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He didn't fare much better when he contacted the toy companies - the few that still exist. "All the major companies have changed hands over the past 30 years and their archives were just thrown away," he says. "Mattel was pretty good about keeping things. It took me a year and a half, but they finally agreed to let me copy their stuff. Hasbro was terrible; they kept nothing. Most of these companies just threw history away and moved on to the next thing. Who cared about the past?"
A scout by profession - he once found an episode of the Fifties kiddie show Rooty Kazootie in a Harlem trash can while searching out movie locations - Gallen eventually realized that the toy commercials had probably gone the same route as the toys themselves. "The history of television is sitting among hundreds and thousands of collectors out there across the country," he says. "Fortunately, there are scavengers like me who collect what I call `garbage,' and that's where all this stuff has been saved."
Thanks to a national network of collectors, as well as fans of his TV show, Gallen's collection currently includes more than 30,000 commercials. "Nowadays the commercials pretty much come to me," says Gallen. "I get calls from people all the time." After Entertainment Tonight aired a segment on his video archives a while back, Gallen heard from a retired director who had made TV commercials during the Fifties and Sixties. "He asked me if I was interested in looking at his stuff," says Gallen. "I said, `Sure,' figuring the guy would send me a reel of film." A week later, a truck pulled up in front of Gallen's apartment carrying more than 4000 commercials, including a rare Fifties spot for Bosco chocolate syrup featuring the then-little-known Dick Van Dyke.
"Another guy wanted me to look at some Remco stuff he had," recalls Gallen. "It turns out he had five commercials - that was his entire collection. Well, one of them happened to be Patty Duke in a commercial for Remco's Drive-In Movie Theatre. So you just never know."
Although Gallen gets a kick out of spotting future celebrities in old commercials (say, isn't that Ricky Schroder admiring Baby Joey Stivic, the "physically correct boy doll" modeled after Archie Bunker's grandson?), the collector claims he has no favorites.
"That's like asking someone, `Who's your favorite child?'" answers Gallen, who refers to his toys as his "children."
And sometimes the "kids" played pretty rough. Witness the vintage violence in this early-Sixties blast from the past: Two cops strolling through a park overhear what seems to be the biggest volley of hot lead this side of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. "Sounds like a gun battle!" hollers one officer as he and his partner draw their pistols and run off to investigate. Not to worry, though. The "battle" is actually just two kids firing away at one another with their ultrarealistic Marx Sound-O-Power rifles. "Looks like real! Sounds like real!" promises the announcer as the cops compliment the boys on their counterfeit artillery.
Even more eyebrow-raising is Mattel's commercial for a Dick Tracy rifle. While Dad attempts to read Tracy's adventures in the Sunday funnies, a hyperactive kid (played by a pre-Lost in Space Billy Mumy) flies into a comical gun-crazed frenzy, filling the living room with a haze of cap smoke as he fires wildly at Dad's newspaper and the television set. (Note to TV buffs: The commercial provides an ironic counterpoint to Mumy's appearance back then on the famous "Bang! You're Dead" episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Mumy portrayed a preschool gunslinger who playfully threatens neighbors, unaware that his "toy" is actually a loaded pistol.)
In those wild days, American toy manufacturers invented their own Big Bang theory by providing weapons for every occasion and offering such ammo as plastic bullets, rubber-tipped darts, and reams of Greenie Stik-M caps.
There were guns that got you coming and going - notably the Trick Shot, a rifle with a rearview mirror that enabled junior marksmen to fire forward or backward. And if one gun was fun, just think of the multiple-barreled excitement to be had with the Johnny Seven O.M.A. - better known as "the One-Man Army!" "It's seven guns in one!" the narrator pants. "Let's count 'em!"
Another spot promised: "Every boy will walk tall when he wears a holster and pistol with the Mattel brand!" Asked about the trigger-happy overtones of these commercials, Gallen points to the glut of Westerns, detective shoot-'em-ups, and war epics that dominated TV and movie screens 30 years ago.
"There were 32 Westerns on television at one point," he explains. "That's what was going on back then, and so that's what kids wanted to play with."
If toys mirrored the moods of that era, it's no surprise that little girls of the period were catching their reflections in the shiny surfaces of a kitchenette's worth of Suzy Homemaker appliances. "Back then, everything was Father Knows Best and Donna Reed," says Gallen. "Dad went off to work and Mom kept house."
And while her brother was out fending off enemy gunfire in the local vacant lot, Sis was slaving over the hot light bulb of her Easy-Bake Oven. Or whipping off a stylish little stole on her E-Z-Weaver loom. Or preening in front of her Budding Beauty Vanity. But no matter what she was doing, she wasn't likely to be doing it for long with so many dolls underfoot.