Learn about Kenner and the history of the Star Wars action figures through the last 40 years.
As fans and collectors await the December release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there is renewed interest in Star Wars collectibles, especially action figures and other toys. Star Wars action figures have a very lengthy history, so let’s not take any chances….and let’s start a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
…or, more accurately, Cincinnati Ohio, with a company named Kenner Products. Founded in 1947 by brothers Albert, Phillip, and Joseph L. Steiner, Kenner was known as the company that created the “Bubble-Matic” toy gun, the Girder and Panel series of building sets, the Give-a-Show projector, the Easy Bake Oven, and the Spirograph. Through a series of mergers (including being purchased by General Mills in 1967), Kenner also included Lionel Trains and Play-Doh in its offerings. When Mego turned down the license to produce Star Wars action figures in 1976, Kenner saw the opportunity to gain market share (and more importantly, one-up the leading company that produced action figures).
And it almost didn’t happen.
When Star Wars was released in 1977, Kenner was surprised by the huge response to the film. Although unprepared for the Christmas market, Kenner moved to sell an “Early Bird Certificate Package,” which included a cardboard backdrop, a little sticker sheet, a club membership card, and a mail-in certificate towards the first four figures. In February 1978, people who registered with Kenner received small white mailer boxes containing a white tray holding four bagged action figures including Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, R2-D2, and Chewbacca, as well as foot pegs and a backdrop. Although there were some variants (including Luke Skywalker with a Double Telescoping Lightsaber (DT) and Chewbacca with a green Bowcaster), most of these early Star Wars action figures were equipped with one piece Lightsabers and blue/black Bowcasters
When Kenner offered these Star Wars action figures to shops in 1978, they augmented the line with eight additional figures including Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Han Solo, and C-3PO, as well as Stormtrooper, Star Destroyer Commander, Jawa, and Tusken Raider figures. Playsets and vehicles including J.C. Penney’s exclusive Sonic controlled land speeder and Sears’ exclusive Cantina adventure playset were also introduced in 1978. Although the Sears Star Wars Cantina set had four exclusive figures, those were released for individual sale 1978. Despite increased demand for Star Wars action figures approaching Christmas 1978 leading to shortages, production issues, and accusations of market manipulation, Kenner earned $100 million through sales of its line of Star Wars action figures and accessories.
With the then-impending release of The Empire Strikes Back, Kenner engaged in a unique marketing promotion in which four proof of purchases could be redeemed via mail for a Boba Fett action figure, with a missile-firing backpack. (However, the backpack was abandoned due to child safety concerns). Although Kenner was also offering action figures based on TV’s Six Million Dollar Man and the first Alien film, the company topped $100 million in sales of its top Star Wars toys. Other figures released as part of The Empire Strikes Back through 1982 include Bossk (Bounty Hunter), Bespin Security Guard, the FX-7 Medical Droid, Lando Calrissian, Yoda, Dengar, AT-AT Driver, and C-3PO with removable limbs, Admiral Ackbar, and Imperial TIE Fighter.
With the release of Return of the Jedi, Kenner had released over 79 unique character designs in its Star Wars action figure range. Figures in this range include Admiral Ackbar, Bib Fortuna, Biker Scout, Wicket W. Warwick, Gamorrean Guard, The Emperor, B-Wing Pilot, Rancor Keeper, and 8D8. A “Sy Snootles and the Rebo Band” boxed set of Star Wars action figures was released, including Sy Snootles, Max Rebo, and Droopy McCool (and these figures were also released separately.) Various past Star Wars figures were also rereleased with different cardbacks based on the particular movie, providing multiple opportunities to collect the same action figure.
In 1985, Kenner released 15 more Star Wars action figures under the Power of the Force banner including in which a further 15 figures were released, including Anakin Skywalker, and Luke Skywalker in a battle poncho, as well as other various characters. Kenner also released action figures based the Star Wars: Droids featuring twelve character figures and three vehicles and the more popular Star Wars: Ewoks (including six character figures) animated series. However, Kenner discontinued production of its Star Wars action figure line due to decreasing demand.
Given the rich history of Star Wars collectibles (outlined in the documentary Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys), many fans eagerly await the opportunity to collect unique action figures. When Kenner acquired the license, they had little idea that releasing movie tie-in figures would be lucrative; Kenner’s legacy is their ability to see the Force awaken in the greater culture, and their foresight into the Star Wars phenomenon will always have a place in pop culture history.