I've finally begun Christmas shopping, mainly for my many nieces and nephews, by way of their custom-created Amazon wishlists. Many times before, I've watched them sit at the computer for hours on end, gleefully choosing video games, DVD box sets and the occasional toy, carefully crafting six-page electronic lists of demands for the world to buy them things from.
I'd imagine that kids do get some level of enjoyment from browsing virtual toy stores and constructing lists that way, but to me, it's kinda blah. I grew up as part of the Sears Wish Book generation. Amazon and its fellow online shopping plazas will always seem a little cold and detached to someone who knows the unbridled glories of curling up on the floor with a 500-page catalog packed with every wonder known to man, woman and child.
For those unaware, the Sears Wish Book was (and remains, though with far less magic today) a gigantic catalog sent out by the chain annually just before Christmastime, offering everything anyone could possibly ever want. But beyond its endless amounts of consumer electronics, sultry lingerie and at least three pages' worth of Christmas-themed popcorn tins was the most unparalleled group of pages in book history: The toy section.
If a toy existed, it was in the Wish Book. At least, that's how it seemed. From action figures to sports equipment to telescopes to chemistry sets, to board games to video games, to this and to that, it had EVERYTHING. The toys were carefully photographed to look at least 50% cooler than they actually were, only adding to the mystical qualities found within these pages.
Every year, I'd take great pleasure in thumbing through each page, jotting down item names and item numbers as I compiled a loose-leaf list of everything I absolutely needed to receive come Christmas morning. Because the catalogs were so thorough, it was kind of like shopping in the world's biggest toy store. Among the celebrated favorites found on those pages were just as many toys that I never would've heard about otherwise. There's a reason every guy my age grew up putting metal detectors on their holiday wish lists, and it had nothing to do with some strange hunch that such things existed. We had the Wish Book to thank. Nobody ever actually bought us metal detectors, but the thought that someone might was enough to make any Christmas worth anticipating. The Wish Book caused a lot of phenomenas like that.
While the Sears Wish Book gets most of the accolades, there were plenty of catalogs that similarly warmed our Christmas spirit. In fact, the scans you'll find below are actually from the 1985 JCPenney catalog, which was nearly a carbon copy of that year's Sears Wish Book, save for the name on the cover and the hand models in the gaudy ring section.
I've wanted to write about these catalogs ever since the site opened, but it always seemed too daunting. Even in a single Wish Book, there's enough to keep me busy gushing for years. I know I'm never going to have the time or inkling to create a page-by-page tribute, so let's try this instead...
From the '85 JCPenney holiday catalog, below are six items I had, and six items I always wanted. This'll give you a good idea of what the Wish Books were all about, and will help me finally pay tribute to a series of books that rate just between the Bible and Choose Your Own Adventure: Gorga the Space Monster in terms of personal worth.
Even though I'm the last of seven children with a pretty huge age gap between me and my next-of-kin, it was unusual to receive Christmas presents from my siblings during my youth. They were still pretty young themselves, and between all of the college tuitions and weddings flying around, there were plenty of reasons to pass on buying the baby of the family another He-Man figure, especially when he already had more toys than he needed.
It was surprising enough to even get a present from my eldest brother late in the night of that long ago Christmas Eve, but it's what he gave me that turned this event into the stuff of legend. It was the complete collection of Dinobots Transformers figures -- all five of them, from the mighty Grimlock to the dainty Swoop, all individually wrapped, and all with gift tags claiming that I had received these gifts not from my brother, but from Optimus Prime and other Autobot warriors. Granted, I had only been on the planet for a few years, but this was still the coolest thing anyone had ever done for me.
Though I knew they were really from my brother, I was still young and naive enough to at least half-believe that he'd worked out some special arrangement with Optimus Prime. After all, I did get all five Dinobots. I think my brother worked at an ice cream parlor at the time. How could he afford them without the help of a certain robot truck who stood to receive a company discount?
