Saturday, December 4, 2010

Star Wars Early Bird Set & DT Lightsaber Luke (Kenner, 1978)

I love Star Wars, and I love vintage Star Wars toys. But not just any old vintage SW figure'll do. I only really like the very earliest stuff, the toys that captured that initial "Holy crap!" moment when Star Wars transformed from a movie into a movement. And nothing captures that for me like the very first set of action figures known as the Early Bird Set.

My Early Bird set in a custom display case by Oscar's Cases ( I added the dorky, little banners at the top.

"A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away..."

This is where it all began, kids. It's an often told story, but just in case you haven't heard it: No one anticipated that Star Wars would become a hit when it was released in May of 1977. But of course it was the most gigantic, amazing, fantabulous, galactic-awesome movie ever. (Duh!) And that meant that Kenner, the toy company who held the license to produce SW toys, had a really big problem.

Because Christmas was a mere seven months away, and they didn't have any action figures.

So the president of the company, Bernard Loomis, came up with a brilliant idea: Kenner would release a coupon for Christmas redeemable for a set of four action figures. It'd be packaged in a wide, thin box that could fold down to become a display stand, and would include a membership to the Star Wars Fan Club, some stickers, and a catalog of upcoming Kenner releases. Children would send in the coupon and a few months into 1978 they'd get their figures in the mail.

Let's take a moment to think about this. For Christmas, Kenner was asking parents to buy their kids what was essentially an empty box.

Insane, right? And yet... it was the scheme that kicked off a toy-making empire, leading to unimaginable profit for both Kenner and Star Wars creator George Lucas, and the gleeful smiles of children everywhere. Years later, it also helped create a toy that's super duper collectible, and the object of my deep, un-abating lust.

The Early Bird tray was made out of a very thin plastic that often cracked over time.

The Early Bird set holds four figures: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, Chewbacca, and R2-D2. Each was sealed in a bag marked with the words Hong Kong. The set also includes a small baggie of pegs that could hold the figures to the cardboard display stand. It was shipped in a plain white box that would come to symbolize all of Kenner's future mail-away figures.

The box has its original mailing label on it. I blacked out the name and address to protect the innocent.

There's a lot of discussion about why Kenner would include such an odd assortment of characters. Certainly, most people would have picked Luke and R2, but why Leia and Chewie? There's nothing wrong with them, per se, but it's hard to imagine playing with any Star Wars figures without having some villains. Most collectors that I've spoken to would have swapped those two out for Darth Vader and a Storm Trooper. Or at least Vader and Han Solo.

But the general consensus seems to be that Kenner wanted to try hitting the female market with Leia. And Chewie was included because when you're making toys for a movie about a galaxy far, far away that's populated with all sorts of weird and fantastic creatures, you sure as hell better include some sort of alien. Since Chewie was the most prominent non-human in Star Wars, he got elected for the job.

Anyway, that's what other collectors who I've spoken to seem to think. If anyone else has any concrete info, by all means let me know.

Leia, Chewie, and R2 are all standard figures, the same as the ones you'd find in stores across the country. (Though it should be noted that all Early Bird figures were made in Hong Kong, whereas carded SW figures came from factories in a variety of countries.) This is why I've kept them in their baggies. I've got loose examples to play with er...display, so I'd prefer to keep these as originally issued.

The Luke figure, is something special. Or, rather, his lightsaber is.

(Note: The following photos show Luke outside of his baggie. Don't freak out. He was purchased this way; in fact, the baggie he was stuffed into when I bought him is incorrect. I've got some strong feelings about opening -- or not opening, depending on the circumstances -- packaged vintage toys, but I'll save that for another time. Suffice it to say, no damage was done by me to this figure, his baggie, or any of the worker gnomes who I hire to polish my toys with magic fairy sweat.)

"It's Your Father's Lightsaber..." Or is it?

The common lightsaber found on Luke, Vader, and Ben Kenobi figures is a simple piece of plastic that slides up into the figure's arm. There's not much to it, it's charmingly wonky, and it gets the job done.

