Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
The way you kept the love alive in your heart
Watching Star Wars for the first time with my daughter, and looking back. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Today's newsletter is inspired by the fact that I recently convinced my daughter to watch the original Star Wars with me. Also, I told her a story about a gift that kids got for Christmas when it first came out.
We’ll get to the gift in a second. First, I will be very interested to know how readers of this newsletter remember the original Star Wars.
I think most of us are old enough to have experienced it. But, do we still have these kinds of broad cultural moments when it seems as if literally almost everyone is watching and talking about the same thing?
Just to pull out one “anecdotal data point,” Star Wars-mania was so intense back then that NPR actually produced and aired a 13-part radio serial of the entire movie—plus both of its original sequels.
I don’t see them doing that today, with say, Top Gun: Maverick (the top grossing movie of 2022).
I dug up a December 1977 interview with the top executives of Kenner, which was the toy company that had the rights to Star Wars merchandise—a gold mine they had no idea they were sitting on until it was almost too late.
Their contemporary research showed that by Christmas that year, one-third of American kids had seen Star Wars in movie theaters. Half of that one-third had gone back and seen it multiple times.
“Even those who haven't [seen it],” Kenner's director of marketing research back then, Robert Furgeson, told The Washington Post at the time, “one of the key things they want in life right now, is to see it.”
Kenner really was caught flat-footed; not having anticipated the movie’s success, they hadn’t designed or manufactured many toys.
As I tried to explain to my daughter, with the Christmas shopping season approaching they started to put plans in motion. But, their best case scenario was that they might have a few of the action figures (don’t call them dolls!) ready by spring 1978.
So, someone at Kenner came up with the idea of selling a “Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package,” which consisted of a nearly-empty box with a certificate entitling the bearer to have action figures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2D2, and Chewbacca shipped to them "between February 1st and June 1st" the following year.
Here's a video of the original commercial for this thing:
"The box was savaged by the media, and although sales were poor, the move kept Star Wars figures in the public's mind, ready for their 1978 release," one writer recalled.
As ridiculous as this was, it worked. Kenner came out with a total of 12 "action figures" in 1978, and ultimately $100 million worth of them that year. (Now we're up to about $42 billion in merchandising over the life of the franchise.)
It really was fertile ground. The toys stoked interest and created new Star Wars fans, even out of the two-thirds of kids who hadn't yet seen the movie.
In fact, the actor Adam Driver, who many years later played the key role of Kylo Ren in the Star Wars sequel, The Force Awakens, said he had been too young to see Star Wars when it first came out. But, he considered himself a fan (and jumped at the role as an adult) because he’d grown up playing with the toys.
Back in 1978, as writer Germain Lussier pointed out:
You couldn't simply rewatch the movies on VHS or something. If you wanted to relive the movie, the easiest way was to buy the toys and do it yourself.
That made Star Wars toys everything to fans at the beginning. Their full-time connection to the movies. The way you kept the love alive in your heart.
The digital marketer in me looks back at Kenner’s gambit and realizes the company also got something incredibly valuable out of this silly promotion: the names and addresses of thousands of families with at least one extremely rabid Star Wars fan.
Also, the Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package today is a sought-after collector’s item in certain circles. They’re apparently difficult to find intact, in part because so many eager kids tore them apart on Christmas morning in 1977.
“Seriously disfigured,” as a Star Wars collectibles website put it. Also, the idea of finding an example with the certificate included is apparently a bit of a white whale, because of course most of the certificates would have been cut out, filled out, and returned to Kenner.
Otherwise, you didn’t get your action figures in spring 1978.
Anyway, I wasn’t the most-rabid, number-1 Star Wars fan way back when. Within my family, that probably would have been my brother Jim, who is now an executive in the toy industry. (You can almost connect the dots.)
But it was part of my childhood. And I think it’s always a bit nerve-wracking when you try to share something with your kids in the hope that they’ll like it as much as you did when you were roughly their age.
Good news here: Even though I hadn’t actually watched the original movie in many years before the other night, I’m happy to say Star Wars stood the test of time. And, my daughter is now a fan.
Next up, The Godfather.
Then, if she’s really good, The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
Call for comments: What do you remember about the original Star Wars? What cultural things from your childhood did you really want to share with your kids? Finally: The Friends of Eddie Coyle really is one of my favorite movies. Anyone else a fan?
7 other things worth knowing today
Billionaire Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba has emerged in Tokyo, where he has apparently been hiding with his family since Beijing’s crackdown on the country’s star tech firms and its most powerful and wealthy business people. (The Guardian)
After six months, most of 33 companies and 903 workers who tried a four-day work week with 32 hours but no reduction in pay say they are unlikely ever to go back to a standard working week, according to the organizers of the global pilot program. (CNN)
Immigration and Customs Enforcement accidentally posted the names, birthdates, nationalities and locations of more than 6,000 immigrants who claimed to be fleeing torture and persecution to its website on Monday. The unprecedented data dump could expose the immigrants—all of whom are currently in ICE custody—to retaliation from the very individuals, gangs and governments they fled. (WashPost)
A Florida woman is suing Velveeta for $5 million, claiming that her instant macaroni didn't cook fast enough. (Insider)
This is the complicated story of an Afghan soldier who aided the U.S. military and spent months trying to reach the U.S. to request asylum. After finally arriving, he was arrested for failing to present himself with the correct paperwork. (Texas Tribune)
The late Ray Liotta's final film performance is about to be released, and it’s the based-on-true story of a black bear that ate a bunch of cocaine bricks that smugglers dropped in the mountains of northern Georgia, and went on a murderous rampage. (Mediate)
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced it's honoring the French baguette (did you know France produces 16 million a day?) to its "intangible cultural heritage" list. (BBC)
Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Darryl Moran/Flickr. See you in the comments!