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.
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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