Category Archives: favorite toys

Comic book ads: Haunted house bank

haunted house bank comic book ad

Here’s an ad I remember even if I didn’t have the product it advertised.

The Haunted House Mystery Bank looked cool in the ad and videos I’ve seen online suggested it was indeed cool. You place a penny in a particular spot and the doors open and a ghostly figure comes out and grabs the coin.

The bank was battery operated and made of metal, but I love the ad – which appeared in comics in the 1960s – itself. The artwork is cool and primitive and the copy is appropriately breathless and jokey at the same time.

Online sources indicate this was a “Disney Haunted Mansion” bank, but I’m not sure about that. Check out that ad. No mention of Disney. You’d think they would have marketed the product with the Disney name.

That price, by the way, separated a lot of us out of the possibility of buying this bank. How many kids in the 1960s had six bucks for something from a comic book ad? How many kids had parents who would let their kid send off six bucks?


Vintage: Davy Crockett flashlight

davy crockett flashlight

Just like the King of the Wild Frontier used.

The Davy Crockett craze was well before my time, but it’s hard to overstate how popular the Disney version of the real-life frontiersman was in the 1950s.

Really, coonskin caps were flying off store shelves.

So what better accessory for a kid than a Davy flashlight?

Online sources date this to 1955 and the United States Electric Manufacturing Corp.


Classic toys: Johnny West

johnny west box

Not to be confused with Jonny Quest, or James West of its contemporary TV series “Wild, Wild West,” but Johnny West was another of those classic toys of my childhood.

Introduced by Marx Toys in 1965 to compete with the popular G.I. Joe action figures for boys, Johnny West was a cowboy character who quickly found a spot around the imaginary campfires of boys around the world. Westerns, particularly on TV, were popular at the time and Johnny West capitalized on that trend.

johnny west and accessories

Johnny West was a hard plastic action figure that wasn’t as posable as G.I. Joe, frankly. But Johnny West did have one weird quality that Joe did not: His hands and head were softer, almost rubbery material.

Which led to one of the many odd inspirations of my childhood.

At about the same time I was playing with my Johnny Wests I was watching the daytime TV supernatural drama “Dark Shadows.” At some point during the run of the show, a headless man terrorized the denizens of Collinswood.

As a little TV and movie fan, I just had to re-create those scenes.

So I decapitated one of my Johnny West action figures by cutting through his rubbery pink neck. To make the headless man effect extra gruesome, I used a red magic marker to make the stump of his neck bloody.

All too true.

Anyway, Johnny West outlived my interest and murderous playing style and saw many new characters introduced, including a cowgirl, Jane, cowkids, Native Americans and townsfolk.

Like my G.I. Joes, my Johnny Wests are long gone. They live on in my memory, though. Even the decapitated one.

Classic toys: G.I. Joe

gi joe beard

In the 1960s – before the horrors of the morass developing in Vietnam became obvious – World War II was a fascinating period in history for young boys. We played with green army men and watched “Combat” and “Rat Patrol.” For me and other friends, World War II was an experience that our fathers didn’t talk about much but was obviously a big part of their history. The subject of my 1960s fascination with World War II is a topic for another day.

But out of that interest in the war grew the popularity of G.I. Joe, the doll – action figure – for boys.

Marketed by Hasbro beginning in 1964, G.I. Joe was a 12-inch action figure that earned the name: Unlike the stiff Barbie for our sisters and female cousins, Joe had joints at his elbows and shoulders and knees that made it possible to us to pose him in elaborate fighting scenarios. (Not to mention the “kung fu grip” added later, but that was really after my time).

Like Barbie, Joe had a variety of outfits and accessories – only the manliest, though – including guns and canteens and inflatable rafts. I believe it was those accessories that added to Joe’s lasting appeal. Unlike Johnny West – another action figure I had and enjoyed – Joe’s wealth of outfits and accessories made him immensely variable and playable.

GI Joe space capsule

The most elaborate accessory I had for my G.I. Joes was the Mercury space capsule. I played for hours and hours with the capsule, being a big fan of the space program.

gi joe space capsule box

Joe went through a lot of variations, including weird fuzzy hair and beard. Online sources say that in 1969, after Americans were soured on Vietnam, Hasbro thought Joe should be recast as an adventurer instead of soldier. That led to sets in which Joe hunted the Abominable Snowman, for pete’s sake.

But for me, G.I. Joe was a soldier and remained one. He was a great toy, but he was always a reminder of the war that so fascinated me as a kid.

Classic toys: Major Matt Mason

G.I. Joe, Captain Action and Johnny West were the toys of choice in my childhood, but Major Matt Mason and his moon base were cool playthings that had the advantage of being timely.

The United States was deep into the space race in 1966, when Mattel released the Matt Mason action figure, his cohorts and their gear. The astronaut figures — military types with flat-top haircuts — were obviously inspired by real-life space jockeys.

The Mason characters were different from the hard plastic action figures of G.I. Joe and Captain Action in part because of their size — a little more than half the height of the 12-inch action figures that dominated the boys’ toy market at the time — and because they were rubber figures with accordion-like joints.

