Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On the land, on the sea, in the air . . .


The photo above was taken after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York/Tri-State area.  It shows what you would have seen had you decided to walk into the den of my mother's house during the storm's aftermath.  I had been in that room the night the storm hit and was fortunate enough to leave just before a massive elm street came crashing through the ceiling.  The tree not only obliterated that section of roof, but it also landed where I had been sitting less than thirty seconds earlier.  It was a rough time to say the least, but after that harrowing experience, seeing this old box hanging from the ceiling debris brought a certain amount of comfort to me, as I'll explain . . .
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Hasbro Toys' GI Joe.  Facing tremendous industry doubts over their product being a "doll for boys", Hasbro took the idea of a toy solider and reinvented it into "America's moveable fighting man".  As a result, GI Joe, despite insider's beliefs to the contrary, became the #1 toy sensation for the year of 1964.  It launched a cultural movement that continues to this day.
The following relies on an article printed in the April 1995 issue of Collecting Toys magazine.  This piece, entitled, "GI Joe's First Battle" was written by John Michlig and its bedrock consists of an interview with the man known as "the father of GI Joe", Don Levine.  Mr. Levine began his career at Hasbro in the late fifties and it was as the company's director of Research & Development that he helped pioneer the field of merchandise known as "action figures":

Collecting Toys: Let's start at the beginning: What's your recollection of your first encounter with Stan Weston?

