Thursday, May 25, 2017

8 Essentials for Living the Original Star Wars Life

When Twentieth Century Fox took a major gamble on a goofy space fantasy imagined by that goofy kid who’d made American Graffiti, neither that company nor George Lucas could have imagined we’d still be so ensconced in Star Wars forty years later. In fact, fans are now able to ensconce themselves more completely in that wacky universe of wookiees, droids, banthas, and wampas than they could back in the late seventies even though it seemed that every conceivable object had some sort of Star Wars equivalent back then. However, compared to a time when anyone can snooze in a tauntaun sleeping bag, make waffles shaped like the Death Star, or dab on Lando-scented cologne, the late seventies was a comparable Tatooine-desert of Star Wars merchandise. You couldn’t even watch the movies on your TV set yet, so those who wished to never leave Lucas Land had to make do with the essential bits of Star Wars-ernalia available. So for you contemporary kids who don’t understand how good you have it, here are eight examples Star Wars essentials every fanatic worth his or her salt owned back when nobody knew what the hell A New Hope was.

1. Kenner Toys

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The most effective way to melt into the Star Wars universe aside from watching the films has always been to get down on the floor surrounded by little bits of Star Wars-shaped plastic. The history of Kenner’s Star Wars figures has been regurgitated many, many, many times. I’m sure you already know about how unprofitable movie-tie-in toys had been, how Lucas made his fortune by retaining merchandising rights, how the toys weren’t ready for X-mas 1977 so Kenner sold cardboard “Early Bird” vouchers for Luke, Leia, Chewie, and R2-D2 figures instead. Blah, blah. Equally important is how nifty these little figures that could fit into scale Millennium Falcons and TIE-fighters were, how kooky the decisions to make figures of barely-on-screen characters like Prune Face and not-on-screen-at-all characters like Cloud Car Pilot was while neglecting more prominent characters like Tarkin and Uncle Owen because they didn’t look as cool, and how holding one of these tiny things in your hand today draws up childhood memories like biting into a Proustian Madeleine. And let’s not neglect all of those other variations of Star Wars playthings, like the too-big-to-fit-into-a-plastic-X-Wing “large size” figures that did such an effective job of capturing character likenesses and that plush Chewbacca toy that inspired so many of us to toss our teddy bears in the bin.

2. Listening Materials

Since kids could not revisit Star Wars by popping a VHS into the VCR until they became reasonably affordable in the nineties, we had to make do with simply hearing the movie. We could do so with The Story of Star Wars, a truncated audio recording of the film with dead-serious narration by Roscoe Lee Brown, a mainstay of seventies sitcoms. The most striking thing about this book and record set is how excruciatingly boring Star Wars is without its moving visuals. The record’s 50 minutes feels about three times longer than the film’s two hours. Much easier to digest were the Read-Along book and record (or cassette) sets, which featured unconvincing actors reading synopsized dialogue that leaves the films’ plots feeling like a series of unconnected adventure scenes but boogies along like a customized Landspeeder. For those who just wanted to get their hair blown back by John Williams’s boisterous scores, there were proper soundtrack records in single and double-LP formats. For those who embraced the utter kitschiness of all those puppet-headed aliens and trash can-shaped robots, there were gloriously tacky disco and holiday-themed Star Wars discs.

3. Printed Materials

If you just wanted the story without the sounds, you could curl up with any number of Star Wars books. For the kids there were very attractive and utterly essential hardcover storybooks of the three films, which condensed the stories (if not quite as drastically as those Read-Along records did), but delivered an emperor’s ransom in wonderful pictures. For those with slightly more stable attention spans, there were the novelizations by the likes of Alan Dean Foster, Donald F. Glut, and James Kahn (no, not the one from Misery). Along with the ace prose one should always expect from a novelization of a children’s movie, these books offered deleted scenes, plot deviations, alternate details on classic characters like Wiosleia (had to look that one up), and crucial details. It was in the Return of the Jedi novelization that we learned Darth Vader became Darth Vader after Ob-Wan hip checked him into “a molten pit.” Even before people like Timothy Zahn and A.C. Crispin turned Expanded Universe stories into a cottage industry, the printed page afforded opportunities to stretch story beyond screen. Written as a possible blueprint for a cinematic sequel in the event Star Wars wasn’t a big enough hit to warrant a big budget and Harrison Ford opted not to rejoin the gang, Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye pitted Darth Vader against an uncomfortably lusty Luke and Leia on a swamp planet that is not Dagobah. Brian Daley’s Han Solo Adventures and L. Neil Smith’s Lando Calrissian Adventures trilogies also gave us more time with the two most fun characters in the Star Wars world. For a complete marriage of alternate tales and alternate visuals, nothing beat Marvel’s decade-long comics series, the awesomeness of which you can read more about here

