The toy that let boys like dolls, GI Joe, turns 30

July 07, 1994|By David Wharton | David Wharton,Los Angeles Times

"GI Joe . . . GI Joe . . . Fighting man from head to toe."

-- from a 1960s advertising jingle Maybe it was the uniform. Maybe it was the tiny M-1 carbine he carried. Or the battle scar across his polyvinyl cheek.

"When we were kids, we really got off on that stuff," recalls Vincent Santelmo, 33, who received his first GI Joe at age 3 and now boasts of being the nation's foremost authority on the miniature man of war. "It was the cool toy to own."

But it was more than a toy.

Joe, as his fans refer to him, symbolized the changing values of the time. He reeked of 1950s patriotism and yet was the first doll for boys, a socially acceptable counterpart to Barbie. Joe allowed boys to fuss over clothes. He allowed them to accessorize, even if it was with grenade launchers and daggers.

And this summer, Joe turns 30. A reissue of the original figure will arrive at stores in late August. At the same time, thousands of fans and collectors are expected to board the U.S. aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York Harbor for a weekend convention. Christie's will mark the occasion with an auction of vintage Joe paraphernalia.

Mr. Santelmo, for his part, is finishing a commemorative book on the anniversary. As author of a previous 450-page tome, "The Complete Encyclopedia to GI Joe" (Krause Publications, 1993), he believes that the occasion calls for reflection.

"Back then," the New York City collector says, "there was this mystique about GI Joe."

The mystique originated in Hollywood. In 1962, an independent toy designer approached Hasbro Inc. about producing a figure based on a television series called "The Lieutenant." Hasbro balked at tying its fortunes to a show that could be canceled before the toy had a chance to become popular.

But company president Merrill Hassenfeld and his top executive, a Korean War veteran named Don Levine, liked the idea of a doll-size soldier. They used a wooden sculptor's mannequin to develop an 11 1/2 -inch prototype.

"The concept of doing a doll for boys in the early 1960s was a big risk," says Kirk Bozigian, a vice president at the Pawtucket, R.I., toy company. "What parent would let his son play with a doll?"

Hasbro executives insisted on calling their new toy an "action figure." They chose its name from the 1945 Burgess Meredith film, "The Story of G.I. Joe." Accessories were designed with anxious fathers in mind.

"We had an engineer who would go to the National Guard armory here in Rhode Island and bring back weapons so they could be measured and duplicated," Mr. Bozigian says. "One day he came up Route 95 with a bazooka and an M-16 in the trunk of his car, and he got stopped for speeding. The cop never looked in the trunk. But the whole time, the engineer was sweating bullets. Literally."

After all this, Hasbro still had to goad New York stores into giving the toy a test run. GI Joe hit the shelves on Aug. 1, 1964, and sold out within a week.

An estimated 2 million of the action figures sold, for a suggested retail price of $4 each, that first year. Hasbro had virtually obliterated the stigma of boys playing with dolls.

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