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Kenner Star Wars action figures
They are a line of more than 100 unique toys, produced and sold from 1978 to 1985, among a total of more than 300 million Star Wars action figures sold then. Kenner began producing new Star Wars action figures in 1995.
The license for Star Wars action figures was offered in 1976 to the Mego Corporation, which was the leading company in action figures in the 1970s. Mego refused the offer and the license was subsequently picked up by Kenner, a division of General Mills Fun Group.
Star Wars (1977) was the first film to successfully market toys based on the movie. In fact, they were so successful that George Lucas independently used the funds to finance the next two movie chapters, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).
Although the original Star Wars film had been released in May 1977, Kenner was unprepared for the unprecedented response to the film and the high demand for toys, mainly due to George Lucas’s unwillingness to provide character/vehicle designs for fear his creations would be plagiarized by movie/tv competitors.
Early Bird Certificate Package
Unable to build sufficient stock in time for the lucrative Christmas market, they instead sold an “Early Bird Certificate Package” which included a certificate which could be mailed to Kenner and redeemed for four Star Wars action figures. The first four figures to be distributed were Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2.
The box also contains a diorama display stand, some stickers, and a Star Wars fan club membership card. By the time the action figures were offered for direct sale in shops, the range had been augmented with a further eight figures—C-3PO, Darth Vader, Stormtrooper, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, Jawa, Sand People, and Death Squad Commander—bringing the total number of figures in the initial release to twelve.
These were supplemented later in 1978 with a number of vehicle and playset accessories, as well as the J.C. Penney exclusive Sonic controlled landspeeder and the Sears exclusive Cantina adventure playset which introduced four new figures. The four figures that were first brought out in the Sears Cantina set were released for individual sale with a further four figures later in 1978, bringing the total number of figures to 20.
Demand for the action figures and accessories was such that Kenner continued to have difficulty fulfilling demand. Shortages of the toys in the lead up to Christmas 1978 led some to claim that Kenner was deliberately manipulating the market. Sales of Kenner’s Star Wars range in 1978 reached 40 million units, accounting for a revenue of $100 million.
In the anticipation of the release of the sequel movie The Empire Strikes Back, Kenner offered its first mail-in promotion, in which four proofs of purchase could be redeemed for a new action figure, Boba Fett. This figure was originally intended to feature a backpack with a firing missile, but this was abandoned due to safety concerns. Similar mail-in promotions were periodically offered through to 1984.
Sales in 1979 again topped $100 million. Kenner continued to introduce waves of action figures from the sequels and in 1984, the year following the release of the movie Return of the Jedi, the range totaled 79 unique character designs (not including the retired versions of R2-D2 and C-3PO).
In 1985, the figure range was renamed Power of the Force in which a further 15 figures were released. Two further ranges of Star Wars action figures were also released, based on the animated series, Star Wars: Droids and Star Wars: Ewoks. The Droids range comprised 12 figures (two of which were identical to figures from the main Star Wars line) and the Ewoks line comprised six figures.
By mid-1985, the demand for Star Wars merchandise had slowed and Kenner discontinued production of its action figures. However, Kenner would produce the new line of Star Wars toys which began in 1995.
Vintage Star Wars Action Figures
Back in 1977, twelve characters were immortalized by Kenner as the first Star Wars action figures ever. Needless to say, their popularity was off the charts, and Kenner had a hit on their hands until well into the mid-80s.
I consider myself lucky when it comes to Star Wars. I was barely five years old when the first movie came out, the perfect age to fall in love with not only the movie franchise but the toys that came with it.
My friends and I were rabid collectors of Star Wars action figures, and Star Wars dominated our youth. Through the years we chomped at the bit in anticipation of new figure releases. We eagerly mailed our “proofs of purchase” away for special figures. Spotting a new card with a different picture on the back was cause for massive celebration, speculation, and excitement.
