“Hold your breath, make a wish, count to three”: Recalling Sentimental 1980s Toys

“Hold your breath, make a wish, count to three”: Recalling Sentimental 1980s Toys

Woody: All right, that’s enough! Look, we’re all very impressed with Andy’s new toy. / Buzz: Toy?/ Woody: T-O-Y, Toy! / Buzz: Excuse me, I think the word you’re searching for is ‘Space Ranger’. / Woody: The word I’m searching for – I can’t say, because there’s preschool toys present.

– Tom Hanks (Woody) & Tim Allen (Buzz) from Toy Story (1995)

The other day, I watched a YouTube channel, and the two hosts visited the Funko shop on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. Now, that might not sound like anything special, but it is for two reasons. One, I love those small Funko POP! figurines, and I wish I had more than the two I currently own. Two, the hosts made custom Funko POP! figures as part of the “POP! Yourself!” experience at the Hollywood location. That seemed incredible. Not only does Funko have an actual store, but people can make a toy/figure that looks like them. As a child of the 80s, I would have loved these custom creations, both then and, yes, now. At least I know one place I will be going when it’s safe to travel! Get ready, LA; I am coming.

The most cherished item in those early years of growing up was my toys. Sure, that might be odd to think of as an adult nearing forty, but as I have defined myself as a reflective person, someone who regularly ponders nostalgic thoughts, this adds up. For the last couple of months, I have found, one could say, somewhat of a groove with my weekly posts. One week I post about travel, one week movies/POP! Culture, one week half marathons, and another week nostalgia/memories. While it does not always turn out this way, nor are weeks confined to such a rigid structure, January and February proved the rule. To close out this cold and snowy New England month, I thought, why not dive into one of my oldest and purest enjoyments; toys. I no longer seek them out, except of course, for the occasional adult LEGO build of a Haunted Mansion or the Statue of Liberty, or the Nathan Drake Uncharted and John F. Kennedy Presidential Funko POP!. Still, I have the fondest memories of those days, nights, and Saturday afternoons when toys were the center of an imaginary world, of my invention.

But, Why? You Know Why!

“There is no life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there you’ll be free
If you truly wish to be”

– Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka) from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

As one of four children in my family growing up, we were always getting into sibling scuffles. There are multiple stories I could share involving bad haircuts, a fly jean jacket, fights over a swing set, wrestling over army men in the living room, and maybe even a bloody nose or two knocking each other off rafts in the pool. We played, we fought, we acted like idiots, but we enjoyed every minute of it. Even if we wrestled over the coolest toy or the newest video game, we never really wanted for anything. I had a great childhood. But sometimes, there was that one toy or electronic device that we craved, repeatedly wished for, or put on a holiday list. For me, it was not a video game, nor was it the proverbial action figure; nope, this toy had a steering wheel, four tires, and looked cool, as it went off-road on the dunes down at the beach.

When I was younger, all I wanted was a Power Wheels Jeep Wrangler. I mean, those 80s commercials were incredibly catchy, and as a kid, this seemed the closest to driving a real car. Power Wheels seemed a fun opportunity, and I knew a few people who had one, so I got to ride them, although I never did get one. But I did get what I guess can be considered the next best thing. You see, my grandfather, my mother’s father, can only be described as a “picker.” Like the two hosts on American Pickers, if those guys did not do it as a profession, picked trash from junkyards, and had no idea of the value or history of the items they procured. Since he lived close by, those things he “picked” always found their way into my childhood home and were sometimes enjoyed by my siblings and me.

One such toy/Power Wheels knockoff was a metal go-kart. Today, it would be considered vintage, hip, and, dare I say, “valuable.” But, in the 1980s, it was rusty, laborious, and well, fun as hell. We ended up having two such go-karts. I remember, fondly, racing my siblings in our basement and our driveway. For hours we played with them. I have no clue to this day where my grandfather “picked” those two go-karts, but when I rode them, I forgot about those motorized Power Wheels. Trust me, I know they are not the same thing, but that’s the best part of being a kid, as long as you are having fun, it doesn’t matter how new, or “mainstream” the product may be. It’s funny, after a childhood of wanting a motorized toy jeep, my first car was a late 1980s Jeep Wrangler. It was a car that my dad had driven, then he gave it to my brother Jeff and then handed it down to me when I turned 17. So, while I didn’t get the Power Wheels, I eventually drove the real thing. Life certainly has its quirks.

