During the time of the first three films, there were significant barriers standing between kids and the Star Wars stuff they craved. The drive to Children’s Palace or Kiddie City or Gold Circle was, for most of us, insurmountable. The only way we could get to one of those places, with all their light and treasure, was usually at the tail-end of a larger negotiation of good behavior. Or a birthday. Or straight-up blackmail. As it has been for every generation, going to the toy store was never a frequent enough visit. And since there was no Internet or rec.star.wars.fanz.hanshotfirst.woot, the only place kids could interact with the Star Wars universe was in their front driveways, bashing their little brothers with a piece of plastic pipe stuck into an old bike grip.
There had to be a better way.
Luckily, there was. The best place where young fans of the film could interact with the toys, and thus the movie, was in the paper-thin pages of a Christmas catalog: the Sears Holiday Wish Book. And the best part? It was already being delivered to their homes for free.
From its humble 1888 beginnings as a pamphlet selling watches, the Sears catalog (and the later, massive Wish Book) became a staple of American home shopping. At various points in its run it sold tractors, cigar store Indians, flowers, wallpaper, menswear, firearms, pre-constructed homes, lingerie, tools, and clothes. Toys were also a constant in the catalog since the early twentieth century.
Star Wars opened on May 25, 1977. But that year’s Wish Book had no Star Wars toys at all. There were some Flash Gordon Megos, Shogun Warriors, a “Mega Chopper Fonzie,” and a four-story Wayne Foundation Penthouse that looked, suspiciously, to be Barbie-scaled. But no Star Wars. What action figures they did sell that year were presented in a very static way — either in black-and-white or with limited color on a weird cream background that made the whole thing look like an old library book. In 1977, Sears was presenting toys, not really selling them.
By Christmas 1978 though, the toy section transformed itself. When kids turned to page 574 that year, they saw the first-ever page for Star Wars in the Sears Wish Book:
See the difference? Not only is the entire section branded with the silver bars and logo, but the products themselves are posed and described in a way that invites imaginary interaction. The title If you stop at this cantina implies that you could actually stop at the cantina. What? That’s not real but OK. In the Star Wars ad, you could not only act out scenes from the movie, but you could invent your own. Look at the top photo of the cantina playset: there is a backdrop, actors, even vehicles — it’s a fully-stocked miniature movie set. And the perspective is set behind the kid, who is gleefully smiling while manipulating a set of figures including (gasp) a Blue Snaggletooth. The ad places the viewer in the role of Lucas himself, ready to direct, act, and flesh out more of the story. Blue Snaggletooth didn’t do anything in the movie, but if you had the cantina playset? Then he could do anything you wanted him to (note: Blue Snaggletooth was not to Barbie scale). That was always the thing about Star Wars. We didn’t just want to watch it and review it casually over Pop Tarts or Spaghettios in some weird Neverland version of Siskel & Ebert. We wanted to act it out. We wanted to make it ourselves. This is, I think, the reason we have never let it fully disappear from our memories.
The rest of the ads on this legendary page are similar. In the panel for the Death Star playset, another boy (he looks like a “Rusty”) gazes longingly at an X-wing and TIE fighter that are seemingly levitating. The hair kid below him is doing something far more serious: he is HELPING LUKE AND HAN (note the use of “Darth” as proper name). That’s what the catalog did — it used the toys to bolster how we thought about Star Wars. We interacted with the story through toys and imagination. That can sound really trite, but think about it: part of the reason the original Star Wars was so enticing was because it was incomplete. It was only a part of something larger. It came ready-made with spaces that only our imaginations could fill. That was the lure of Star Wars — it always left some space for us.
Even the descriptions with their “HOW IT WORKS” provide room for this sort of fantasy play. For the TIE fighter: “Release buttons pop off two large solar panels simulating battle damage…Dramatic laser cannon lights up to emit laser sound.” On the Death Star: “Second floor features control console and escape hatch to trash compactor with simulated garbage and reptile monster found on first floor.” The Sears copywriters walk us through the process — so even if you didn’t get a TIE fighter for Christmas; you had, in a sense, already played with it. The catalog connected us to all of these toys, even (especially) the ones we didn’t have.