We were more than willing to accompany our mothers on long, boring shopping outings if it meant getting a peek at the Star Wars display, and possibly snagging a figure we’d been searching for. Of course to be the first one to grab an elusive figure meant a major boost in neighborhood social status, as far as Star Wars was concerned anyway.
Our Star Wars action figure madness continued through the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and Return of the Jedi in 1983. Kenner continued to pump out new figures, new designs, and innovative vehicles and playsets. We couldn’t get enough of it, and we may as well have shipped every penny of our allowance and chore money to Kenner headquarters.
By the time 1984 had rolled around the magic was gone. There were no more movies to come out (as far as we knew) and no new characters.
And, we were getting older. We were starting to spend our time on more mature pursuits. The same girls we would have trampled over to get to a new figure only a year or two earlier suddenly seemed way more interesting for some reason. The party was over.
Kenner kept fighting the good fight for a little while longer, but by the mid-1980s most kids, like me, had moved on.
The very first Star Wars action figures were released in 1978 as part of the mail-away Star Wars Early Bird Kit, which contained Star Wars figures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2. The last figures in the series were released during the Power Of The Force series in 1985, before Kenner released figures based on the Droids and Ewoks cartoon TV shows.
1995 and 1977
After that there was a ten year break until Hasbro started to produce Star Wars figures again in 1995. When Star Wars was released in 1977, Kenner was surprised by the huge response to the film. Although unprepared for the Christmas market, Kenner moved to sell an “Early Bird Certificate Package,” which included a cardboard backdrop, a little sticker sheet, a club membership card, and a mail-in certificate towards the first four figures.
In February 1978, people who registered with Kenner received small white mailer boxes containing a white tray holding four bagged action figures including Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, R2-D2, and Chewbacca, as well as foot pegs and a backdrop.
Although there were some variants (including Luke Skywalker with a Double Telescoping Lightsaber (DT) and Chewbacca with a green Bowcaster), most of these early Star Wars action figures were equipped with one piece Lightsabers and blue/black Bowcasters.
When Kenner offered these Star Wars action figures to shops in 1978. They augmented the line with eight additional figures including Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Han Solo, and C-3PO, as well as Stormtrooper, Star Destroyer Commander, Jawa, and Tusken Raider figures.
Playsets and vehicles including J.C. Penney’s exclusive Sonic controlled land speeder and Sears’ exclusive Cantina adventure playset were also introduced in 1978. Although the Sears Star Wars Cantina set had four exclusive figures, those were released for individual sale 1978.
Despite increased demand for Star Wars action figures approaching Christmas 1978 leading to shortages, production issues, and accusations of market manipulation, Kenner earned $100 million through sales of its line of Star Wars action figures and accessories.
With the then-impending release of The Empire Strikes Back, Kenner engaged in a unique marketing promotion in which four proof of purchases could be redeemed via mail for a Boba Fett action figure, with a missile-firing backpack. (However, the backpack was abandoned due to child safety concerns).
Although Kenner was also offering action figures based on TV’s Six Million Dollar Man. And the first Alien film, the company topped $100 million in sales of its top Star Wars toys. Other figures released as part of The Empire Strikes Back through 1982 include Bossk (Bounty Hunter), Bespin Security Guard, the FX-7 Medical Droid, Lando Calrissian, Yoda, Dengar, AT-AT Driver, and C-3PO with removable limbs, Admiral Ackbar, and Imperial TIE Fighter.
With the release of Return of the Jedi, Kenner had released over 79 unique character designs in its Star Wars action figure range. Figures in this range include Admiral Ackbar, Bib Fortuna, Biker Scout, Wicket W. Warwick, Gamorrean Guard, The Emperor, B-Wing Pilot, Rancor Keeper, and 8D8.
A “Sy Snootles and the Rebo Band” boxed set of Star Wars action figures was released, including Sy Snootles, Max Rebo, and Droopy McCool. Various past Star Wars figures were also rereleased with different cardbacks based on the particular movie. It was providing multiple opportunities to collect the same action figure.