The Dinobots were and remain some of the best Transformers figures of all time, and they catered to two very strong kid-skewing pitch points: They were dinosaurs, and they were shiny. While owning Grimlock (the T-Rex) provided the most bragging rights, I always had a particular soft spot for Sludge, a brontosaur-based bot who for some reason isn't pictured above. I managed to break each and every of my Dinobot toys over the course of the next few months, but I'm betting, with a little luck, a tiny piece of Swoop's silver wing is still wedged between the carpet and the wall in the living room of my old house.
I wanted this more than anything in the world. I was obsessed with it. Though I made at least one pleading play to own an Omnibot, its ridiculous price of 500 bucks made it impossible. In fact, Omnibot marked the only time that I can recall offending my parents simply by asking for a toy. In all my many years of begging for useless stuff, there has never been a more resounding "no" than in response to my sad attempt to lasso a 500 dollar Omnibot 2000.
Toys 'R' Us stores used to have a few aisles worth of goods in protective glass cases. That's where they kept the many video game systems and pricey electronics, along with the very select few toys that were expensive enough to warrant keeping grubby kid hands at bay. That's where I first spotted Omnibot, originally mistaking him for an insanely giant-sized version of R.O.B., the lovable but useless robot accessory packed with early Nintendo sets.
In fact, Omnibot could do so much more than play Gyromite. It could roll around, grab things, twirl its head, talk, compute, save the world...it was as close as any kid was going to get to owning Conky from Pee-wee's Playhouse, and there isn't a single person on this planet in or around my age who didn't dream of owning Conky at least 700 times. Omnibot was so customizable from a programming standpoint that he's fiercely contested over by electronics hobbyists to this day. While such people may spend weeks and months trying to get Omnibot to solve impossible algorisms, I just wanted a robot who could grab me a can of soda when I didn't feel like moving. Omnibot could do that. Hell, he came with a serving tray!
I live under the assumption that there isn't a person alive who didn't receive and promptly misuse a Rock Tumbler. It definitely wasn't a gift someone plucked from my personalized wish list, but I was still pretty excited to find a kit that would let me turn rough rocks into polished jewelry under the tree.
In fact, I was excited enough to rip the box open and give the thing a whirl mere hours after receiving it, but the last thing any adult wants to do after two solid days of holiday partying is help a kid figure out the inner workings of Christmas Gift #111212. I plugged in my Rock Tumbler without any supervision, and tried to polish rocks on the merits of pure instinct rather than any knowledge that might've been gleamed from the thirty-page instructional booklet included with the set.
The end result wasn't so great. Having no idea how the mechanics of a Rock Tumbler worked, I simply threw every included ingredient -- the rocks, the big sack of clay-like polishing "grit," and yes, even the jewelry pieces -- into the plastic red tub, hit the switch, and wondered how long everything would take to get pretty. Ten minutes? Twenty? Actually, you're supposed to wait hours, which is something I wouldn't learn until at least fifteen years later. When I unplugged the shaking beast and pulled out my treasures, all I got was a bunch of unpolished rocks and cheap jewelry parts stewing in a gray, smelly soup. Collecting my losses, I simply glued one of the less-greasy unpolished rocks to one of the less-greasy metal keyrings and shifted my attention back to Serpentor and his awesome four-inch sparkly green cape.
I'm still not entirely sure how a Rock Tumbler works.
As a child, it seemed almost instinctual to grab the nearest couch pillows and bedsheets to create a fort. From forts made of soft cloth to forts made out of cardboard boxes, most of us seem to have been born with the desire to hole ourselves up in small, enclosed areas. The Optimus Prime Play Tent, just one of countless varieties of indoor character tents, took the idea of a homemade fortress and turned it into something companies could sell for 20 bucks a pop.
I don't know how I made it through adolescence without ever owning one of these, and can't help but believe that my current predisposition to creating "torso tents" out of throw blankets and back pillows stems from my long-lived unquenched thirst for some kind of ridiculous play tent.
