Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bring Me the Heads of Mario


Once upon a time I lived in Cincinnati. I’d thrown up my hands with worry of the future, indecision 5000 quarter-life crisis type stuff, and dropped out of university to go live with my girlfriend of the era, sparing the 90 minute drive south every weekend to discover how annoying I can be in two day doses, allowing her to have an all access up close and personal pass to my pesky potential a gloriously full seven days a week. Of course, moving to Cincinnati sans University diploma required for viable employability than a sure knowledge of the history of Larry Flint and every episode of WKRP.

Leveraging my esteemed record of collecting minimum wage to fill popcorn cups behind the Loews Theaters concession counter or collect empty ones from the aisles  throughout high school, I quickly landed a job as an assistant manager at the cinema in Kenwood Mall, where in those days you could smoke in the lobby and catch glimpses of Jerry Springer or one of the Clooneys in the food court, or warm yourself while the late show played to nearly empty houses by basking in the glow of earth’s whitest people during the annual Jimmy Buffett after hours party while a veritable blizzard tried to turn the mall into a velvety mound outside.

Historians will quickly point out that before returning to the “film business”, as we liked to call it, I spent some quality time in the official Firestone Insurance claim processing mailroom and meandered through a brief stint as a phone rep for Fifth Third Bank. Leveraging my artistic and authorial contributions to UK’s college newspaper, and following the suggestion of my girlfriend, I sought and got a job at the University of Cincinnati’s Clifton Magazine.

Sure, they thought I was enrolled in the University, and I never corrected that assumption. My girlfriend went to the school full time and I slummed there most days off, so I felt I'd only somewhat bent the truth to suit my interests. I suspect the managing staff for Clifton Magazine caught on to my ruse after three issues when I’d failed to ever file for or complain about not getting paid.

The second issue I produced material for in the winter bridging 1992 and 1993 focused on a key area of my life I spent far too much time obsessing over, namely, toys. Though largely action figures, my affinity for playthings ranged from wooden toys like pioneers used to steal from beavers to science fair fodder. I pitched an article that investigated where toys came from, how they were made, where they ended up as playthings, collectables, flotsam, or hot items on secondary markets.

As anyone as rabid about vintage Star Wars toys is well aware, Cincinnati is where Kenner lived. All you had to do was troll the local garage sales during the summer to verify that pretty much everyone in the suburban sprawl from Northgate to Ft. Thomas across the river had Kenner products stashed away somewhere in their house, proof of the bounty afforded Cincinnati kid’s every Christmas and birthday through relatives and kin folk that worked for Kenner somehow. Growing up, the Sears catalogue always had exclusive Star Wars toys like the Blue Snaggletooth or the pre-pre order Plastic Cape Jawa.

These rare jewels showed up as common as bingo wins in the greater Cincinnati metropolitan area,  and at least until EBay changed the secondary market forever, tended to remain in the region going from one sandbox to another, one comic shop to another, one collection to another. No surprise companies like Entertainment Earth got their start there with so many great toys around that would go for top dollar in other states and collector markets.

 Around the time I wrote the article, the initial Aliens toys had just released from Kenner. Though largely appearing to ignore the film that inspired them, they nonetheless were all the rage among toy geeks like myself. So imagine my surprise when one of the lead designers for the toys answered my phone call requesting an interview. I actually got to enter the Kenner building and hang out in an official Kenner meeting room! I totally peed a little. The gentlemen endured my largely na├»ve questions, and gave me a quick education about the toy design process, which for Kenner, meant also having to understand the injection molding process, and learn about the field called Industrial Design, which still resonates in my head as though announced with a booming voice from a mountain top to roll across the valley floor making children hide and manly men faint.

After that I secured an interview with a sculptor from Rudy Vap Studios over coffee at a local college diner. I learned about how the sculptors work with automotive clay and dental tools, among other things, to create the toys piece by piece for paying clients. Through the sculptor I gained a tour of the studio and time with Rudy Vap himself to discuss the history of action figures and how licensed toys work, and how a studio like his services the needs of larger corporate merchandising.