Driving those go-karts, or sharing in the fun of those Power Wheels at a friend’s house, was never the full opportunity to explore the depths of my imagination. This need to dive back into a world I spent hours as a kid was inspired by watching the Netflix documentary series, The Toys That Made Us, created by Brian Volk-Weiss. The show explores many of the toys that made my childhood entertaining. With episodes focusing on many of the toys I discuss in this post and Star Trek and LEGO, which I love and explored slightly here, “Make it So!” & Discovering Calm in LEGO, this show brought up great memories. But it went further, deeper, and reminded me of long-forgotten enjoyments. It inspired me to recall, reflect, and remember those toys that rounded out my early years. That is why I used the song lyrics from “Pure Imagination” above and why I am often nostalgic for Gene Wilder’s performance as Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

When Wonka introduces his guests, those golden ticket holders, to the chocolate room, it is a moment that sticks out to me from my initial viewing. That scene, and the movie, always reassured me that it was acceptable to dream, perfectly fine to find reassurance in small comforts. It taught me that it is within the lived experience to aspire to create from nothing. That idea cannot be taken away or easily erased. I often did that with my toys. As a child, I built worlds, stories, and events that shaped my aspirations and enjoyments. It is one of the reasons, while gripped with sadness and anxiety following my birthday over the summer, I decided to design this blog and create posts that allow me to create something from nothing. In the end, that is what brings me to today. To dive into my origin story, so to speak, and see those toys that inspired my imagination or, at the very least, entertained me tremendously. No, the 1989 cloth sack Balloon Ball Balzac will not make an appearance. On that 1989 birthday, I received at least ten of these at my pool party. I mean, my name is Zach, so it made sense at the time.

Action Figures: Especially those that Broke Way to Easy

“What if Andy gets another dinosaur? A mean one? I just don’t think I can take that kind of rejection!”

– William Shawn (Rex) from Toy Story (1995)

As a young kid in Massachusetts, as I am sure it was for many girls and boys elsewhere, action figures were the go-to toy when constructing an imaginary narrative. Of course, this seems obvious, but for me, this is where I go whenever I think of childhood toys. Like Andy in Toy Story, dolls/action figures were my favorite, and I was not content with one type of toy, but multiple, depending on my current fascination. G.I. Joe by Hasbro was probably my favorite as they could easily accompany my watching of the animated television show that ran during the same era, 1983 to 1986. I had dozens of the figures, planes, tanks, and, as I remember, a helicopter. With these action figures and military vehicles, I constructed my own story. Modeled after things that inspired and motivated me, these narratives could be elaborate and extend over multiple days. They allowed me to problem solve and worked out my brain’s creative side. The story I built around these figures always mandated a beautiful introduction, an elaborate body of evidence, and an epic conclusion.

Rarely did these storylines mimic the television show, but instead were inspired by my own mundane life. Often, I engaged in themes of bravery, loss, courage, victory, and acceptance. G.I. Joe, the “All-American Hero,” is the toy I gravitated to most, often in the presence of my cousin Ronnie, who served in The Persian Gulf War, or my Uncle Ron, who served during the Vietnam War. I have always looked up to my Uncle Ron. Still, I never considered what he, or my cousin, might have thought about a little kid playing with toys designed to mimic soldiery and war. Even my little army guys, made famous from Toy Story, were often intermixed with my G.I. Joe figures. Although my brain usually refrained from designing war scenes, the design of the toys included those themes. Looking back now, I wonder if I would have sought out such action figures to role-play the story my mind constructed with such scenes front and center. Even so, the past is already formed, written, typed. Those early years in the sunroom, backyard, and bedroom, were spent engaged, entertained, and in a world of my construction.

Another toy, which followed along with a television show I loved, was ThunderCats. “ThunderCats follows the adventures of a group of catlike humanoid aliens from the planet Thundera.” Not only did I have the action figures, but I had the sword, and all the gear, or accessories, that accompanied each model, and I joined those characters as I watched the television show from 1985 to 1988. Like with my G.I. Joe toys, ThunderCats were fantastic and allowed for phantasmagorical adventures and foundational animated television viewing. Similarly, my collection of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which had an animated show that ran from 1983 to 1985, probably made up my most extensive collection of toys. My mother’s Star Wars toy collection was perhaps more extensive, but He-Man, with all the figures, castles, and accessories, was massive and comprehensive.