I was more familiar with the smaller versions that were intended to be constructed over a child's bed, but this freestanding Optimus Prime tent had to be the gold standard. Roomy enough for several small children to meet inside and plan their method of attack, time and troubles ceased to exist for anyone lucky enough to seek refuge within its stretchy nylon walls. That I've never owned one will be cited as the mental breaking point when I finally turn to murder and news programs run psychological profiles on me.
It didn't feel right to talk about Christmas presents without mentioning some kind of souped-up turbocharged Crayola set, so here we go. I asked for a set like this nearly every Christmas, not because I was a freaky crayon addict, and not because I one of those kids who ate crayons and thus self-prophesied a yearly need for additional sets. It's just that the holidays didn't feel right without brand new crayons.
I think it was more for "the spread." Even if you don't know what I mean by "the spread," you've done it, too. "The spread" usually took place late in the day on Christmas. It's when you gathered up all the gifts you received, and put them on group display on a couch or a bed. It was a Kodak moment, but you weren't there for pictures. "The spread" let you soak in the greatness of all of your Christmas presents simultaneously, and it was the only proper way to correctly judge the sum worth of the particular year's gift haul.
I liked having crayons in "the spread." Ever notice how the group product photos on the front covers of toy catalogs always toss an old fashioned wooden plane or teddy bear in with all of the new video games, dolls and action figures? The appeal was sort of the same. Like those wooden planes or random teddy bears, the crayons were storied and soulful. They made all the dumb crap we really wanted look more poignant just by standing next to it.
Plus, I had kind of a fetish going for silver crayons, and they were always guaranteed to be included with sets this large.
With three older brothers, I was born a Star Wars fan. In my youth, I spent twice as much time with my Star Wars toys than I did with any family or friends. I remember everything about them, from the peculiar plastic scent that eminated from an action figure when it was first freed from its package, to the little holes on said figures' feet, which let them stand safely upright in the Ewok Village and Millenium Falcon. Kenner's original Star Wars collection is my favorite toy line of all time, and though I've often claimed to have owned every figure in the series, that just isn't true. I never got the "Power of the Force" figures.
Well, maybe during my adult collecting years, I picked up a few. That doesn't count, since I was too old to make them date my four-inch Leia without feeling schmucky.
The Power of the Force (POTF) figures came out in 1985, when the popularity of Star Wars toys was seriously sliding. Kenner tried to drum up interest by re-releasing many of the figures with silver collector's coins, which were about the size of a half-dollar piece, each featuring a different character from the trilogy. To make the effort a little more noteworthy, the POTF series also included a number of brand new figures, including everyone from random Ewoks to Luke Skywalker in the Stormtrooper outfit.
Because most of the local toy stores were already moving away from Star Wars, I could never find the POTF figures. Well, I could, but I could only find the figures I already had from the previous issues. Getting a shiny free coin was nice, but what I really wanted was a Stormtrooper Luke, or a Han in Carbonite, or an Amanaman...whoever who the fuck he was.
In today's market, the POTF figures remain among the most desired (and most expensive) of all vintage Star Wars toys, and though I spent several solid years collecting every possible toy from my childhood before selling them off for summer money, I never got these. Perhaps it's for the best, as packaged POTF figures can cost hundreds of dollars. I feel like I should end this paragraph with a joke, but there's nothing funny about Star Wars figures that cost as much as minor surgeries.
I've never had a particularly strong relationship with my godmother, but boy, this woman really knew how to pick out a Christmas present. We didn't see her very often, but every year, at some point in the two weeks following Christmas, she and her husband would come over for coffee, and if the gods were on their side, maybe a Stella D'oro breadstick. You know, those S-shaped ones. Christmas was over, but our tree was still up, and the neighborhood folks were still plugging their blinking lights in at night.
She'd always bring me a Christmas present. It was the last gift I received on any particular year, and it was always one of the best. In 1985, it might've been *the* best. Barely able to carry the large, neatly wrapped box up the stairs, she handed it to me and made the typical joke about how it was nothing but socks and undershirts. I knew better. Her gifts were always good.
