Writing

Blake Wright Talks Unmade Toys — The Toys That Time Forgot – Popular Mechanics

In the toy business, you only hear about the successes, the Star Wars and Barbie. But what about the second wave of Coleco’s Sectaurs, or Kenner’s 3¾-inch Alien figures? Blake Wright, a veteran energy reporter from Houston, decided to ask what might have been and go beyond internet searches to the men and women who worked on these aborted lines.

The Toys That Time Forgot, Volume One, was published in 2017 through a Kickstarter campaign, and Volume Two is no different. Set to be released in October of this year, Volume Two will feature prototypes from The Last Starfighter, Inhumanoids, Magic: The Gathering, and Dinotopia, among others. You have until March 8 if you want to kickstart this project and join the 422 (at the time of this writing) other backers.

Maude Campbell: I wanted to start with a little bit of your history. I know you had the magazine Little Plastic Men.

Blake Wright: That was a project that I launched in 2014…Toys seemed like a decent fit and I went and started trying to find out if there was any kind of market for it. I went to the Toy Fair in 2014, after the first issue was already done, and I passed it around and showed some folks and there was some excitement about it. I ended up closing that down at the end of 2014 after four issues, but one of the recurring columns was called “Prototypically Unproductive” all about unproduced toys; it was the most popular thing I did. I decided I would do one more issue and it would all be these unproduced toys. And the more I dug into it and the more stuff I started to uncover, I thought that it deserved to be more than a PDF on the internet, someone should be doing a book. I slapped together 20 test pages and I went to Toy Fair in 2015 and went around to my contacts and asked them to talk me out of doing it. The reaction to it was fairly unanimous, everybody was really excited about the prospect and wanted to know how they could help. So I came home from that Toy Fair with the idea I’d write the book and two years later it was done.

MC: How did you decide which toys to include in the first volume?

BW: Some of it was personal preference, I was a toy collector for a long time, I had a ton of toys when I was a kid. I was eight years old when Star Wars hit in 1977 so that’s right in my wheelhouse. I would do research about that movie from the ’80s that probably should have had a toy line, like Last Starfighter for example, you go and poke around, do a little research, and it almost did have a toy line. It was licensed to Galoob and they did prototypes and took it to Toy Fair, but ultimately didn’t go through with it. So you start finding projects like that and the more you start poking around and talking to different people, what they don’t recall maybe they recall somebody who would, so you get pointed in all these different directions. You start getting more and more information about certain lines and those become the more solid chapters.

My story there is basically like Bucky O’Hare in the first volume; I had no intention of doing Bucky O’Hare in the first volume but it just so happened that I was visiting a collector who had a ton of Sectaurs stuff and he had unproduced second series prototypes, he had some art, and so I went there to visit him to take photographs and talk and just midway through our day he said, “Is Sectaurs all you’re interested in?” I go, “What do you mean?” And he goes, “Well, I’ve got some other stuff.” And he pulls out all this amazing Bucky art, cardback paintings from the unreleased third series, let alone the second series. We did a ton of scanning of that and then I found a Bucky O’Hare fan forum online and there was a gentleman there who looked like he had the painted prototypes of the second series of unreleased Bucky figures. So I contacted him and visited him out in California and took photos of his stuff, and the next thing I knew I had an awesome chapter on Bucky O’Hare.

It was one of those things that fell in my lap; I had no intention of pursuing it, at least not for volume one. I wanted Starfighter to be in the first book but I just couldn’t find the information I needed. Fortunately, this time around, I found it. But it was really just pursuing items I had seen glimpses of in the past, like Dark Crystal, some of that stuff was out there on the web, and trying to dig up more, and the next thing you know you’re sitting with the guy who was the art director for the project on the [Jim] Henson side here in Houston. Or you’re sitting in a Rhode Island restaurant with the art director on the Hasbro side talking about the project. It was an amazing journey volume one, and volume two was really no different.

MC: I saw, I donated to Kickstarter and I see all the preview pages you have and I saw the TMNT and the Star Wars bonus chapters are going to be unlocked hopefully.

BW: Star Wars was in the first book but it was one of those things were Star Wars could be in every book. Because there are books about Star Wars stuff, I mean Gus Lopez and Duncan Jenkins did a wonderful prototype book for Star Wars, not all of it was unreleased stuff but some of it was. This time around Star Wars I’m planning on focusing on when Star Wars came back in the ’90s and some of the licensing. When the licensing became available again ahead of the prequels and how many companies were actually vying for it and some of the ideas that were pitched to Lucasfilm that really didn’t make the cut, even from different companies, not just Hasbro.