4. Topps Cards

For those who prefer the visuals without all those difficult to pronounce words, the Topps trading cards company offered packs of Star Wars cards. The images were grainy, often out of focus, and occasionally invaded by C-3PO’s unseemly golden penis, but they provided the most complete visual creations of the movies in the pre-affordable-VHS days. Gary Gerani’s captions were pithy and wry, and the bonus stickers often moved our moms to make their own pithy, wry, and infuriated comments when attempting to scrape them off of our bedroom doors. Abrams Books has collected these cards into three anthologies that are essential despite the big blunder of shrinking down the images from The Empire Strikes Back, the most visually arresting Star Wars picture.

5. Cups and Glasses

Now for Star Wars artwork, only Marvel’s comic artists rivaled whoever painted those images on Dixie’s series of tiny paper cups. After downing a thimble-full of Hi-C, we would savor and save those picturesque Dixie Cups. Some focused on individual characters; others recreated classic scenes like the Jawas giving R2-D2 a lift to their Sandcrawler or General Dodonna giving a lecture on blowing up the Death Star. For equally fine quality art, there was Burger King’s series of drinking glasses adapted from some very cool paintings by Del Nichols. Pathmark-brand grape soda never tasted so good as it did when drunk from a Burger King Star Wars glass even if the excessive level of lead in the paint on those glasses probably made us all perform a little poorer in math class.

6. For the Home

So we didn’t have Wampa throw rugs. We still could live in the lap of Lucas luxury by gussying up our rooms with Star Wars curtains, bedsheets, and posters, and that’s not too shabby. Neither were the sundry other Star Wars doodads and products strewn around our homes. In the kitchen you could swipe a cookie from a Lucas-approved R2-D2 jar, eat it off of Boba Fett and Darth Vader’s evil mugs emblazoned on a paper plate, which of course sits atop a Boba and Chewie placemat, and wash it all down with some cold milk guzzled from one of those SAT-score-affecting Burger King glasses or a Lucas-approved ceramic Chewbacca mug. Thoroughly covered in cookie crumbs and milk, we would retire to the bathroom to clean up with a bar of soap pulled from a Landspeeder soap dish or unscrew Yoda’s head from his shoulders to pour out a dollop of the shampoo within. Check that enviable R2-D2 and C-3PO clock on the night table because it’s time to do your homework, which may involve erasing an error with Bib Fortuna’s head or fixing a torn worksheet with a scrap of Scotch tape pulled from C-3PO’s crotch. We didn’t have Landspeeder-shaped beds yet, but we did a pretty good job of living in a Galaxy far, far away.

7. Food

Getting back to the kitchen, we original Star Wars maniacs couldn’t quite subsist on intergalactic foods, lest we wanted to risk a serious case of scurvy, but we did have a few in the cupboard. You’d never want to risk slicing open your gums with that stale gum in a packet of Topps trading cards, but you might consider popping a few tablets of Topps’ Star Wars candy dispensed from a plastic Vader head or munching on a chocolate Gamorrean Guard, Jabba the Hutt, or other disgusting creature from a packet of Star Wars Cookies from Pepperidge Farm. For a skosh more nutrition, consider a bowl of C-3POs Cereal for breakfast. Afterward you could scissor the mask of Mark Hamill’s face off the back of the box, strap it to your own face, and terrify your friends into giving you their Jabba cookies.

8. Clothing

Once you’ve finished playing with, reading, listening to, trading, drinking from, sleeping in, bathing with, and eating Star Wars, you could complete your vintage Star Wars life by shrouding yourself in Star Wars. If there was a kid born in the seventies who did not own a Chewie and Han or Yoda T-shirt, I did not know that kid. However, Star Wear did not end on the torso. On our feet we wore Clarks’ Star Wars sneakers rimmed with images of Vader, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO, or for a more after-hours vibe, fuzzy blue slippers with a rubber Vader helmet affixed to the toe. Come Halloween, every kid looked like a Cantina freak by slipping on a plastic Ben Cooper Boba Fett costume that implied the galaxy’s most feared bounty hunter was a supreme narcissist who went around with an image of himself giving the Black Power salute across his chest during off hours. Underneath it all were Underoos that allowed us to be Luke Skywalker in the cockpit of his X-Wing or Princess Leia bickering on Hoth no matter what we wore for the outside world to see. We couldn’t yet wear a wookiee-fur coat to fend off the cold or make our dogs hate us by dressing them in metal bikini costumes, but we still managed to wear a little Star Wars, just as we seventies and eighties kids managed to work our favorite movie into every other aspect of our lives.

Star Wars was released forty years ago today.
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