Many of the Early Bird Lukes, however, came with something called a Double Telescoping lightsaber. It's made of two pieces: an outer tube and an inner rod. The tube slides out of the figure's arm, and then the rod slides out of the tube. Double Telescoping. Pretty straight forward.

Early Lukes from Hong Kong -- including many that came with the Early Bird set, have limbs that turn pinkish over time. Many also have slightly different colored legs. I have no idea why...

Ultimately, Kenner decided to discontinue the DT Luke (as it's known today) due to the cost and time involved in manufacturing this particular lightsaber -- they switched over to the single-piece saber most people know of today. Consequently, this version of the toy is very rare. Not every Early Bird set comes with the DT Luke... though it should be pointed out that some DT Lukes did make it into the standard packaging. You need to inspect the toy carefully to know what you're getting.

(By the way, a number of Vader and Obi-Wan figures were also released with DT lightsabers. These are significantly rarer than the yellow Luke version...)

Getting this set was a big thrill for me. While most everyone says Han Solo or Darth Vader are their favorite Star Wars characters, I always gravitated towards Luke and R2. To have their very first appearance in plastic is a distinct pleasure. And to have Luke holding an amazingly cool version of what is arguably the best weapon in science fiction -- certainly my favorite weapon -- is like the most delicious icing ever on a cake that's already filled with sweet and sugary awesome.

Stay tuned for one more post about the DT lightsaber... Trust me, you'll dig it.


chunky B said...

Wow, three posts in and I am in awe of you auxilary collection!

This set is amazing. I remember seeing the "empty box" in a toy store, at the front counter that Christmas. No amount of begging would sway my parents to purchase that wonderful piece of cardboard, not that I didn't get other cool toys that year. Still among my grails I need to hunt down.

Anyway, loving the posts!

Super-Duper ToyBox said...

that is THE BOMB!!
i've heard about these telescoping lightsabers, but have never seen one "in the wild"- that is so rad!

Brian Ashmore said...

Wow!... amazing set! That DT lightsaber is fantastic. I know exactly what you mean about the earliest toys capturing the most magic. I like how you put that... "transformed from a movie into a movement." That's perfect. It was definitely a time without much precedence. Sure, Planet of the Apes had been a merchandising juggernaut but it almost seemed like an isolated thing. Until the "Early Bird" commercial started airing, it was completely up-in-the-air as to whether we would ever see Star Wars toys or not. What a time! Glad I was there.

Doc Atomic said...

Chunky B:
Thanks for the kind words. I think Star Wars toys are definitely my "main" side collection, after the robots and ray guns. But then there's a bunch of random stuff, like the Ahi space guns, some Japanese die cast toys, and some other cool action figures. All of these will eventually make an appearance here in Galactic Awesome.

Super-Duper Toybox:
Glad I could toss some pics your way! If you like this, you'll love an upcoming post I'm preparing... Stay tuned!

Brian Ashmore:
See... I'm jealous. I was two years old, barely conscious enough to realize when I was picking my own nose, much less that I was in the middle of a pop culture revolution.

I wasn't really into Star Wars until a couple years later. I distinctly remember getting Boba Fett in the mail, so I must have had a few figures prior to that in order to get the Proofs of Purchase. Once Empire hit, though, I was off and running. Until I discovered G.I. Joe and Transformers...

Strangely enough, I don't care about either of those toys anymore, and I'm addicted to SW.

Doc Atomic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryan said...

Okay, that was AMAZING! Like most boys of the 70s, I loved me some Star Wars. And while I am mostly a MEGO man, I'll never lose my affection for these early galaxian wonders. Thanks for the cool article! Great collection!

Doc Atomic said...

Thanks, Bryan. Glad you liked the post.

I don't have any Megos myself, but I really dig them. I have a couple friends who collect the figures and I've always been impressed with the great detail that went into the costumes, the box graphics, the vehicles... They're really cool toys.

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