The catalog also did a very good job of knowing its audience. The groupings of the single characters was never aribtrary — Threepio is with Artoo; Dengar with Zuckuss. The odd one out in this grouping is clearly Yoda (with “Then I’ll see you in Hell” Han?), but that was forgivable. That was okay.
As the sequels rolled out, the catalog continued to showcase the toys in ways that privileged real-life interaction as a main marketing tool. The Hoth playset here is set in real snow and ice (possibly from the Snoopy Sno-Cone machine four pages earlier). On the bottom, with panels straight out of a comic book, kids are shown how they can play with the set. They can “Defend,” “Simulate,” and “Detonate.” For the young Empire fan, those were good verbs.
What I’m trying to suggest is that though the kids reading these catalogs most definitely wanted the toys, it was that experience of sitting on the couch and poring over every detail that really helped solidify the experience of Star Wars as one of interaction rather than just one-sided marketing. One of the most significant ways by which Star Wars entered American pop culture after the film itself was through the Sears holiday catalog.
Dr. Jericho Banks of Forensic Marketing worked on the Sears catalog with the Campbell-Mithun Advertising in Chicago during the early eighties. He says that “the #1 wish among the Sears wishbook staffers was to know which and how many pages shoppers dog-eared in their catalogs. This form of shopping — in which customers display interest in a product but are not yet buying — intrigued Sears because they saw an impossible-to-access way to reach out to customers with special offers on the products that interested them most. It was frustrating.” But their marketing of similar items is not nearly as creative. Banks goes on about what they thought about with the Sears book: “On its face, a catalog may seem to be the very embodiment of supply-oriented marketing. ‘Here’s what we have, order what you want.’ But most folks never saw the extensive customer/product tracking department at the Catalog’s HQ. It was this department’s job to interpret customer demand as communicated by their orders and questions, and to adjust the offerings in the next catalog accordingly.”
When my brother and I fought over the new catalog on the couch, we did so because the catalog was selling the experience of Star Wars just as much as the imported plastic it rode in on. They understood how it played out in our lives. Once we had quieted down, we would be told to circle what we might want to ask Santa for. This was pressure on a galactic scale. You didn’t dare erase something in the Sears catalog. Its thin pages were simply too much to risk. By the time actual AT-ATs appeared, popularity in the toys, at least at our house, was waning. Costs were getting too high, but it was really the lack of mystery that did it, I think. Those first pages on the heels of the first movie in 1978 were loaded with sequel possibility. After Jedi, there was nothing to look forward to, not even in our own imaginations.
The Wish Book disappeared for many years once Sears, and the economy, went Alderaan. But it has returned — now as a moderately fast-loading app. Star Wars is still well-represented in the Wish Book app, but the changes are unavoidable.
For kids (and even adults) the Sears catalog has always been about wish fulfillment. Whether looking at a brown Panasonic microwave or brown, wide-wale cordorouys, catalogs exist to show us something we can imagine being real in our own homes and rooms. All they did with Star Wars was just an extension of what they did with football jerseys. If you get his jersey, you could be (like) Danny White. If you get this inflatable lightsaber, you could strike down Vader.
But the difference — and it’s a big one — was that Star Wars was a fictional movie. Danny White was not. Sure, there are a couple of superhero costumes here and there before the 1978 catalog, but all of the figures — Planet of the Apes, for example — are set out like frozen dioramas with no human element. Kids weren’t being invited to become Dr. Zaius.
I also found this “Incomparable Mae West” Effanbee doll. I have no evidence, but also no doubt, that on some wrapping-littered shag carpet floor on a Christmas morning, someone had Ms. West brandish her “struttin’ cane” as a periwinkle Jedi lightsaber.
In the catalog, the Star Wars experience was open to the entire family. People say that we are now living in the Golden Age of Geekdom, but I defy you to show me a similar picture in a current catalog (or even real-life) of a happy family dressed in matching “Bazinga!” soft sleepwear.
With Star Wars, we all dressed the same. We all looked at the same things. We were all connected.
Brad Ricca is the author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman and American Mastodon, winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award. His film Last Son won a Silver Ace award at the Las Vegas International Film Festival. He is a SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. Visit www.brad-ricca.com and follow him on Twitter at @BradJRicca.