By Steve Fulton
May 4th, 2012: For Star Wars Day, May 4th, we are re-running our story about Star Wars in-person, 1977.
(update: since I originally wrote this story, a fine denizen of the interbaun provided the proof to the right in the form of an advertisement about the event. It occurred on September 25th, 1977. I reposted the story because the ad to the right is amazing it it’s own right!)
I’ve been a consumer of nerd-laden toys and video games for most of my life. There is not a January that goes by that does not see me searching through the After-Christmas red-tag bins at Target, looking for mark-downs on video games and toys that others would shudder at purchasing. Just yesterday, for example, I found three new Leapster games for my 4-year old for $6.44 each, Sid Meier’s Pirates for The Wii for $13.78, but I passed-up the Spider Man pinball machine for $13.78 because it was the exact same table configuration as the Dora pinball game my 8-year old still plays, plus my girls are still not enthralled by super heroes. Even so, it almost made the cart too.
At Target this week, I noticed a few new Star Wars action figures with the classic packaging: something Hasbro decided to do last year to get old guys like me to buy the same stuff they have bought dozens of times already.
While I was holding a Storm Trooper action figure, I had a sudden flashback. It was to a time before there were any Star Wars toys for sale at all. It was the day I became a nerd consumer.
Some time in September 1977 there was an advertisement in the local paper, The Daily Breeze, that announced characters from Star Wars would be appearing in-person at the local Toys R ‘Us in Torrance, California. This was not a just a local occurrence. These characters were showing up everywhere that autumn, from Florida to California. You see, when the movie Star Wars was released in May of that year, there were no toys available at all. It took Kenner months to get toys on the shelves, but even then, they would not be available for Christmas 1977. In fact, there was really only a “promise” parents could buy for their kids that toys would arrive some time in 1978. It was called the “Early Bird Certificate Package” which consisted of a cardboard background, a membership card, and a certificate to mail-in to get your toys in 1978. If my memory serves me correctly, these visits by costumed Star Wars characters to Toys R Us in 1977 were designed so that the chain could sell kids on the amazing idea of receiving an envelope some flimsy paper products for Christmas, while waiting months for real molded plastic toys to arrive.
This was 1977 mind you. As kids, we had little else to keep us going. There was no internet. Network news and newspapers were still doing their rightful job of keeping public officials honest with real journalism. Entertainment news was scarce, with gossip about celebrities relegated to the National Enquirer. The top TV shows were geared towards adult nostalgia (Happy Days, Laverne And Shirley) or adult situations (All In The Family, Three’s Company). The top selling albums were by bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles (although, to behonest, the Star Wars soundtrack was in the top-10).
In this era, and news for kids existed only in the pages of publications like Boy’s Life and Dynamite, magazines with lead times of 6 months or more. Recent news about products for kids or toys was virtually non-existent. And what would they talk about anyway? Even video games were still an experimental fad: in September 1977, the Atari 2600 was still a couple months from release.
So when my brother and I read in the Daily Breeze that Darth Vader, Chewbacca and Storm Troopers would be traipsing through the local Toys R Us to announce the new line of toys based on Star Wars, we HAD to go, and our dad decided to take us.
This was not exactly a “normal” decision for my dad. Besides taking us to the movies on occasion, he rarely took us out any where by himself. I can count on one hand the number of times my dad took my brother and I to any event that did not involve Christmas shopping, motorcycles or gun shows, and this magical day was one of those times.
We got up really early that morning. Well, my dad got up. My brother and I never went to sleep the night before. How could we? We were going to meet the guys from Star Wars! When we slipped outside at the crack of dawn to get going, my dad snapped this photo of my brother and I (below). I’m the guy on the left looking glum. I have no idea why I look so upset. My wife says I was probably trying to put on my best Han Solo face. I think she’s right. My twin brother is the moisture farm boy on the right. Our brand-new ’76 Datsun 710 Millenium Falcon is just behind us.
When we got to Toy’s R Us, there were droves of people in line to get inside. We landed the car in the lot for the Del Amo Mall, and hiked the 1/2 mile or so to the Toy’s R Us. By the time we made it back, people were being let into the store. The crowd was packed inside at the back, on a makeshift pathway from the stock room, down the board game aisle, and around the the side of the store.
We waited for about an hour before anything happened. First out came Geoffrey Giraffe. Cool. I’d never seen him in “person” before. If you notice, behind Geoffrey was another giraffe. I have no idea who that was supposed to be. It was still awesome though.
