”Star Wars” stuff already out in force

At the movies, Darth Vader is ready to wage war against the Jedi Knights.

On toy store shelves, he’s ready for a dollop of sour cream and some chives.

In the form of “Darth Tater,” that is – the impossibly cute Mr. Potato Head toy that comes with a spud-sized Vader helmet and lightsaber.

That colossal creaking sound you hear is the “Star Wars” merchandising machine gearing up for another onslaught this spring with the May 19 release of “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” the final film in George Lucas’ six-episode saga.

As with the previous five “Star Wars” movies, it’s going to be yet another summer filled with droids, Wookiees and squiggly aliens of all shapes and sizes. In the discount stores, grocery stores and fast-food outlets, there’s more than just a chance your eyes will meet Yoda’s steely gaze.

“Star Wars” ephemera is so darned ubiquitous these days that it is almost impossible to believe that in 1977, the collector’s landscape was practically barren.

Reports that 20th Century Fox didn’t think Lucas’ space opera would amount to much are greatly exaggerated by today’s fanboys. The studio knew it had something special in the film’s groundbreaking special effects, fantastic production design and thrilling dogfights.

But even though toy marketers had a long history of churning out Buck Rogers disintegrator pistols and Dick Tracy decoder rings, Lucas had trouble interesting manufacturers in getting “Star Wars” trinkets in production before the movie’s release.

When the film became an immediate hit in May 1977, toy company Kenner Products found itself with mixed blessings. The Play-Doh and Easy-Bake Oven manufacturer had negotiated the rights to create all sorts of playthings to tie in with the movie. Unfortunately, Kenner hadn’t actually started to produce its toy line as the “Star Wars” juggernaut took off.

Kenner immediately kicked its design and fabrication teams into overdrive, but creating a line of poseable plastic action figures takes time. Realizing that sculpting original references, making molds, refining the painting process and coordinating packaging couldn’t be completed in time for the 1977 Christmas season, Kenner offered haggard shoppers a next-best “toy”: the Early Bird Certificate Package.

Little more than an envelope with a cardboard display stand and a couple of stickers, the Early Bird package’s real draw was a certificate kids could fill out and drop in the mail. Kenner promised to exchange every certificate for four newly minted 3 3/4-inch action figures: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and R2-D2.

A flier enclosed with the Early Bird figures told kids, “Welcome to the exciting world of Star Wars! … We’re sure you’ll enjoy completing your collection with the many other STAR WARS characters, toys and spaceships, when they’re available in stores soon.”

Kenner wasn’t kidding about the “many other” part. The floodgates opened in 1978. The “Star Wars”-obsessed could start their day with a C-3PO toothbrush, tote lunch in a Darth Vader lunchbox, spend recess trading Ben Kenobi collector’s cards, eat dinner from a Death Star plate, then don Hans Solo pajamas before hopping into “Star Wars” bedsheets.

As every film in the series has debuted, manufacturers have upped the ante with the tie-ins. “Episode III” merchandise started showing up in stores in early 2005, even to the detriment of keeping the film’s story secret. In fact, the official “Revenge of the Sith” novelization and comic books, telling the whole story in detail, are already in stores.

Cereal and snack-food aisles are lined with Lucas characters. Chewbacca the Wookiee adorns a box of Cheez-It Twisterz, while Darth Vader hawks fruit snacks.

As the Sith get their revenge this spring, the “Star Wars” air fresheners, soda cup-toppers and school supplies are sure to start popping up everywhere you turn. The audience of kiddie fans will be grappling with the adult collectors for every limited-edition Yoda lightsaber and official General Grievous replica breastplate.

Twenty-eight years from now, there still should be enough “Star Wars” lucre to go around.


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