And this one was really good. It was VOLTRON. And not just any Voltron, mind you...but the BEST Voltron. The metal one. The one with the lions. ALL of them. If you had to pick a dozen toys to define the generation in which I grew up, this would easily be among them. Split apart, I had five amazing lions with posable claws, spring-loaded missiles and awesome snapping jaws. Combined, I had Voltron, a godlike gestalt who seemed to be as tall as I was, with a shiny plastic sword longer than even the most exaggeratedly large novelty pencil.
After I got him out of the box and had it all together, there was only one thing on my mind: Calling my friend across the street to brag. Unfortunately, his family was out for the evening, and I sat by the window for hours waiting for their car to pull in the driveway. It finally did, around midnight. Technically too late to call, but I did anyway. His mother was a little confused as to what enormous emergency could possibly warrant a midnight call, but luckily, she didn't press the issue. When my friend picked up the phone, groggily, I issued my statement and waited to hear a gasp: "I just got VOLTRON!!!!"
He kind of gave me a "so what?" answer, but I could smell the jealousy. That four hour wait by the window was totally worth it, and Voltron was one of the best toys I've ever smeared fingerprints on.
You may consider it a bit much to include two different brands of crayons on such a short list, but Clowny was no regular crayon. As I'm sure I mentioned in this old tribute, Clowny was the ultimate crayon. It came in several shapes and sizes, but my favorite was the fabled "lipstick tube" version. It looked and operated like lipstick, but instead of a mass of lip-prettying whale fat, we instead found a giant crayon in a million colors peering out the top.
I've decided to include the Clowny "Million Color Drawing Set" with this list for two reasons. One, it's an important reminder to seize opportunities while they still exist. This particular Clowny set included almost every version of Clowny's crayons, from the aforementioned lipstick tube, to crayons in the shape of small bricks, to little crayons that fit right over the tips of a kid's fingers. I really wanted it, but I didn't put it on my Christmas list because it just didn't seem big enough. I told myself I'd pick it up later. After all, my birthday was coming up that February, so it wasn't like I'd have to wait forever.
As it turns out, I would have to wait forever, because the entire Clowny collection seemed to vanish from the planet immediately following that Christmas. This is why I'm a sucker for anything anyone ever sells with a "limited edition" sticker on it. I can't put myself through another Clowny episode.
The second reason I wanted to include it: Aside from being a reminder than we should take what we want before what we want goes away, the Clowny Million Color Drawing Set reminds me to never give up hope. Over twenty years after my million color misstep, I found the set on a white elephant table at a church fair. Fifty cents later, and the pains of the past no longer hurt. Check out this article's corresponding blog entry for a closer look at the Clowny Million Color Drawing Set, and you'll understand how a person could cry over a crayon.
You know, I've written about the "Fright Zone" before, but it's a really old and messy tribute, and a toy this cool deserves words you can understand. In terms of playsets introduced into the Masters of the Universe line, nothing was going to top the twin-punch of Castle Grayskull and Snake Mountain...but this came pretty close.
After spicing up the action figure line with the evil Hordak and his malevolent band of creepy foot soldiers, Mattel decided that these new villains needed a place to chill. The Fright Zone was a little small for any kind of substantial action figure gatherings, but it made up for the "coziness" with some of the best action features ever packed into a multi-lingual box with a He-Man logo on it.
What the Fright Zone really had going for it was that is was goddamned lethal. Everything about it was intended to cause harm to any action figure stupid enough to set up shop there. Make a wrong move, and you'd be locked in a dingy prison, unable to bust through the criminally unforgiving wooden cage door. But hey, let's say you did. You get out of the prison, start to make a run for it, and WHAM! A gigantic, fanged serpent (a rubber hand puppet) lunges out from parts unknown and drags you back there. The upside is that the parts will no longer be unknown; the downside is that the snake will have eaten your groin by the time you figure out where they are.
