‘Star Wars’ flashback: Christmas ’77 left fans with empty feeling

Jan. 10, 2012 | 4:03 p.m.

Toy collector Jay West writes occasional guest essays for Hero Complex about vintage collectibles. Today: The empty box that became a holiday gift sensation in 1977.  

star wars early bird certificate photos from kenner 77 merchant catalog Star Wars flashback: Christmas 77 left fans with empty feeling

The "Star Wars Early Bird Certificate" toys from a 1977 Kenner merchant catalog. (Kenner)

The hottest Christmas gift for 1977 was the one that wasn’t available — “Star Wars” had opened in May of that year but no one, least of all the toy company called Kenner, was prepared for the film’s galactic success and the massive consumer demand that followed.

Kenner was thrilled to hold the toy-making license for the George Lucas epic that was quickly becoming one of the largest grossing movies of all time but aside from a small amount of merchandise that hit stores at the time of the movie’s release, the toymaker was woefully unprepared to handle the hunger for Jedi products and playthings.

As the year wore on, that meant a yuletide dilemma that presented the danger of a truly historic missed opportunity. The toymaker’s solution: sell a simple cardboard box as a placeholder and a promise of toys to come.

The “Star Wars” Early Bird Certificate Package, as it was called, became the most coveted empty box in the history of retail. The package included a cardboard backdrop which featured a lineup of reproduced painted renderings of a dozen characters, among them C-3PO, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader. This would serve as a diorama where the first twelve action figures could be placed and displayed — after they became available of course, which would still be months away.

Those months felt like an eternity for youngsters but at least the package offered an incentive — it came with a redemption certificate to get an early bird delivery of four figures: Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca. The promise was that they would arrive by mail between February and June 1978.

The package also included a membership card for the “Star Wars” Fan Club and stickers of R2-D2, C-3PO, the film’s logo and one with the famed phrase “May the Force be with you.”

Today, those “Star Wars” Early Bird Certificate Packages are high-value collectibles (you could fetch thousands of dollars if you happen to have one that was never opened) and they represent a genesis-era totem for the beloved line of Kenner 3 3/4-inch action figures (a line that would grow from that opening dozen characters to 111 figures by 1985). No surprise, it’s a challenge to find one of the packages intact — on Christmas morning many were ripped open with reckless glee.

In 2005, a replica version of the package was sold in tandem with the theatrical release of  “Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith.” This new offering echoed the artwork as the original ’77 package as well as its mail-in offer of  Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and Chewbacca action figures, although these new ones were created with updated sculpting and painting techniques. What was that famous movie line? Ah, yes: “The circle is now complete.”

— Jay West


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3 Responses to ‘Star Wars’ flashback: Christmas ’77 left fans with empty feeling

  1. John says:

    Amused that I had to watch a new commercial in order to watch an old one.

  2. Elrond Lawrence says:

    What a glorious story, thank you! I was 10 when Star Wars came out, and I got so frustrated about the lack of toys that I made X-wings and Tie fighters out of poster board and sold them at school. When Christmas arrived I eagerly ripped apart my Early Bird Package and sent in my certificate. I still have my signed 1977 membership card and it sits proudly next to the 2005 replica package. Ah, the carefree days before episode numbers!

  3. Sablicious says:

    Another example of how the Star Wars name was whored for the sake of toys / money.

    Die alone, Lucass. -_-

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