Editor’s note: The original version of this story ran in December 2015. To mark the 40th anniversary of that toy-less first Star Wars Christmas, we present a fully updated reprise, complete with additional insider interviews.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the first Star Wars Christmas, and maybe you haven’t. Maybe you know about the mail-in certificates, and maybe you don’t. Either way, the story is worth telling and retelling because for all that the future holds for the Disney era of George Lucas’s creations, the first Star Wars Christmas is the only Star Wars Christmas that will ever be defined by one “brilliant” idea — and zero action figures.
Our story begins in the 1940s — or at least it does when Corky Steiner tells it. Steiner is a former executive of the company once known as Kenner Products, and the son of Phil Steiner, who cofounded Kenner with brothers Al and Joe.
One day, Corky Steiner says, Al Steiner notices a kid blowing bubbles. Al Steiner figures there’s a toy to be had in that act of play, and he’s right. The Bubble-Matic Gun is born, and Kenner, a “very small company” that manufactured pine-tar soap, among other things, is reborn.
Going forward, Corky Steiner says, “Kenner was about looking at what kids saw and translating what they saw into toys.”
Fast-forward to the 1970s. Kenner’s a division of General Mills. It makes Easy Bake Ovens, and tops wish lists with its Six Million Dollar Man merchandise based on the day’s hit cyborg-action series. (Television shows, not movies, was where it was at for the toy industry.) Then one day a filmmaker shows up with an oddball proposal. Corky Steiner paints the scene: “A number of toy companies passed on [this] unusual presentation with funny names… These names are ridiculous. [People thought,] ‘This guy must be nuts.’”
“No, he’s not nuts,” Kenner’s research-and-development team says of Lucas and the pitch for his unseen film, Star Wars, per Steiner. “Everything we think we see in this script is a toy. This is a bonanza.”
Bernard Loomis, the then-president of Kenner, gives the green light: “You guys like it,” he says, according to Steiner, “go for it.”
While Kenner gets to work, Star Wars becomes a phenomenon. Released in May 1977, it rolls from summer through Thanksgiving as Hollywood’s unrivaled, No. 1 box-office hit. By holiday shopping season, Star Wars merchandise, including mass- and locally produced knockoffs, is flying off shelves.
There is, however, a hitch, for customers and for Santa alike.
“Once Kenner started getting into Star Wars it was pretty much all hands on deck, 24/7,” recounts Mark Boudreaux, an intern who would go on to become a full-time designer with the company, helping create the classic Millennium Falcon toy. “We didn’t see the trailer until February ’77 so that didn’t give us much time to actually put plastic product on the shelves.”
“It was impossible to get the toys in market in time for Christmas,” Steiner adds, “and, yes, we could get some stuff like puzzles and games, but we couldn’t get the essence of the toys.”
The essence or star of the Star Wars line is the 3.75-inch action figure cast in the detailed likenesses
of the film’s characters — and, as Steiner says, it’s not ready to ship.
So, Kenner’s Loomis goes for it again.
“They asked me to put together some preliminary conceptual documents — some artwork, fabricate some envelopes so that we can show our management team what the thoughts were,” says Boudreaux. “And it was quite an interesting conversation, if I recall, going to upper management and saying, ‘Hey, you know, we want to sell an empty cardboard box for under the tree.’”
And that becomes the crux of the company’s holiday campaign.
“These action figures are not yet available,” a 1977 Kenner TV commercial advises, “but the Star Wars Early Bird Certificate Package is in stores.”
Sold for about $10 each, the Early Bird Certificate Package is a little, rectangular box adorned with Star Wars illustrations. Inside is a form. Fill it out, mail it in — and then wait up to six months for Luke, Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca action figures to be sent to you.
In the age of same-day delivery, this deal sounds insane. In an analog galaxy far, far, away, the IOUs are a hit — “expected to be a complete sellout for Christmas ’77,” hometown newspapers report.
In California, 8-year-old Mike Sterling is among those sold.
“I was so in the bag for Star Wars… even just the promise of the eventual arrival of Star Wars action figures was enough to keep me happy,” says Sterling, currently the owner of the Camarillo, Calif., comic-and-toy shop Sterling Silver Comics.
In New Jersey, 12-year-old Gus Lopez is so anxious to get the Early Bird Certificate Package that he buys it for himself before Christmas — with money saved from a 20th-century profession known as a newspaper route.
“You have to keep in mind that in 1977 there was so little Star Wars product, so anything that came out was welcomed, especially around the action-figure line,” says Lopez, now the creator of The Star Wars Collectors Archive.
And the wait for those action figures?
“Waiting,” says Lopez, “was half the fun.”
And Christmas morning isn’t so bad, either.
“The kit did come with the backdrop and a handful of stickers and so I wasn’t completely empty-handed,” Sterling says.
And that’s another reason the story of the first Star Wars Christmas is worth telling and
retelling: It worked out.
Loomis, who died in 2006, lived to see the Early Bird Certificate Package become a collector’s item, the subject of a 2005 limited-edition reissue, and a defining mark in a distinguished career.
Steiner called Loomis’s idea “brilliant.” So did Christopher Bensch, vice president of collections and chief curator of The Strong National Museum of Play, who added via email that it was as “unexpectedly successful as [Star Wars] itself.” Even Loomis’s citation in the Toy Industry Hall of Fame singled out the gambit, praising the “extraordinary marketer” for “once selling empty boxes at Christmas.”
More than that, the first Star Wars Christmas commercially changed every Christmas that followed.
“Star Wars revolutionized the movie business and the toy business simultaneously,” said Bensch. “The Star Wars action figures marked the first time that the ancillary products — especially toys — earned more money than the movie that generated them.”
Never has that phenomenon been more evident than now. Since Disney relaunched the franchise with The Force Awakens in 2015, Star Wars toys have grossed more than $1.5 billion in the U.S. alone. Earlier this year, to mark the 40th anniversary of the first film, now known as A New Hope, Hasbro (the toy giant that bought and ultimately absorbed Kenner) released a line of highly detailed 6-inch action figures using the 1977 packaging. The centerpiece of the set was an homage to the Early Bird Certificate, but this one actually contained a figure of Darth Vader.
While sales remain brisk and certain products may be in limited supply in stores and online, no child of 2017 need worry about receiving an IOU on Christmas Day.
Besides, the first Star Wars Christmas only happens once.
“I still have my memories of the good times I had with my Star Wars figures,” says Sterling, who long ago lost his Early Bird Certificate Package and its related toys to the ages, “and that’ll do.”
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