Fight­ing fit at 50

GI Joe, the world’s first ac­tion fig­ure, marks his first half-century this month.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By CHRIS CAROLA

THE birth­day of what has been called the world’s first ac­tion fig­ure is be­ing cel­e­brated this month by col­lec­tors and the toy­maker that in­tro­duced it just be­fore the United States plunged into the quag­mire that would be­come the Viet­nam War – a storm that GI Joe seems to have weath­ered pretty well.

Since Has­bro brought it to the world’s at­ten­tion at the an­nual toy fair in New York City in early 1964, GI Joe has un­der­gone many changes, some the re­sult of shifts in pub­lic sen­ti­ment for mil­i­tary­themed toys, oth­ers dic­tated by the mar­ket­place.

Still, whether it’s the orig­i­nal “mov­able fight­ing man” decked out in the uni­forms of the four branches of the US mil­i­tary, or to­day’s scaled-down prod­ucts, GI Joe re­mains a pop­u­lar brand.

“Joe stood for ev­ery­thing that was meant to be good: fight­ing evil, do­ing what’s right for people,” said Alan Hassen­feld, the 65-year-old for­mer CEO for Rhode Is­land-based Has­bro Inc, whose fa­ther, Mer­rill, over­saw GI Joe’s de­vel­op­ment in 1963.

But it’s Don Levine, then the com­pany’s head of re­search and de­vel­op­ment, who is of­ten re­ferred to as the “fa­ther” of GI Joe for shep­herd­ing the toy through de­sign and de­vel­op­ment.

Levine and his team came up with a 30cm ar­tic­u­lated fig­ure with 21 mov­ing parts, and since the com­pany’s em­ploy­ees in­cluded many mil­i­tary vet­er­ans, it was de­cided to out­fit the toy in the uni­forms of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, with such ac­ces­sories as guns, hel­mets and ve­hi­cles.

Levine, who served in the Army in Korea, said he got the idea for the mov­able fig­ure as a way to hon­our vet­er­ans.

But he and his team knew the prod­uct wasn’t in Has­bro’s usual mould, and it took years of pitches be­fore Mer­rill Hassen­feld gave it the com­pany’s full back­ing.

“Most boys in the 1960s had a fa­ther or a rel­a­tive who was or had been in the mil­i­tary,” said Pa­tri­cia Ho­gan, cu­ra­tor at The Strong Na­tional Mu­seum of Play in Rochester, home to the Na­tional Toy Hall of Fame.

“Once you’ve bought Joe, you need to buy all the ac­ces­sories and play sets and add-ons, which was great for busi­ness.”

GI Joe hit the shelves in time for the 1964 Christ­mas shop­ping sea­son and soon be­came a big seller at US$4 apiece.

It re­mained pop­u­lar un­til the late 1960s, as op­po­si­tion to Viet­nam in­ten­si­fied and par­ents shied away from mil­i­tary-re­lated toys. Has­bro coun­tered in 1970 by in­tro­duc­ing “Ad­ven­ture Team” GI Joes that played down the mil­i­tary con­nec­tion.

Into the 1970s, GI Joes fea­tured “life­like hair” and “kung-fu grip” and were out­fit­ted with scuba gear to save the oceans and ex­plorer’s cloth­ing for dis­cov­er­ing mum­mies.

Has­bro dis­con­tin­ued pro­duc­tion later that decade. In the early 1980s, Has­bro shrank Joe to 90mm, the same size as fig­ures made pop­u­lar by Star Wars. It has stuck to that size, with the oc­ca­sional is­sue of larger spe­cial edi­tions.

Over the decades, GI Joe has spawned comic books, car­toons, two movies star­ring Chan­ning Ta­tum, and a GI Joe Col­lec­tor’s Club and its an­nual con­ven­tion – GIJoeCon – held in Dal­las in April. But for many GI Joe fans of a cer­tain age, the newer prod­ucts hold no ap­peal.

“The 12-inch GI Joe built that com­pany,” said Tearle Ashby, of the New York vil­lage of Ball­ston Spa.

“The stuff they put out now is garbage.”

Ashby, a psy­chother­a­pist who turns 50 in June, played with GI Joes as a boy, but few sur­vived, fall­ing vic­tim to en­coun­ters with fire­crack­ers and lit­tle para­chutes that failed to open.

“Ca­su­al­ties of war,” said Ashby, who started col­lect­ing the 30cm Joes 20 years ago and now owns about 2,000.

He and other col­lec­tors plan to bring their GI Joes to the New York State Mil­i­tary Mu­seum in Saratoga Springs to cel­e­brate the 50th birth­day.

The ex­act date of GI Joe’s in­tro­duc­tion re­mains hazy.

Ashby and oth­ers, in­clud­ing Has­bro, be­lieve it was in Fe­bru­ary 1964 – but Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional Toy Fair or­gan­is­ers say it was held in March that year.

Has­bro said it in­tends to an­nounce de­tails of its 50th an­niver­sary plans dur­ing this year’s fair in New York on Feb 16-19.

GI Joe was elected into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2004, six years af­ter Barbie was en­shrined.

Ho­gan said the hall doesn’t have poli­cies pro­hibit­ing toy weapons from in­duc­tion, al­though all can­di­dates must be deemed safe.

The United States was in the early stages of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq a decade ago, so GI Joe’s in­duc­tion didn’t meet the op­po­si­tion it might have faced as the con­flicts dragged on, Ho­gan said.

“I sus­pect,” she said, “most people would have ac­knowl­edged that GI Joe re­ally does be­long in the Toy Hall of Fame.” – AP

Five decades: Col­lec­tor tearle ashby pos­ing with some of his GI Joe ac­tion fig­ures in New york. a half-century af­ter the 30cm doll was in­tro­duced at a New york City toy fair, the iconic ac­tion fig­ure is be­ing cel­e­brated by col­lec­tors with a dis­play at the New york State Mil­i­tary Mu­seum. — aP

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