Don Levine: It wasn't that I first encountered Stan Weston.  We knew each other prior to this situation.  Stan was a licensing agent representing certain properties.  We licensed things like Frankenstein and other monsters from him to make paint-by-number sets and so forth.  Since I was in charge of research and development for Hasbro at the time, he would occasionally call me and say he had the rights to a certain property, like reps still do today.  At one point Stan called me and said, "I've got a new property.  It's a TV show called The Lieutenant.  It stars Gary Lockwood and I think this could be interesting . . . . Why don't you come in and see it?".  So I went in.  Stan showed me The Lieutenant, and if I remember correctly, it wasn't much of an action show.  It was more like a soap opera.  
We discussed that aspect and Stan said, "You know, Barbie and Ken have been out for five years and nobody has anything like them.  You could [do a doll], call it The Lieutenant, and I think that might be something to go up against Ken.".  [Author's note: The Lieutenant was cancelled after 29 episodes.  The show's producer, Gene Roddenberry, revamped his "soap opera" from a military setting to outer space and launched a new, more memorable show called Star Trek.].
Now, Ken was just Barbie's playmate, certainly not an adventurous kind of guy, and boys were not buying Ken.  So I said, "Okay" and said I'd get back to him.  His office, I believe, was on Fifty-Fifth Street in Manhattan.  I left, and in going toward Fifth Avenue, there was an art supply store called Art Brown.  In the window was a wooden artist's doll.
Collecting Toys: And this wooden doll inspired Joe's posability?
Don Levine: Yes.  Stan and I had even talked about how Barbie, to some extent, had simmered down.  The posability aspect was a very important part of Mattel's promotional vernacular.  It really didn't dawn on me at that point that we should come up  with this posable type of guy.  At any rate, I went in and bought a couple of those wooden dolls.  
When I got back to Rhode Island, still thinking about this thing, Stan Weston decided he wasn't gonna let me breathe too much; he got back on the phone and said, "Hey Don, what about The Lieutenant?".  It started to grow on me.  Sometime later I went back to New York-I don't know the exact time frame-and I went to the Soldier Shop on Madison Avenue.  It's still there.  It's an expensive collectibles place where you can buy military figures of periods from Napoleon to World War Two that cost from $300 to $1,000.  Really gorgeous stuff.  The more I thought about it, the more exciting that colorful world of toy soldiers became.  Stan Weston sent me war medals with little cards that said, "Why don't you do a toy solider like The Lieutenant and give him medals and decorations like this.".
Collecting Toys: So, contrary to some versions of this story, Weston actually campaigned to see The Lieutenant represented in a Hasbro toy line?
Don Levine: He campaigned to sell The Lieutenant, most definitely.  My boss, Merrill Hassenfeld, was away in Israel at the time.  I remember sitting down with the R & D people and saying, "I want to do a solider, and I want that solider to bend so you can stick him in a jeep or put him in a helicopter.".  I figured that if we could make him able to pose in the way the figures at the Solider Shop were posed, we'd have something unique, something really fascinating.  We ended up with a U.S. Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Corps figure.  One body, with four uniforms.  And I think one of the guys took this home and his wife sewed the outfit, or one of the women in the shop did it.
Now the scene changes and I've got these figures in a cigar box on my desk.  Mr. Hassenfeld comes back from israel and says to me, "What's up?  What's cooking?"  I said, "Well, the doctor kits are going to be like this and the Mr. Potato Heads are gonna be like that and we're doing a girls' cosmetic line-but I want to show you something.".  And I opened up the cigar box and showed him the dolls.
He said, "What is this?".
I filled him in on my trip to New York City and my talks with Stan Weston, and how I'd been thinking about military and action toys.  He looked at the dolls and said, "Well, where's this going to be made?"  I said we could do it in the Orient.  Now, up to that point the people in the Orient were considered very adventurous in the toy industry.  We at Hasbro had never made a doll-we were making doctor and nurse kits in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Merrill looked at this and being a very conservative gentleman, said, "Gee, I just don't know.  Don, you're going sort of out of your league here.  I think you're great for thinking up something like this, but I don't know--I'll think about it."
I became more passionate about this thing as it went down the road.  And it wasn't "GI Joe" yet-it was Rocky the Marine, Skip the Sailor, and Ace the Fighter Pilot.  We came up with these names and started to do some prototype boxes.  By now it was  February or March, and we were developing product for the next year.  I kept saying to Merrill, "What about it?  What about it?".
Finally, one Friday night-and I cannot tell you when-I was working late and as I left my office to go home there was Merrill at his desk as I walked by.  He sat there working like he always did-his glasses on his nose and a cigar in his mouth.  I walked in and said, "Hey, I wanna tell you something.  I'm very interested in this GI Joe thing.  I'm not missing a beat in other things I'm doing, but really . . .".  He said, "Listen, I'm going to do something.  At my expense I'll fly three or four top toy buyers to Rhode Island.  I'm going to show them this concept and the other two or three concepts that we're high on, and whatever happens, I want you to be a big boy and get off this thing.".
Collecting Toys: The name "GI Joe" had already been applied to your idea by the time it was shown to buyers?".
Don Levine: I think that had been determined already.  The ad agency, Fred Bruns, said we couldn't do Skip the Sailor and those other names, and I'd happened upon the 1945 movie The Story of GI Joe on TV.  The name was in place.
So we had several buyers come in: the dean of toy buyers from Sears Roebuck, a department store buyer, and a wholesale buyer-one by one.  They all said, one after another, "If you do this GI Joe thing, you've got yourself a mega-something.".  [But they added] "Be careful, Merrill, this is being done in the Orient and it's something you've never done before and it's quite tricky.".
Some time later there was another late night at Hasbro, and Merrill was sitting in his office and I walked in and said, "Now you be a big boy and you do this darn thing.".  He looked at me and asked how long it would take me to get ready to go to the Orient, where I'd never been before.  I said, "Probably about 24 minutes.".  Then he said, "Get yourself a passport.".  We didn't go right away because we didn't have everything prepared the way I thought we should have.  We had a smattering of Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Corps items and we had logos.  But once we got those ideas together, it was ready to happen.
Collecting Toys: By this time it's the middle of the year and Toy fair is looming a few months away?".
Don Levine: Not only that, but we'd have to ship during that year, so we couldn't say, "Hey fellas, how do you like it?" in February of 1964 and then expect them to wait until '65 to buy.
Collecting Toys: Much has been written about your efforts to side-step the "doll" issue.  Specifically, how did you go about selling GI Joe?".
Don Levine: Instead of just walking into Toy Fair where there may have been several thousand buyers who came down to the Hasbro showroom, we decided to take over the basement theater of the Barbazan Plaza Hotel in Manhattan and invite all of our sales force from around the country.
Collecting Toys: And you did an exclusive showing for them?
Don Levine: Yes, but first we brought in the same gentlemen we had originally pitched the line to, the guys who said "Go do it," and gave them the first chance to buy GI Joe.
Collecting Toys: So was the reaction at this early showing as positive as you hoped it would be?
Don Levine: It was a mixed bag.  Some of them said, "A boy'll never buy a doll."  Others said, "If you do this you'll really have a winner."  But the main attitude was that a boy would never buy a doll.
Collecting Toys: And this is after the money's already been sunk into it.
Don Levine: Yes, sir.  But we really had a feeling that those four original guys would buy it and test it in their stores.  You know, in the toy business there's an adage about "selling in" and "selling out".  The sell-in is what you sell to a store like Toys R Us.  Once it's on the counter, you don't know what the sell-out is going to be, which is really the moment of truth: what are the kids going to buy?  We knew we had four gentlemen who were going to buy it and test it in their stores, but who knew what would happen then?
We started to get the feeling that we'd better not let this thing fall under the umbrella of being a male doll.  I remember Merrill getting up in front of our sales force at the Barbazan Hotel and saying, "Don't you dare sell this as a doll!  If I walk behind a table" (where the buyers would be sitting) "and catch any of you guys selling this as a doll, we're not going to ship it to you.  You're out.  It's not a doll-it's a soldier; an articulated, moving soldier."
I wanted to show GI Joe at Toy Fair in the most exciting way ever.  I wanted to make sure that this thing exploded at Toy Fair and took  the breath away from 2,000 people, and the buyers would say, "God, you gotta get to Hasbro's showroom to see what they've got."  I didn't want to go in with this stuff just hung up there on the wall.  So we built dioramas enclosed in glass-I can still see them in my mind-they were monsters.  For Air Corps we had a plane built with GI Joe on the scene and all the pilots around.  For the Army set-up, we had 20 or 30 GI Joes in a battle scene.  For the Navy, we had the ship.  We spent thousands and thousands of dollars on these things, making them as elaborate as we could.  I made sure that when the designers were setting them up that they featured GI Joe in all kinds of crazy poses, because the posability was what I wanted to sell-you could never do this with a toy before.  The buyers took one look and, whoosh-they were writing order after order.
Collecting Toys: Thirty-one years later, the order writing continues.  What has been your greatest source of satisfaction from your role in creating GI Joe and revolutionizing the toy industry?
Don Levine: When we were on the U.S.S. Intrepid last summer (1994) for the GI Joe convention, one of the best parts of the experience for me was the fact that there were guys walking around the ship who came up to me and said, "I had nothing growing up as a kid, I wasn't from an affluent family.  But I want to tell you something, Mr. Levine.  I had GI Joe."
I have to admit-that's a very good feeling.






Friday, February 14, 2014

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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Beatlemania #44

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Remember Brandon Lee . . . .

Killed 25 years ago when he was struck by a bullet loaded into a prop gun, Brandon Lee never lived to see the success he would achieve af...