Play With 'Em Again, Sam
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 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."
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.
What's a Little Mother to do?
If she was dealing with Little Miss Echo, she probably chose to turn a deaf ear. Thanks to a tape recorder embedded in the doll's gullet, that chubby-cheeked chatterbox parroted everything Mommy said.
Far better to spend a little quality time with the "amazing" Smarty Pants. Billed as "the first doll in the world actually able to have a conversation with your child," this sparkling raconteuse put Chatty Cathy to shame by firing off zingers such as "You're tickling me" and "I have five little toes." (Should anyone doubt Smarty's highly touted intellect, the announcer reassured viewers that "she may not be as smart as some children, but she is the smartest doll in the world!")
Then, as now, it was a dumb doll indeed who had no gimmick. At the dawn of the Space Age, merely peeing in a diaper was no longer enough: Yesterday's doll of today (like Tressy) was also expected to sprout waist-length retractable hair from a hole in her scalp.
Not content to leave well enough alone, some dolls even took sick. "Look!" gasps a female narrator in the commercial for Baby Love and Care. "Her face is getting red! SHE'S GOT A FEVER!!!" (The "fever" could be broken by administering a "cold tablet" that deactivated the red light bulb inside the doll's head.)
Not to be outdone in the baby bedpan sweepstakes, a rival company introduced the ailing Nurse Nancy, a doll so frail she traveled with her own sick bed and medical supplies. In the commercial, the pitiful little patient coughs, sneezes, and whimpers, "I feel sick," while a giggling trio of incipient Nurse Ratcheds gleefully monitor her rapidly declining health. When the doll finally simpers, "I feel better now," the preteen medical staffers smile knowingly: How long can it be before their debilitated dolly suffers a relapse?
The terminally nostalgic Gallen, meanwhile, claims he never gets sick - of his toys, that is.
One reason may be that his collection is always getting a transfusion of new blood. "The toy companies are like my buddies," he says. "Now that they've seen me on TV, I get sent all the new stuff in the mail."
And with friends like that, who needs the big guy at the North Pole?
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.