Rudy worked for Kenner for many years before launching his own studio in a rancher house turned studio space on a deceptively quiet, tree shaded, Norman Rockwell looking little street in the suburbs. Judging from his website now, his studio appears to have grown and may be more industrial trappings these days.

At the time, the main floor held all the sculptors working at desks with heat lamps to warm the clay while otherwise the place stayed nearly refrigerator chilly to ensure no sculpts warped or sagged. As it was October when I stopped by, I’d just assumed the heat hadn’t been turned on until my sculptor friend assured me the place almost always required jackets and scarves when they were in full production.

The basement, possibly my favorite part of the place, had been a wonderland of casting molds and prototypes, cast offs and mock ups, racks of sacks of powders and chemicals, vials and tubs, messy and layers, and something like a mad man’s workshop that Doc Brown would feel at home in. My favorite aspect was the way the staff would kit bask new toys out of discarded parts, or from casts they’d made off existing objects and toys.

The sculptural monsters they’d made and stashed around the basement were the stuff dreams and a few nightmares are made of. I want a workshop like that someday in my home, a place that reeks of creativity unbridled. And just reeks, too. The plastics and plasters and various compounds requiring safety goggles, aprons, gloves, and non-conductive palette knives to contend created the kind of  smell Robert Duvall might love to inhale in the morning.

 The top floor, barely larger than a room and a closet john, held Rudy’s office. His shelves were lined with his legend; the original wax sculpt of 12 inch C-3P0, two unreleased variants of the 12 inch Alien and his original sculpt of the 12 inch Alien’s chest and head. Rare toys from Japan, old Universal Monster model kits, Rat Fink cars. A lot of classical toys I didn’t recognize yet I commit to memory so that when I learned what they were later on I could afford Rudy my appreciation for retroactively.

 Rudy had been working on an original property and wanted some help with illustrating the story boards. I got a check for $250 and after expressing my excitement that his studio had been commissioned by ERTL to sculpt the figures for the live action Mario Brothers feature, a fist full of test sculpt heads including a mask for Dennis Hopper’s character that ended up not being included with the final version.

I’ve mentioned working in the “film business” at the time. My girlfriend did as well, however she worked for a different cinema, one that learned would be getting the local premier of Mario Brothers and her managers hoped to decorate the lobby and do something special to attract audiences. At the time, with the cast and budget of the film, there seemed no reason to suspect it would turn out to be a bit of a box office bomb, though as the wiki points out, has garnered a cult following, and for sure I retain a soft spot for the film.

 Having a cold morning sort of inspired idea, I phoned Rudy. Rudy kindly gave me his contact with ERTL, an old friend of his from back in the Kenner days, and that lead to a complimentary case of the toys being shipped to me for use as a prize on the opening night of the film for best costume. Unfortunately, despite having signs up in the lobby well before opening night advertising the contest, and having decked out the lobby and painted all the massive windows with Mario themed iconography, no one outside of the theater staff attended the opening night in costume. Clearly, this was well before the days of cosplay.

So the case of action figures ended up being parsed out among myself and the couple of interested ushers, and one rockabilly fan that was ecstatic to get Mojo Nixon’s dinosaur headed action figure.

Over the years I’ve passed on the action figures, but I’ve held onto those test mold heads from Rudy Vap’s studio. And recently, when approached by a couple fellows that love the movie and have tried to archive all they can about the toys, I brought the heads into work to solicit help from my colleague Beata Kacy to photograph them. Beata did me one better, and took Dennis Hopper’s unpublished reptile mask back to the studio she runs and made a casting of the mask in white bronze, truly bringing the toy full circle to the art.

 If I track down a copy of that article, I’ll post it. After the interview with Rudy Vap and his sculptor, it goes on to talk about secondary markets, garage sales, and is an interesting moment in time just before EBay caught the toy reselling market by storm and changed the collectables landscape forever.

How cool is this? I've just received scans of my article about toys from the archivists at University of Cincinnati. Huge thank you to Kevin Grace, Head and University Archivist in the Blegen Library. Enjoy!