I was about six or seven when Major Matt Mason came out and I probably had one fairly early. I base that on the fact that characters introduced later in the toy’s run, according to online sources, are totally unfamiliar to me. While I had Mason and some of his fellow astronaut figures like Sgt. Storm, I have no memory of Captain Lazer, the “giant” figure that was part of the set.

Truth be told, the Major Matt Mason gear that I loved the most was the moon base. Molded white plastic floors and red support beams with blue plastic windows, the moon base could be built and stacked in “creative” ways. I suppose Mason’s moon base was the equivalent of Barbie’s dream house and maybe it shows my frustrated architect instincts, but I liked playing with the moon base best.

I have no memory of what happened to my Major Matt Mason stuff. More than a decade ago, I saw a few of the figures and part of a moon base at a nostalgia shop. The prices were outrageous and, needless to say, I didn’t pay to recreate my memories.

There’s been talk about a big-screen Major Matt Mason movie starring Tom Hanks. If the project happens — and why not, in these days of movies based on Transformers and games like Battleship? — it’ll be interesting to see if the toys make a comeback.

James Bama: Artist of a thousand faces

For a compulsive credits-watcher like me, the revelation was dumbfounding: One artist was responsible for some of the most memorable pop culture images of my childhood.

James Bama is a well-known Western artist. For me, he’s always been the man who painted photorealistic but slightly surreal covers for the 1960s paperback reprints of old “Doc Savage” pulp novels.

Since I obsessively checked movie and TV credits and artist and author credits of books, magazines and comic books, Bama was a familiar name to me.

His drawings of pulp hero Savage no doubt helped sell a new generation of fans on the Depression-era adventure stories.

How could young readers not be interested in a hero and an adventure that looked like this?

But when goofing around on the Internets the other day, I realized that the Bama of “Doc Savage” fame was also the artist who painted the cover of  an early “Star Trek” novelization. It’s one that’s still on my bookshelf.

When I realized Bama had created that art, I began looking around and discovered that Bama had also painted the monster art used on 1960s Aurora model kits I loved as a kid.

How is it possible one man created so many pop culture — geek culture — touchstones?

Bama, a commercial illustrator for decades, gave up that life at his peak and left the fast lane behind to become a Western artist. He’s still going strong, painting and selling his art through a variety of galleries and websites.

He’s not drawing the colorful characters of my childhood anymore. But that’s okay. His classic work is already the stuff of pop culture legend.

Thingmaker memories

When I was a kid, a lot of girls I knew had Easy-Bake Ovens. For boys, the opportunity to give yourself second-degree burns and burn your house down came via the Thingmaker.

News that Hasbro is eliminating the Easy-Bake Oven’s light bulb and replacing it with an actual heating element stirred memories of the Thingmaker.

While the Easy-Bake’s light bulb didn’t really pose much of a hazard, the Thingmaker was a genuinely dangerous toy. And we loved it.

As part of the monster craze of the 1960s — sparked by the TV reissue of the old Universal monster movies, which also precipitated Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine — Mattel released the Thingmaker Fright Factory in 1966.

For those of you who don’t know or don’t remember, the Thingmaker in its various incarnations was basically a hotplate — not unlike a traveling salesman might put on top of a chest of drawers in a run-down hotel to warm up a can of beans — with metal molds that could be used to make soft plastic toys not unlike what you might find in a box of Cracker Jack if the Cracker Jack factory was operated by the Addams family.

Really. With the Thingmaker, boys could make realistic scars, fangs, eyeballs, miniature skeletons and, oddest of all, shrunken heads. Yes, the Thingmaker probably represented the high point of kids collecting and playing with representations of shriveled, shrunken human heads.

All you had to do was plug in the hotplate — er, Thingmaker — and wait for it to warm up. Then you simply placed one of the molds on the scorching hot surface and — ow, dammit that hurt — you simply placed one of the molds in the Thingmaker and squirted some colorful plastic goop into it from handy bottles included in the Thingmaker kit.

The Thingmaker baked the plastic pieces in the molds until they were ready to extract. Using a pair of tongs that were provided, you simply removed the molds from the Thingmaker — ow dammit — and let them cool before removing your ghoulish new toys.

The scars and eyeballs could be applied — hopefully after they cooled — directly to your skin to excite and alarm your parents. The skeleton could be assembled. The shrunken heads … well, I’m not sure what you could do with them other than freak out squeamish girls who had been waiting several hours for a light bulb to bake a cake.

I loved my Thingmaker but remain to this day surprised that it was allowed to come to the market. My mom, a smart woman, wouldn’t let me use it in the house. No doubt remembering the Silly Putty Incident of 1967 — which left a stiff, permanent stain on our carpet — she banished me and my Thingmaker to our front porch.

Like my Captain Actions, Johnny Wests and Major Matt Masons, my Thingmaker disappeared over the years. I like to think that it found a second life, warming up coffee for some poor soul living over a big-city bus station.