After the walking Toys R ‘Us commercial finished his march, out came A bona-fide Star Wars storm trooper. He was escorted by, quite possibly, the most stereotypical looking 70’s Toy’s R Us clerk you can possibly imagine.
Storm Trooper : Star Wars Visits Toy’s R Us In Torrance, CA, Fall 1977
This is my favorite photo from that day. Not only is it so quintessentially 1977, but notice the guy on the far top, left of the photo. He’s pretending to shoot at the storm trooper. This is awesome for several reasons. First, in 1977, grown men loved Star Wars so much, they would actually do things like this. Second of all, you could get away with it without being tackled by Homeland Security. Third of all, I wish it was me. Fourth of all, it’s just fantastic. He’s made a gun our his bare hands, and he’s not taking any chances. Good for you treacherous rebel scum.
Chewbacca came out next. I have to say, that any 7-year old notion I had that these characters were not “real” ended right here for me. The Chewbacca costume that day was amazing. I have no idea where these costumes came from, but whomever acquired them, they did an awesome job. I believe Chewie was holding his laser crossbow too, but I can’t be sure, as it’s not in the photo.
Finally, out came Darth Vader. I recall there was marked hush that came over the crowd when Vader arrived. I truly believe at that moment, Darth Vader still had the ability to strike fear in the hearts of kids (and probably even a few adults). I know I was a bit taken aback myself. I mean, this was the guy who magically choked his own people from across the room. This was the guy who killed Obi Wan Kenobi for Force sake. How could I, at seven years old, not be at least a little scared of being in his presence?
However, do you know how I’m positive at least some people were at least a bit frightened of Darth Vader? Check out the rebel scum in the upper left hand side of the photo again. He cowers behind the door. Even he knew the limits of a laser blaster made with his bare hands against a Dark Lord Of The Sith. It’s a good thing he will live to fight another day.
The whole thing was over in about 20 minutes, after which the crowd was herded down a couple of hurriedly assembled aisles crammed with every lame Star Wars product currently available: Puzzles, notebooks, posters, t-shirts etc. It was obvious that the marketers of 1977 were caught unprepared for the success of Star Wars. In lieu of the absent toys, they slapped a Star Wars logo on the same items that had been prepared for movies like Logan’s Run, Planet Of The Apes, and Jaws in years prior. Now they had nothing substantial ready for us, and the kids of 1977 were chomping at the bit to play Star Wars for real, with X-Wings, Tie Fighters, Light Sabers, and action figures.
Even so, I was still taken by it all. Whatever Midiclorian dust Toys R Us had sprinkled around the store that day worked perfectly on me. I was hooked, caught, and ready to be reeled in. In fact, I don’t recall ever feeling that way before. I was ready to buy, but there just was not much to have. I recall my exact thought was:
“I need to get some Star Wars stuff because I don’t have any.”
I scanned the aisles on the the way out, and the only thing that caught my eye was a collection of Star War comic books. I paged through it, and noticed that it followed the story of the movie pretty closely (with a few extra scenes on Tatooine added from the original script). I paid my $1.00 and bingo, a nerd consumer was born. I must have read all or part of this comic collection, (and it’s sequel, part 2 of the movie) each and every day from 1977 until 1980 when I finally saw the movie for 2nd time in re-release just before Empire Strikes Back arrived. It was one of my few connections to Star Wars, and a cherished possession. I still have the tattered and well loved book stored in a box in the garage.
In the ensuing years after 1977, I went from the comic books to Star Wars trading cards, The Story Of Star Wars album, and finally the toys and figures themselves, chosen from the Sears Wishbook for Christmas 1978.
After that, I moved to video games, computer games, secretly pretending to be in the world of Star Wars while playing games like Asteroids, Space Invaders, Galaga and Star Raiders. Not too long after, playing video games inspired me to start programming my own games on my Atari 800 computer, and my nerd soul was minted forever. All the while I never stopped loving the original Star Wars movie and how it changed my world, finally morphing into the crazy dude at Target, searching the bargin bins for anything that might be interesting, cool or fun. I can trace it all back to that one day in 1977, the day a bunch of guys in Star Wars costumes showed-up at my local Toys ‘R Us, cleared a path, and paved the way for a bunch of kids , kids just like me, to start living-out their Star Wars dreams.