Plus, the Fright Zone belonged to Hordak, and one of the coolest things about Hordak's team was their complete and total disregard for the boundaries of good and evil. It didn't matter if He-Man or Skeletor showed up -- Hordak would shoot convenient power blasts from his hands at either of them. Thus, no matter which action figures your personal MOTU collection consisted of, you stood a pretty good chance of having plenty of canon-correct fodder for that hand puppet monster serpent.
As mentioned in this article's intro, I have overstuffed Christmas catalogs to thank for a childhood spent pining for a metal detector. If you've somehow never heard of these, it performs exactly as the name suggests. The most typical scenario involved taking the metal detector to the beach, and combing over the sands for loose change left by careless sunbathers. It seemed like a foolproof get-rich-quick scheme, and I never understood why my parents wouldn't buy me one. Sure, they were expensive, but it was obvious that I'd make back whatever they spent within minutes of arriving at the nearest beach.
Years later, my family was vacationing in a beach house at the Jersey shore. One morning, I got up early and spotted a middle-aged man calming scouring the sands, using a metal detector that looked identical to the one pictured above. For twenty minutes or so, I watched this guy shake the detector over the sands, apparently not finding anything, but looking kind of like an alien spaceman while not finding anything. I wanted to look like an alien spaceman. Why couldn't I look like an alien spaceman?
My brothers and sisters are all much older than me, and were well beyond their toy-wanting years by the time I could speak for myself. As such, I never quite learned how to handle seeing toys that my parents bought for someone else. It drove me batty. My mother had to purchase gifts for a variable number of nieces and nephews on the off chance that we'd run into them in the 2-3 months following Christmas, and she kept them in this giant mirrored closet with very easy-to-open doors, apparently to test me.
I felt it was my duty to plead for such gifts to become my own. I'd argue like a pro, correctly citing the fact that it was very unlikely that my cousins' parents would be buying me a present, and so, she shouldn't buy them presents. If that didn't work, I'd just throw a tantrum, betting the weight of the world's problems on whether or not I could have some stupid foam-covered baseball bat that I didn't really want anyway.
My ploys only bore fruit on a single occasion: The year I got a Pound Puppy. Sure, a bit more for girls, but the color hues on the stuffed dogs ranged from the sparkly to the gritty, and I took the latter adjective to mean that they were negotiably unisex. To be honest, I just loved the fact that they came packaged in cardboard doghouses. I think I was fighting my mother more for the cardboard doghouse than the dog inside.
Plush dogs had been around since the beginning of time, but Tonka found unparalleled success by patterning Pound Puppies after Cabbage Patch Kids. Each dog was "up for adoption," and each came with some kind of screwy adoption certificate with which we could officially name our puppy (I named mine Cocoa), thereby cementing the deal with officially binding paperwork.
I've been running this site for a long time, and I written about a lot of old toys. I've never written about this one, but I've gotten at least 50 e-mails about it over the past several years. The G.I. Joe "U.S.S. Flagg" is indeed a painful memory for me, not because I had it...but because I didn't.
How could one measly G.I. Joe toy have demanded a retail price of 130 bucks? Well, let's see! The aircraft carrier playset was seven and a half feet long. It was a fucking table! In a small section in the middle of the carrier was a sort of "command building," which in of itself was larger than most G.I. Joe toys. There were battery-operated electronic sounds, and even a free action figure! It was as if Hasbro gave pads and pens to a classroom full of third grade boys and told them to draw the perfect toy. The only thing missing was a little dispenser that shot out free Cheetos.
I've never even seen one out of the box in person, so I can't speak for the actuality of the Flagg's awesomeness. What I can tell you is that the toy was a great bringer of hope. A kid could be having his worst day or his best day, but so long as the prospect of owning a U.S.S. Flagg playset still loomed on the horizon, tomorrow always stood to be a better day.
To misquote the creepy train guy from Ghost: I'd do anything for a Flagg. Just one Fla-hahag.
IN CLOSING! Television commercials and strolls through stores were only good for so much exposure to the world's coolest toys. Growing up, there was only one way to become truly hip to what was hip: An afternoon, an eagle eye, and a Wish Book.