Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Star Wars Memories 08: Counting Coup With Snaggletooth



Going from being an only child, to a child of divorce, and then the oldest child of three in a blended family, has a few perks. Lest anyone think this is a venting of grievances for decisions my parents made thirty years ago, let me assure you, this is not so. Both of my parents ended up in much happier marriages, and both of my “steps” chose to include, rather than exclude me. I was treated the same in both houses, and while those houses were very different, it was actually stabilizing for me. I lucked out. I’ve got friends who dealt with divorce. I’ve seen the collateral damage. My situation could have been infinitely worse than it was.

In the seventies, being a Star Wars fan was tribal. We were all in this together, and everyone was equal in our love of this one, single movie. The way in which you loved it could take many forms: you could be into the Star Wars comic from Marvel, a monthly title that started with a six-issue adaptation of the original screenplay and then quickly went whackadoo gonzo in the Mighty Marvel Manner. There was the Topp’s bubble gum cards; five different sets of images, consecutively numbered, with different-colored borders. You could dive into the Star Wars magazines and posters that came out on a monthly basis. There were, of course, the toys. Or you could do a little bit of all of it. That was me. Star Wars dilettante.

Even within all of the stuff you could consume—and make no mistake, the merchandising was there, almost right away—there were Holy Grail items that one counted coup with. Certain things we heard about, and saw only once. Near legendary items, talismans of great joy. These were the things your friends owned, and if there was ever a movie franchise to perfectly encapsulate the joys of consumerism, it was this one.

Note the full-sized Blue Snaggletooth that the
Demented Incubus in the photograph is holding.
Case in point: When the Star Wars cantina playset first hit the market, it was initially a Sears exclusive, offered during the Christmas of 1977, and if your mother blinked, then you missed it. The “cantina” was little more than a cardboard backdrop and four exclusive figures: Hammerhead, Walrus Man, Greedo, and Snaggletooth. All four figures were featured in the movie, and you can readily spot them in the cantina scene. Even Snaggletooth. There’s just one problem: the Snaggletooth that came with the cantina playset wore a blue space suit and is as tall as the other figures. Snaggletooth from the movie wore a red suit and is the size of a jawa.

Whoops.

This is one of the storied incidents with Kenner and Lucas. They needed pictures to make action figures with, and sometimes all they had to go on was a mask. Snaggletooth was initially designed based on a photograph with no size or scale reference. The error was caught and corrected so that when Snaggletooth came out on his own blister card, he was the right size and color.

I can’t tell you how much I wanted that blue snaggletooth. We knew about it, because we saw the pictures. But none of my friends had one. Oh, there were sightings, right? A friend of a friend... my cousin in Florida saw one... pfft. Yeah, sure, whatever. Of course, they were out there; it sold through Sears, for crying out loud. But I didn’t actually get to see one until I was nearly an adult.

I had a few things that were pretty cool. A couple of the playsets, a variation Han Solo with a small head, stuff like that. My remote controlled Sandcrawler was a delight, and if you had, oh, all day, to watch the giant plastic toy navigate your shag carpet, then you were one of the lucky ones. Still, it was a good sized vehicle, much better than the cardboard backdrop that was part of the Land of the Jawas playset. That playset also came with a plastic escape pod for Artoo and Threepio to hang out in; it was literally a molded cup with a hinged lid. For the rest of my action figure playing career, that escape pod helped me vocalize Darth Vader.

I was a builder. I owned several of the model kits, and even put them together. My favorite? The snowspeeder. Such a cool design. There were also paper punch out books, where you assembled less-sophisticated models. That stuff fascinated me. If I wasn’t building, I was reading. My magazine collection was large and ungainly. I wanted info, and those mags were the only place to read about things like stormtrooper armor and the fact that they were vat-grown clones designed to be disposable soldiers. My Star Wars bookshelf was pretty impressive for a time.

One of the coolest Star Wars toys I owned was the three-position laser rifle. A hefty, solid black plastic gun that would get anyone shot on sight today. But back then, you could scramble around outside for hours, firing imaginary bolts at passing cars, and no one blinked. It was a different time. I never had Han Solo’s pistol, but it was equally impressive. The “laser” sound was anything but; a mechanical motor that spun a plastic wheel across a flexible tab. Not even close to the digital sound chips in today’s toys. But my laser rifle looked way, way cooler than the white and orange guns found in today’s toy aisles.

This French Kid is clearly unimpressed. Me? I would
never have left the house if I found this under the
Christmas Tree in 1978. Look at that damn thing...
There were other rumors about stuff being made in Canada that we couldn’t get. For instance, there was a Death Star playset made out of cardboard that was a dome with multiple rooms—something I would have given my left arm to own. I was big on playsets and this was a stage with a rotating back drop. It was glorious. Some of the mail order programs were pretty sweet, and you had to pay attention and be patient if you wanted the extra gear and figures they offered. But nothing was so coveted as the Boba Fett with the Firing Missile Backpack.

Spoken only in hushed tones, this was our Bigfoot. Our Nessie. Originally offered as a mail-order send away deal, there was talk about it happening, and then suddenly, here’s the figure, only the rocket doesn’t fire! What gives?  

One kid had the answer. They recalled the toys, you know. Some kid shot a missile into his throat and choked and died. True story.

It was just like the Battlestar Galactica space ships! First the missiles fired, and then they didn’t. Who was this stupid kid, who kept firing little plastic projectiles into his open mouth? It wasn’t anyone we knew. But he was ruining it for all of us. But the story continued—a few of these figures got out! There were sightings, of course. The same cousin from Florida, who seemed to have all of the good stuff, for example. We never saw the figure ourselves. Mind you, it didn’t make Boba Fett any less cool in our eyes, but oh, that missile firing rocket pack would have been the best thing ever.

Our compensation prize was Kenner’s 12” Boba Fett, a G.I. Joe-sized figure with actual articulation and a rocket pack that doubled as a zip line. I had one. It was the shit.

There was so much Star Wars merchandise, not only was it impossible to collect everything, but weird-ass stuff was bound to slip through now and again. Kenner, Lucasfilm, everyone, was flying by the seat of their pants. Whether it was a Yak Face on a Power of the Force blister card, or the hard to find final 107th issue of Marvel’s Star Wars comic, there was always something to chase.
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