been written based on this premise; hell, there’s an entire genre of movie that seems to center around the idea. And to be honest, even though the phrase is a cliche, it has a ring of truth to it–which really is the case with every cliche–and I guess it’s the raison d’etre of nostalgia.
I personally haven’t had a lot of “you can’t go home again” moments in my adult life. For the most part, I’m not as blind to the trappings of nostalgia and can even say that I very often go in to rewatching an old movie or TV series skeptical about whether or not it holds up after 20-30 years. But the one time I did have a moment like that was when I stepped into a Toys R Us.
Anyone over the age of 30 probably clicked on that video and went “Oh yeah, I remember this commercial.” I grabbed this specific one off of YouTube on purpose because this commercial, which first aired in 1982, was run and rerun endlessly throughout the decade and featured three kids who would grow up to become notable actors and actresses: Jaleel White (who played Urkel), Jenny Lewis (lead singer of Rilo Kiley), and Lindsay Price (who would be a regular on the later seasons of Beverly Hills 90210). In fact, that series of commercials was so famous that the now grown-up kids (except for Urkel) shot another one in the mid-’90s:
And having a Toys R Us near you was a big deal back in the 1980s because they weren’t as ubiquitous as, say, Target or Walmart stores are today. Sayville eventually got its own Toys R Us (though it was technically in Holbrook at the Sun Vet Mall) in the 1990s, but when I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents had to haul it about twenty minutes west to Bay Shore to go there, which meant that a trip to the store was a special trip and not just a part of some weekly shopping routine.
I’m pretty sure that store is still standing, but it has undergone the change that so many Toys R Us stores have undergone in recent decades: it is now two stores in one–a Toys R Us and a Babies R Us. This is the case with my local store, in Charlottesville, and when Brett was a baby, Amanda and I made a number of trips to the Babies R Us store. Occasionally, we would venture into the Toys R Us side of things and I have to say that I never got over the feeling of disappointment that I had upon seeing how much smaller Toys R Us was compared to the one in my memories.
Most Toys R Us Stores look like this nowadays.
Oh sure, nothing is as big as you remember it being when you were a kid–hell, parts of Disney World seemed smaller to me when I was an adult compared to my childhood memories–but the reality versus my memory of walking into a Toys R Us was a disappointment because this was a store that my sister and I practically worshiped as kids, to the point where I had most the layout of the store memorized to the point where I can still picture it.
Think I’m kidding? I drew the map below (on graph paper) from memory:
You’ll notice that according to the map I drew, most of what I remember clearly was on the left side of the store, and that’s because things like action figures and playsets were separated according to whether or not they were “for boys” and “for girls.” I don’t remember if the “boys” area was blue and the “girls” area was pink, to be honest–in fact, I’m pretty sure that the colors were neutral–but I do have to say that when I posted a picture of this map a few months ago to Twitter, someone tweeted at me, disappointed that the genders were separated in a toy store. Now, I’m the last person to reinforce traditional gender roles, but I have to say that … well, this was a toy store in the Eighties and not my own creation; and if you think of it, the way the toys were separated by gender probably had more to do with moving the actual merchandise than upholding gender norms. You could put She-Ra next to He-Man and she may have sold just as well; however, put a random “girl with a horse” doll next to G.I. Joe instead of next to She-Ra and Barbie and that toy will get overlooked.
Anyway, exploration into the sexual politics of Toys R Us in 1986 when viewed by Twitter in 2016 over, because even looking at this map a few months after I drew it (and then finally got around to writing this post), I can still vividly picture the aisles themselves, and what pictures I have found of the interiors at old Toys R Us stores on sites like Plaid Stallions shows that my memories aren’t too far off. When you walked into the store, you were greeted by seasonal things and party favors, and I remember this was the case for a number of similar toy stores of the era, such as Play World or Child World. This is where you got your tablecloths, napkins, cups, and whatever cheap crap that your mom was going to put in a favor bag for kids to take home–not all parents caught on to the idea of buying a few Marvel three-packs and calling it a day, which is still one of the better party favor ideas I’ve ever experienced (even if I did wind up with an issue of Secret Wars II). There’s a note here that said I once saw something related to Return of the Jedi in this aisle, which isn’t hard to believe because Return of the Jedi merchandise was everywhere back in the early 1980s, but I specifically remember seeing the ROTJ storybook in hardcover and kicking myself for getting the softcover version through the Scholastic book club. Not because the hardcover was cooler or anything, but because I had the storybooks for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back in hardcover and would have liked to have been consistent there.