In 1985, Kenner released 15 more Star Wars action figures under the Power of the Force banner including in which a further 15 figures were released. They are including Anakin Skywalker, and Luke Skywalker in a battle poncho, as well as other various characters.
Kenner also released action figures based the Star Wars. Droids featuring twelve character figures and three vehicles. And the more popular Star Wars. Ewoks (including six character figures) animated series. However, Kenner discontinued production of its Star Wars action figure line due to decreasing demand.
Pop culture history
Given the rich history of Star Wars collectibles, many fans eagerly await the opportunity to collect unique action figures. When Kenner acquired the license, they had little idea that releasing movie tie-in figures would be lucrative; Kenner’s legacy is their ability to see the Force awaken in the greater culture. And their foresight into the Star Wars phenomenon will always have a place in pop culture history.
Let’s have a look at those first nine “modern” Star Wars action figures that were released in the Power of the Force line — dubbed “Power of the Force II” by fans to avoid any confusion with the similarly-named vintage line.
Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi
It featured a removable soft plastic robe and a lightsaber. The stance of the figure itself was quite stiff, because it couldn’t stand without support of the robe. Ben’s face wasn’t that bad, but it showed little resemblance to Sir Alec Guinness. The best feature was probably the removable robe that enabled it to sit down properly in Luke’s landspeeder. Also noticeable were his huge hands that almost looked like paws.
Chewie is one of the most infamous figures from this wave. He received a more correctly-sculpted bowcaster than his vintage figure, but looked very bulky. The first Chewie figure that could move his head (just a tiny bit). It included an enormous heavy blaster rifle that was never seen in the movies. And it was about the same height as the Darth Vader figure.
It armed with a lightsaber and had a removable hard plastic cape that was attached to his neck. Vader was just too beefed up, even for bodybuilding and weightlifting champion David Prowse, who wore the Vader suit during most of filming. Vader’s removable cloak would enable him to sit properly in the TIE fighter and his bodysuit was nicely sculpted.
It came with a lightsaber and a grappling hook blaster that never appeared in the movies. His head didn’t look anything like Mark Hamill and his upper body was too muscular. Where was the slim farmboy who first appeared at the Lars Homestead? When Mark Hamill saw this figure he said, “That’s supposed to be me? I wish!”
While the likeness may have been closer to Harrison Ford’s than the vintage figure, the Corellian scoundrel nevertheless suffered from gigantism. His torso and arms were huge compared to Solo’s appearance in the movie. Han was armed with his trusty overgrown DL-44 and a blaster rifle that never appeared in the movies. The color of Han’s shirt did lean closer to the one in A New Hope, as did his dark blue pants.
The Imperial stormtrooper was armed with an E-11 and a large blaster rifle slightly resembling a T-21 Repeating Blaster. This figure also featured a mini-helmet (sculpted after the A New Hope stormtrooper), a muscular torso, and an action-like stance that made it nearly impossible for the figure to stand. Just like Chewie, this was the first stormtrooper figure that could move his head.
Although more recently released R2-D2 figures feature accessories and more detail, this was quite a decent figure for its time. It was the first Artoo with a sculpted body (instead of a sticker). And a retractable third leg that was available on a blister card.
Because Leia wasn’t shown on the first cardbacks, a lot of collectors initially thought the figure was rare. This figure came with a Defender Sporting Blaster and another assault rifle never seen in the movies. It also had a removable cape and skirt that allowed it to sit down properly.
Threepio was initially wanted by collectors since he was the last of the nine figures to be released. Our favorite goldenrod had a metalized body, although he didn’t feature his silver-colored shin plate or come with any accessories. This is not an extremely terrible figure, though the torso is too muscular and the head is too narrow. Still, he was able to sit down decently despite a wide stance.
It’s very easy to badmouth these figures today, but in 1995 they were on top of the toy chain. They featured more details than the vintage figures, had a bit more articulation, and received more accurately-sculpted weapons. Even more important, they were new Star Wars action figures, something fans had been craving for a decade.
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