Kenner, Cincinnati, and the creation of the Star Wars Empire


Founded in 1946 in Cincinnati, Kenner was one of the leading toy companies of the 20th century. They produced such classics as Easy Bake Oven, Spirograph, Play-Doh, and Stretch Armstrong. Kenner took off when Bob Steiner realized that tv was a big hit with kids. Television commercials made Kenner toys household names. Some were even made by Jim Henson. The toys that they may be best known for are their line of action figures. Kenner produced everything from Batman and Superman to Sports Heroes. While they were great sellers of action figures, it was one toy line that would change the industry, the idea of action figures, and Kenner itself.

On May 25th, 1977 a small space opera was released in to the theaters. At the time no one know how big it was to become. Not even the toy industry. Kenner was not the first choice to make figures for the new movie, but when Mego Corporation turned it down, they got the rights. The success of Star Wars overwhelmed Kenner and they were unprepared for that Christmas’s rush. Instead of an actual toy they sold a certificate to redeem for a action figure, along with a diorama.

By the time Kenner had caught up with demand they had a full line of Figures, weapons, vehicles and more. The small b movie had turned into an empire worthy of competing with anything on the shelf. The best known, and most collected, of these is the  3.75  inch action figure.

Before Kenner and Star Wars most were 12 or 8 inch figures. 3.75 inch figures had been brought over from Japan by Mego Coporation but were limited to just a few franchises and were considered small. Kenner released a few 12 inch figures and a lot more of the 3.75 inch figures. Their popularity soared not in spite their size but because of it. They took up less room and could be shoved in a pocket. Many more of them could fit in a backpack. They could finally fit in the vehicles. With a movie where almost everything was ripe for toy making this was a great thing. Soon 3.75 inch were the standard size for action figures. WVXU had a great interview with some of the people from the early days of Star Wars Toys.

From the Christmas 1976 to today, the toys of Star Wars have help to keep the story alive in many kids. Even though there was a 16 year gap between The Return of The Jedi and The Phantom Menace the toys were still a big deal. New toys are still produced for everything from the books, comics, and even the Christmas special. Everybody from Darth Vader to a lone extra running through a scene with an ice cream maker has been turned in to a 3.75 inch figure. Stores have become “museums” just by sheer virtue of how popular the old figures were.

All because a little B space opera and an Ohio Toy company decided to sell some small action figures.

P.S. Don’t forget to visit the Cincinnati Library before Jan 16th,2016 and see the Kenner Toy exhibit.

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