MC: That’s exciting because I remember Hasbro lost the license and then they had to reapply?

BW: Yeah, they didn’t pay Lucasfilm $10,000 one year, and the license for the prequels was a whole new ball game. It was something totally different, so they had to go in and rebid against their competitors, against Mattel, Playmates, Galoob even at the time before they swallowed them. So it was no holds barred and basically Hasbro was able to get it back. Of course, if you see the numbers that they had to pay to get it back it’s pretty staggering.

MC: I wanted to ask more about sourcing the materials for the books. Do you just work through word of mouth and online tips when you’re trying to look for certain employees or certain scans or prototypes?

BW: It was a lot of phone calls, sometimes 12 phone calls, a lot of cold emails. LinkedIn actually is a pretty valuable site when it comes to finding people’s work histories. You can find someone who worked at Galoob in the ’90s and try to get in touch with them and talk about a line from the mid-’90s that didn’t see out its entire run like Mutant League was one that I was pursuing for a while and I was able to talk with a couple of folks, including the guy that created the video game, about the toys. It’s a lot of persistence and sometimes having to go indirectly to some of these folks, finding a voucher so to speak, a former colleague of theirs who you’ve spoken with and that person can reach out to the other person. Still, not everyone is willing to talk, but for the most part I’ve been extremely lucky as far as access is concerned.

MC: Has Brian Volk-Weiss [creator of Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us] been able to help you with making any of those connections?

BW: I haven’t tapped Brian to connect me with many people, one that I reached out to him about was about trying to find someone to write the foreword for the second book and he reached out on my behalf. I try not to bother him too much but I tell you, I wish I had a dime for every person that I’ve contacted in this business who said you need to talk to Brian about doing a one-off Toys That Made Us about unproduced toys. I’ve even had people who work at Netflix tell me this, someone who does work there saying we would buy it, I know we would. I haven’t reached out to him, but if he’s reading this, let’s do it buddy!

MC: I think it was in the Star Wars episode they might have talked about the Ewoks and Droids a little bit, it’s fascinating to see what might have been. What I connected most with in the book, because I was born in ’92, was Osmosis Jones.

BW: Trendmasters put a lot of work in that line, it was pretty much ready to go, they just had to flip the switch and it would’ve been in production, but even back then it wasn’t completely ordinary to have toys in stores ahead of the movie like it is now, so I think they were actually playing the waiting game, trying to figure out if it was going to be a success. When the early numbers came back and it obviously was tanking, they opted out. I had heard rumors that they had come close to, if not cutting steel on some of those, which is a pretty heavy investment. No one was able to confirm that for sure but they got pretty close.

MC: What toys were you into when you used to collect? What were your favorites?

BW: Early on it was all Star Wars, and that was mainly during the relaunch in the mid-’90s. I went back and bought a bunch of vintage toys, too, and I bought all the new stuff that was coming out. And after a while, I said let me go back and try to find some more obscure toys that maybe I didn’t have as a kid and some short-run stuff like the Knickerbocker Lord of the Rings, LJN Tigersharks, not necessarily something I had a connection to as a kid but just some rarer stuff. Mego Black Hole, Mattel Battlestar Galactica, some of that stuff. I had a collection of that for a while, and Playmates Simpsons I did up to a point, Speed Racer, some of the Austin Powers stuff that McFarlane did. Then it dawned on me that as much as I loved getting the stuff, I didn’t visit the toy room that often. And then it really dawned on the that I’m a “thrill of the chase” kind of guy; I enjoy the hunt more than the actual possession. The book is kind of the way for me to still fill that collector’s itch, because I’m collecting stories and images now. I’ve become this toy detective kind of.

MC: At Toy Fair you said you had enough material for volume three.

BW: Volumes two and three have been announced formally. Informally, I could write ten of these books, there’s that much information out there. But I’ve only confirmed that I’m going to do two and three. And there’s no publisher involved, it’s just me and a few close friends doing the proofing, the editing, and the layout.

MC: And how many Kickstarter backers do you have?

BW: Currently it’s over 400.

MC: Do you know how many people Kickstarted the first?

BW: 581 I believe. For coming out of nowhere and doing this, I thought that that was a healthy number. I was very, very humbled. It’s a universal curiosity, what might have been?

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