By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
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Forget about those two front teeth. Back in the early Sixties, little Billy saw a TV commercial and immediately knew what he wanted for Christmas: King Zor, the Fighting Dinosaur. While primitive by today's standards, the black-and-white commercial got the job done. Filmed from low camera angles to make the battery-operated Godzilla clone appear more menacing, King Zor lumbered through an ominous dry-ice fog while a feverish narrator screamed, "He's on a rampage! Aim your dinosaur gun! Quick! Hit his tail!"
"I saw that commercial and I had to have King Zor," says Billy, who's now mired in his thirtysomethings. "It was that simple - that's all I wanted for Christmas that year. In fact, I think it might have been the only thing I got, too."
At least, it's just about the only thing he remembers about that particular Christmas morning. "My parents took the thing out of the box, they turned it on, and I was outta there," reports Billy. "I took one look at that thing coming across the floor at me with its tongue going back and forth and I ran screaming. I was absolutely terrified."
King Zor immediately went back into his box, and for years the toy gathered dust in his grandmother's attic, says Billy. "Then, a few years ago, I decided to take another look at him, but he was gone. No one knows where he went."
If King Zor was smart, he made tracks for Ira Gallen's playpen in New York City, a sanctuary for aging G.I. Joe, Robert the Robot, Mr. Machine, Barbie, Mr. Potato Head, and thousands of other toyland fugitives.
"I collect everything I destroyed as a kid," jokes the 40-year-old Gallen, a Manhattan toy historian who now makes America's play his work. He produces and hosts a long-running Gotham TV show that frequently spotlights old toys and their commercials. The pop-culture Pooh-Bah says he is continually buttonholed in public by people eager to talk toy shop.
"I'm kind of a cult guy here in New York," confesses Gallen, who previously made his living as a production assistant and second-unit director on feature films such as Harry and Tonto and Rocky II. "I get stopped every day by people who want to tell me their life story in terms of toys."
Ira Gallen can relate. The nation's most visible collector in a largely invisible field, this pack rat has spent the past twenty years amassing the 3000 items that fill the walk-in toy chest he calls an apartment. And during the past five years, he's been beating the bushes for the commercials that sold those toys.
If most of the toys in his collection date from the Eisenhower-Kennedy administrations, that's because they represent the years when Gallen and millions of other baby boomers first took Beany-Copters to their bosoms and began wearing Hula-Hoops on their hips.
"I had a great childhood," says Gallen, recalling his wonder years in Flatbush. "I went to school, came home, ate milk and cookies. And I watched television."
Including commercials, many of which turn up frequently on Gallen's Biograph Days, Biograph Nights, a public-access cable program taped in his toy-strewn apartment. Now celebrating its tenth year on the air, the nostalgiathon regularly broadcasts interviews with bygone TV stars, episodes of long-forgotten TV shows, home movies, and ancient cartoons, as well as the vintage TV commercials that proved to be one of the show's most popular features.
So popular, in fact, that in addition to episodes of old kiddie programming, Gallen's mail-order video company currently markets 26 collections of taped commercials. They include specialized compilations that feature everything from specific brands - such as The Lustre Creme Shampoo Movie Star Collection Volume I - to particular product groups - such as Rhapsody in Brew, a round-up of beer commercials. (Tapes can be ordered from Video Resources, 220 West 71st Street, New York, NY 10023.)
The commercial archives are also open to corporate accounts; when Ovaltine decided to mount a nostalgia-themed campaign on cable's Nick at Nite network, the company turned to Gallen's collection for 30-year-old commercial spots featuring Captain Midnight.
"Our two volumes of toy commercials have always generated the most interest, though," claims Gallen, who has also assembled Video Doll Shoppe, a companion volume that focuses on doll advertising.
"Whenever anyone interviews me," Gallen says, "they always ask, `What is the deep, underlying meaning of all this stuff?' Then all of a sudden that person spots a commercial he remembers and he freaks out: `I had that!' or `I always wanted that!' Suddenly, he's answered his own question. For a lot of people, watching these toy commercials is like a nice little visit to their childhoods."
Gallen says he's even heard about a psychiatrist whose patients watch the toy tapes as relaxation prior to therapy sessions.
Gallen refers to the commercials as "a return to a more innocent time," but tracking them down is not exactly child's play. He started his search five years ago by hoping to find commercials sandwiched in old kiddie shows at New York's Museum of Broadcasting - and struck out. "When these shows were in syndication, the commercials were inserted market by market," says Gallen. "The commercials did not exist. There's not a museum or a library in the country that houses this type of material."