Friday Flashback: Lesser-Known Late 70s Toys

Friday Flashback: Late 70s Toys

I have to admit: last week’s installment on Power Records made me a little more nostalgic thatn usual.  Perhaps it’s a conflux of good memories associated with sitting by the record player, reading stories that featured some of my favorite characters.  Maybe it has to do with the fact that my oldest son started Kindergarten this week, just as I would have been doing round about 1978  At any rate, that, along with a couple of favorably timed Facebook status updates from friends, put me in mind of some of the great oddball toys of the late ‘70s.

Boy Sherman?  Fire up the WayBack Machine.  And since we did the decade overview last week, let’s get specific about the end of the decade and shake down 1979.

1979:  Disco and disco-inspired tunes still ruled the chart for much of the year, with The Bee Gees (“Too Much Heaven”, “Tragedy”, “Love You Inside Out”), Chic (“Le Freak”), Rod Stewart (“Do Ya’ Think I’m Sexy?”), Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”), Ami Stewart (“Knock on Wood”), Blondie (“Heart of Glass”), Donna Summer (“Hot Stuff”, “Bad Girls”, “No More Tears” with Barbra), Chic (“Good Times”) and Michael Jackson (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”) all notching number ones within the sphere of the dominant sound.  By year’s end, The Knack (“My Sharona” for six weeks), The Eagles (“Heartache Tonight”), M (“Pop Muzik”), and Styx (“Babe”)  had gotten in on the act.  Last number one song of 1979?  “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes.  Awesome.  Films of note included “Alien”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Manhattan”, “The Muppet Movie”, “The Jerk”, “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” and “The Warriors”.  Stephen King also dropped “The Dead Zone”, scaring the bejeezus out of people that had barely finished the previous year’s “The Stand”.

With the scene set, imagine that you’re a little kid on Saturday morning.  Somewhere between “Super Friends” and “Scooby-Doo”, you see the commercial for  . . . STAR BIRD.

Star Bird: Let’s face it: outside of Star Wars, Milton Bradley rocked the house.  They created some truly memorable brand-less toys at this time, and few were as loved as this rather simple concept.  Star Bird was a spaceship with a  look that could easily fit alongside the popular Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica designs of the period.  (Have a look: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORtzJ3gZ5ho&feature=search). While the laser lights and sounds were pretty standard, what set it apart was the ascent and descent sounds that the ship made as you raised and lowered it.

Other cool features where the detachable cockpit, the tiny gray ships that could be pulled on the back end, and the trac-ball style turret.  When the commercials for this began to run, kids talked about it in earnest.  I was thrilled that one found its way to my house that Christmas, and it got a rather generous amount of play time for quite some time.

Big Trak: Another MB gem, this tank like vehicle (with separate transporter) could be PROGRAMMED to do things via the keyboard on the back.  (See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6V-tuOf3dE&feature=search). It’s tame by today’s standards when Uverse subscribers can watch what their DVR recorded on their iPhone, but it seemed revolutionary at the time.  (You have to remember, cable still consisted of about 12 channels and some TV remotes only had four buttons: channel up, channel down, volume up/on, and volume down/channel-lock/off.  My freshman students believe that this time occurred roughly a week after man found the secret of fire).

Shogun Warriors:  Mattel had already imported the super-sized warriors, but nothing touched the BIG versions that appeared alongside, yes, Godzilla.  They were still kicking in ’79 (see here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbZYIjVcYIQ&feature=search). Raise your hand if that “launching claw” ever gripped a Stormtrooper and fired him across the room.

Though the characters in the line were cobbled together under one umbrella from various anime and films, the story anchor in the U.S. was the Marvel Comics series that started in . . . wait for it . . . 1979!  While the book only lasted 20 issues (the toy line died in 1980), it still has a warm place in the heart of many fans.  Frankly, this makes me want to get into talking about “Force Five” and more, but we’ll save that for another day.

And recall this sampling of some other great hits: Merlin.  Quiz Whiz.  Stop Thief. Hit and Missile.  Mattel Electronics Basketball (of the four red arrows and blue basketball buttons; may have been ’78).  Remco Energized Spider-Man! (also from ’78, but too awesome not to mention.  Witness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=581ZSCvNxY0&p=076E55906718CBDD&playnext=1&index=27).

Today, it seems that young children are being primed more and more frequently for adult gadgets.  Five-year-olds a Nintendo DSis and cell phones in their back packs, and it’s not unusual for second-graders to be loading up the iPod.  Honestly, there’s something a little charming and innocent to think that a big exciting toy was basically a tractor that carried stuff.  As annoying as they can be in certain contexts, I’m actually relieved to see that kids can still get into things like Silly/Wacky/BrandNameCharacter Bands/Bandz.

At any rate, it’s fun to recall some of those things that we aren’t reminded of as fans on a daily basis.  They were some of the more interesting toys of the late ‘70s, and they’re your Friday Flashback.

What were your favorite slightly-obscure toy?

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