Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Toys from the Nether-Aisle

As a kid my toy shelves were riddled with all-things-transforming, even still, I always had a soft spot for some of the more "hands-on" toys that my friends considered beneath them. These were usually found (depending on where you shopped) on the next-to-the-last row before either the pet supplies or cards and stationery. You know the aisle. It's the one where you would find some lame board game to hide your G.I. Joe behind until you got enough money. You knew good and well that it would be a while before some sad sack would come along and buy that stupid box of Magic Rocks. Well my friend, meet Mr. Sad Sack!
Ahhh, the simple pleasure of peeling pop-colored pieces of plastic, shaped like superheroes and TV stars, from their shiny black prison. Toys of the 80's held such simple pleasures. I'm not sure what it was about Colorforms that tickled my fancy as a kid but even at an early age I could see the beauty in those shitty little pieces of plastic as they hung dynamically from their 2-D stage.
I think I had about fifteen of these sets as a kid. My next door neighbor Brian Hays had just about every Star Wars playset and vehicle there was to offer. But me? I had every Colorforms theme imaginable. It's not that it was because they were cheaper and therefore a way for my parents to placate my incessant whining about wanting the latest Go-Bot or
Transformer. Hell no! I still got those too! I actually liked this strange little world that existed just under the box lid. They had a very graphic look to them, I loved the bold lines and stylized images. They also had a certain feel and even a special...smell to them. I know it's crazy but you go ahead and tell me you've never sniffed a freshly opened plastic toy (by the way, Strawberry Shortcake doesn't count, that's a given). Part of the joy of plastic toys is that they smell and Colorforms smelled great!

My re-fascination began when I stumbled across a near-mint condition Pee-Wee's Playhouse "Deluxe" playset at Cheap Charlies some time ago that I managed to not hide away in storage as it is just too good to look at. But sadly, as is with all toys from the 80's (especially those made from cardboard), I only have memories of my old Colorforms sets; that and the faint smell of plastic in my nostrils.

Colorforms must have been the easiest thing in the world for toy companies like Mattel and Galoob, etc. to crank out, I'm not sure why there weren't ten different versions of each. I would imagine it would only take a minute for a background artist to whip out some multi-purpose scene for you to play out with the characters. Usually the backgrounds weren't that good at all. In some cases, the scene didn't even make sense. I remember that my Transformers Colorforms (my favorite one!) had a Cybertron background for you to play with. This was several seasons before anyone even knew what Cybertron looked like...and once we found out what it looked like, the background looked nothing like it! These must have been the first things ever produced in the toy lines, even before final character designs were approved. I distinctly remember going through my old Transformers Colorforms loooong after the series had ended and looking at some of the Colorforms characters and going "who the fuck is that supposed to be?!" You had to use a little imagination when playing with these.

Such simplicity, you for your $1.35 you get: 1) A great piece of art on the box...again, notice how inacurate the characters look, is that supposed to be Man-at-Arms? 2) A really nice background playset. Make sure that you only develop your action story around a cliff in front of Grayskull Castle. Oh, and Battle Cat always has to play a role in your story. 3) Great monochromatic character art. He-man? Yeah, his skin is magenta...gotta problem with that?!

Colorforms came in every flavor. Mostly as a companion to a popular cartoon; they also extended the storylines of comic books, movies, television series and even toys with no discernable cartoon; my sister had Hollie Hobby. Something even cooler are the fads of the era getting their own Colorforms set. Pac-Man (although he did have a cartoon) and Michael Jackson circa Thriller had their own playsets. I am remiss in being able to tell you exactly what the MJ playset looked like.

One of my prized posessions even by Colorforms standards was the Kiss Colorforms set that I had as a kid. This was actually a cool "score" among all the real three dimensional toys that my friends had. Kiss has been cool for years and years especially right after "Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park" which I was obsessed by. Kiss are superheroes! Well, in keeping with that theme, Kiss were in vivid Colorform to use their powers to stop the evil record producer (aren't they all evil?). Just like the Kiss solo albums where each member had their own signature color, the coolest thing about the standard Colorform M.O. was that each Kiss member here too had their own addition to their movie style superpower. Peter Criss was always my favorite Kiss member even though I abhored the color green as a kid and with Colorforms, they stuck him with the same hue. It was never as bad as what they did with Paul Stanley though. On his solo album cover he got the coveted purple background but here get! Wretch!


Shrinky Dinks were, not surpringly, from the makers of Colorforms. Not so much hours and hours of fun as it was an afternoon project that your mother thought you would "enjoy." It did keep you busy for a little while I guess, but by the time you were done, you hated life. Don't get me wrong, I look upon Shrinky Dinks with nothing but rabid nostalgia but the problem is that you would usually color the wrong side and it wouldn't stick or you would color the rough side and went out of the lines. And let me tell you something, I am a perfectionist. If ever there was a picture that I colored outside of the lines, it was burned immediately. Shrinky Dinks were the bain of my young artistic self. I could never cut each of the images out to my liking, the plastic was always so tough and would tear if you bent it the wrong way. Once baked of course, your Papa Smurf would have a large gash across his smurfy new hat.

