In the 1970s Ape Mania conquered the planet. Brian Heiler remembers the boom in monkey merch, from the cool to the ludicrous…
It may surprise modern film fans to know that when the original Planet Of The Apes debuted in 1968 there were no stacks of merchandise or fast-food tie-ins that are now the stock-in-trade of blockbuster genre movies.
Ape-crazy kids had to be satisfied with a series of trading cards, a paperback novel tie-in and a soundtrack of the film’s score. It would take until the film earned a sequel for a comic book adaptation to exist. Ultimately, however, the franchise would change the way film properties were merchandised.
In the 1960s film was considered a risky proposition for toy makers. This had been cemented in 1967 by Doctor Dolittle, a flop produced by Arthur P Jacobs – ironically the same man who produced Apes – that left many a licensor with unsold product.
In fact, it wouldn’t be until the Apes movie franchise had breathed its last at the box office that high TV ratings for the earlier films indicated there might be merchandising gold in the Forbidden Zone.
The franchise’s small-screen success inspired CBS to commission a weekly Apes series for the fall of 1974. Sensing potential profit, Fox began an all-out blitz on the toy, garment and hobby industry.
Addar models was one of the first on the scene with a series of plastic model kits based on the Apes licence. This caught the attention of a young toy executive named Vincent Baiera, who noticed the kits selling well at a local hobby shop. Crucially, he mentioned this at the place he worked – a toy company called Mego.
Mego, riding high on the success of licensing the DC and Marvel superheroes, was anxious for another hit and the company’s president, Martin Abrams, was quick to notice that his own son was also a huge Planet Of The Apes fan. Mego quickly outbid rival toy maker Azrak Hamway International for the rights to produce action figures, vehicles and play sets for the Apes licence.
The Mego methodology of reusing the same action figure body made them incredibly reactive and they were able to have Apes toys on the shelves in early 1974. Their first five action figures craftily recycled accessories such as boots, belts and play sets from previous toys.
While Azrak Hamway didn’t get the action figure rights, they were awarded several other categories such as water pistols, wind-ups and
a terrific amount of nonsensical items, such as motorcycles and helicopters. Other toy manufacturers chasing a piece of
Apes action included Milton Bradley (board games), Marvel (comics and a monthly magazine), Peter Pan records, GAF (Viewmasters of the series pilot), Colorforms, Mattel (for a machine gun and ape mask combo), Don Post studios (rubber masks) and Ben Cooper (Halloween costumes). Just about every product a child could want or imagine was given a simian makeover and the merchandising spread beyond the US to Britain, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Australia and Japan. It was a truly global phenomenon.
Ape Mania came to a grinding halt with the cancellation of the TV series in late 1974. A cartoon series debuted on NBC in the autumn of 1975 and would help clear out much of the remaining unsold Apes merchandise.
While Ape Mania was a brief phenomenon during this time, it left a tremendous mark on pop culture and is still widely collected to this day. You can’t help but feel that this global blitz perhaps made an impression on a young George Lucas, who negotiated the merchandise rights for Star Wars away from 20th Century Fox – the Apes licence holder, who should have known better. A film that when it opened had very little merchandise, save for a series of trading cards, a paperback tie-in and a soundtrack of the score…