Yes, even at the age of seven, I was anal-retentive about format.
Anyway, I don’t think I ever spent much time in the party favors section because the better stuff was just beyond the bathroom. And yes, I knew where the bathroom was because I was that kid who always needed to go to the bathroom, so I always knew where the bathroom was. Hell, I still do.
But after the bathroom was this corridor of board games and video games, with an enormous, seemingly never-ending wall of board games on your left and an alleyway of video games on your right. The board games wall is significant in its vastness as well as the fact that I remember that Toys R Us carried every single edition of Trivial Pursuit that was on the category card that came with the game, even the versions that you were pretty sure actually didn’t exist or were available in some mythical toy store that carried every obscure thing and was located in a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast of Canada.
Same with the video games, which had one of the more odd purchasing procedures, one that was more like a trip to the video store than it was to to the toy store. The actual games weren’t on display; instead, there were cards with the covers from the video game boxes and tickets attached to each of the cards. If the game was in stock, you would take a ticket and bring it to the register, where you would pay for it, and then you would go to another counter where an employee–who was behind glass–would go and get the video game for you.
I’m pretty sure that this was a shoplifting prevention tactic in the days before the scanner would be set off if you tried to leave the store without paying for the video game, and they did have high potential for shoplifting because the cost of the average video game was incredibly high (so high, in fact, that the New York State attorney general filed a lawsuit against game companies and won).
Of course, not every single video game was actually in stock, and Toys R Us certainly had its fair share of peg warmer video games, so if gramma was looking for the copy of Dragon Warrior III that you wanted, she could pick up Home Alone for $19.95 when Dragon Warrior III was sold out (and honestly, Dragon Warrior III was always sold out).
Speaking of pegwarmers, the two or three aisle of action figures were the heart of any journey through Toys R Us for me back in the 1980s. Of course, as the decade went on, the “spotlight” toys changed, but the setup was always the same–there was an endcap full of action figures and an aisle of vehicles and playsets. If I was with my mom or dad and was allowed to get one action figure (vehicles were for Christmas and birthday lists), the decision was usually easy because I had memorized which figures I had and which figures I wanted; however, nothing compares to the soul-crushing paralysis that came when you walked into Toys R Us with your $20-$30 worth of birthday money and were allowed to get whatever toy you wanted. Because that meant a vehicle was a possible purchase or you could get multiple action figures, and if you didn’t come into the store with a plan, you took longer to make a purchasing decision than the average jury takes to reach a verdict in a murder trial. That sounds pithy, but it was a major decision because you had to think of how much you were going to play with the toy and whether or not it would affect your standings in some sort of unofficial toy arms race that you were having with your friends.
Further complicating this decision was the Aisle of Forgotten Toys, which was where Toys R Us stocked all of the second-rate and more obscure toy lines, such as Remco’s Warlord figures and the line of Dungeons and Dragons figures that came out in 1983-1984, or my favorite “Did anyone buy these” toy line, which was the here-and-gone-in-a-flash-now-costing-an-arm-and-a-leg-on-eBay Matchbox Robotech line. I had the same desire to look at all of those toys back then as I do grabbing random war, romance, or horror comics from 50-cent bins today. And I suppose if I had some foresight back in 1986 or so, I would have bought more than one of those figures so that I could keep it mint in its packaging and make a few bucks now … but as with everything in that regard, I had absolutely foresight and those toys were lost to various purges.
I stopped visiting Toys R Us sometime in junior high, around the time when the NES was phasing out and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to be getting an upgrade to my video game system. But those times spent in the aisles of my childhood had lasting effects, from that feeling of paralysis when given money to spend on CDs to watching my son go through the same purchase paralysis with his own birthday money (accompanied by my own attempts to steer him away from purchasing worthless crap he’ll play with once and then let collect dust). Which brings up another cliche … “The more things change …”
An old-school Toys R Us store in Bloomington, Indiana. Image taken from Flickr.