I am not sure that I ever "asked" for a set of Shrinky Dinks. I loved the baking process and watching them "shrink" but it was kind of a rip because I never got to bake them myself and we never had a stove with a little window so I missed out on the experience those two brats had on the commercial - it kind of ruined me on the "magic" of Shrinky Dinks all together. The figures would also come out very thick and sometimes they would be near charred. I am not sure what I ever did with my Shrinky Dinks after they were baked either. Colorforms were one thing, they were very graceful but Shrinky Dinks were way too ghetto even for the imaginative. The little plastic slots that you could use to "stand" your figure up with rarely fit and sometimes the weight of your figure was no match for its puny base and would topple over. It was hard imagine a battle with a barely-transleucent Skeletor and He-Man.

I always kind of liked the sheets of plastic without any color on them. They were pristine. But then my inner-arsonist would always win out, he loved to watch them burn!

I loved lugging out the Lite-Brite once in a while. It wasn't exactly one of those toys that you could tell your friends about or even play with another person. I was way too complete-ist and competitive for that. You couldn't run down the street and exclaim that you got the latest Lite-Brite sheets for Spiderman. No one would care and I rather doubt that you would do such a thing anyway. Also, I never got why it was a "toy" or a "game." It was a little like Solitaire for kids who hated cards. Once again though, I was mesmerized by the simple esthetics of the Lite-Brite. It was more of a teddy bear than a toy. It gave me comfort on scary nights. Who didn't ever plug it in right before bed and let it's incandescent light put you to sleep. I would especially enjoy my Lite-Brite if I pegged all of the holes with the blue or purple pegs so that the light would be cool and subdued. Whether "non-artistic" kids realized it or not, they were getting a pretty good education on color study. Set to a black matte background you knew what worked and what didn't. I would dare say that people who proclaim that they have no artistic talent were pretty damn good with colored plastic pegs. Forget trying to actually make what the sheets told you to. SCREW THAT! No, Lite-Brite was all about making what ever the hell you felt like making. Although, I did try to make that fucking clown on the box more than no avail.

Like many of the 80's toy remakes, this too got an overhaul. It is now a garish orb or cube like device devoid of any personality. I miss the clunky box the size of a TV. I may have expressed my olfactory fascination with you before, but this toy also had a certain smell. The Lite-Brite had a warm, friendly smell to it; mainly due to the fan in the back that kept the box from overheating. But also, the plastic pegs smelled sweetly and the paper even smelled mellow like construction paper after it is heated...which is essentially what it was I guess. Sometimes I would use actual construction paper but it never seemed to do the job like the kind you purchased in the refill packs. You eventually had to retire the sheets because once you stuck a hole in it, you had to always go back and stick a peg in it or blinding white light would shoot out and that just wasn't cool.


One of the other great toys that I remember from the 80's (and I use the word "toy" lightly here) was Magic Rocks. I think I remember them as Magic Crystals or something but in researching it, it comes up as Magic Rocks. I might have had an off-brand or something. Like Shrinky Dinks, this too was only feasable with parental supervision. I know that there was a lot of stuff in the 80's that probably should have had parental controls on them but what kid would want to actually eat these foul smelling sulpher rocks? If you did you wouldn't even be able to see them grow and where's the fun in that? Anyway, this was one of those things that gave you a little satisfaction at the start but then you had to wait all night before it would reach its zenith. But once it did, man oh man! What a sight! And it would last for days and days and days. The problem with Magic Rocks is that you never really quite knew exactly how the crystals would form so you never got a really perfect growth (like on the box) but you had some really wicked looking stalagmites!
The death of your Magic Rocks empire would usually come when you were told to move the damn fish bowl to your bedroom (because you just had to make this stew on the dining room table) and in the process of carrying this fragile universe, any sudden move would send your pink and purple castles crashing down leaving nothing but stumps and floating spears of your once great work of art.


TripAway2Day said...

Colorforms AND Shrinky Dinks!

betamike...I think I LUV you!

Princess Guiness said...

This is awesome. I've been reminded of days gone by... and now have the 'Lite-brite' jingle playing in my head. I still don't know the words...

Princess Guiness said...

Correction... I still don't know the words after, "Lite-Brite, Lite-Brite. Turn on the....."

betamike said...

I think it went "Lite-Brite, Lite-Brite...something something... Making thi-ings with liii-iight What a sight -- making things with Lite-Brite!" Either way the internet is NO help!

Brian said...

Mr. MK...

You totally made my evening with that trip through nostalgia!
Tell me, were Colorforms like thin plastic things that you could like throw on the background and they'd basically stick anywhere? And they had a distinct smell?

As for Shrinky Dinks...I had the Smurf collection...and you're right...they were basically crap after they were done baking. It was so much fun to watch them shrink...kind of like my penis in cold water! Ha ha ha ha.

As for Lite Brite, I will admit to falling asleep to its glow. It's like falling asleep to Christmas lights in your window when you are a kid. Oh my god, I'm going to cry. I'm 30! That was sooooo long ago!

Oh and I see that for 2008 Hollywood is thinking about a CGI version of the Smurfs!I'm on a toy kick now!