Created by Mattel and hugely successful after the merchandising bonanza George Lucas made from Star Wars, He-Man had everything one could want from an action figure and television show. Sure, He-Man is a fictional superhero who didn’t require me to extend the imaginative adventure. He-Man, the “main character of the show and sorcery-themed Masters of the Universe,” flexed his muscles around comic books and an eventual feature film. I was more than willing to join, mimic, and have the fondest memories of going back and forth, sometimes even joining ThunderCats and He-Man in an Avengers: Endgame scenario where the heroes unite to save the day. All of them battling on the side of good against evil. Good vs. evil was often the theme of play when I called upon both sets of toys.

Similarly, when Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles made their way onto my television, they also made it into my toy box. Both, respectively, had animated shows in the mid to late 1980s and had many action figures to follow. Hasbro’s Transformers were great because I could combine my enjoyment of Micro Machines, little Matchbox cars, and action figures to have characters, like Optimus Prime and Bumble Bee, turn from one to the other. It was another toy/show that taught and engaged in narratives with vast themes that insisted on debating right and wrong. Both toy/show franchises eventually gained new life, especially Transformers with Michael Bay’s big blockbuster films with incredible action sequences and too much CGI. 

Brands like Fisher-Price, Playmobil, Playskool, and toys such as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, were frequently considered and used daily. Hey “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down!” Still, one of my all-time favorite toys was based on a live-action show and connected with me on a personal level. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, the WWF, now WWE, dominated professional wrestling. I loved watching wrestling, wrestling with my siblings, and, of course, creating some pretty fantastic storytelling for my wrestling action figures. This fascination was, in large part, inspired by my cousin Mike. Mike is my oldest and only cousin on my dad’s side and, as a kid, was someone I considered the coolest.

Mike was a local wrestler in New Bedford and is still a fantastic artist. When I was young, I often went to his matches and watched his shtick. The venue sold coloring books, and I always brought one home since Mike did the artwork. He even rose the ranks in the profession and was a “jobber” in one episode of Monday Night Raw in the early 1990s and matched against Papa Shango. Mike lost, of course, but it was amazing watching him on television, at home, while holding my wrestling toys, including those Mike made for me. As I said, Mike is a talented artist, so one year he produced and painted two wrestling action figures that resembled his wrestling persona and tag team partner. It was those two action figures I clutched as I watched him that night on RAW, and still have to this day. Each time I see wrestling on television, I think of those toys, and I think of Mike. I think of how he used to accompany me on Grandparents Day at school because I didn’t have any grandparents to join me. With my wrestler/artist cousin at my side, I was the envy of the class.

Connecting Blocks, but not LEGO

“From now on you must take good care of your toys, because if you don’t, we’ll find out, Sid. We toys can see everything! So play nice!”

– Tom Hanks (Woody) from Toy Story (1995)

I love to build stuff, not that I have any experience or exposure to such ventures. LEGO was, and still is, my stress reducer as well as a fun building exercise. A couple of months ago, I wrote about my love of LEGO, which you can read here, Discovering Calm in LEGO. I will not go into further detail at this time, but suffice to say it is a fantastic hobby, and I refuse to give it up. But these incredible multi-colored blocks you stick together to form incredible structures are but one set of blocks I was fond of as a kid. No, the other is not Mega Blocks; those never stayed together. Instead, there were two different types of “connect or link” toys that I had a plethora of in my home. Construx, a “brand of plastic building toys introduced by Fisher-Price in 1983,” was one such block assembly toy I owned. Dissimilar to LEGO, “Construx feature beam-like pieces of varying lengths that snapped onto cubical connector knots to build large shapes.” I can easily recall the pieces’ white and blue colors as I connected them and, frequently, formed a building or something I was into at the time.

Still, what I consider my second favorite “block” toy as a kid are Lincoln Logs. I mean, nothing can touch LEGO’s supremacy as my favorite toy then, or even as an adult now, but Lincoln Logs are very nostalgic. My Aunt Sybil, who I wrote about in my Star Trek blog post, introduced me to these small, wooden, and interconnected logs. I do not pretend to think these “logs” are a 1980s invention. Their origin story dates back to 1916/1917 but was first manufactured in 1918 by John Lloyd Wright for the Red Square Toy Company. While immediately producing thoughts of the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln because of his humble log cabin origins, these logs make me think of my aunt.

Every time we went to her house, whether for a holiday, to see her and my Uncle Ron, or for a random Tuesday, she always asked us if we wanted to play with the buckets of Lincoln Logs she owned. It was exciting. Me, and usually my sister, would sit in the living room, generally with Star Trek: TNG on the television, and we built for hours. I usually came up with a unique architectural twist on the typical cabin design, and it usually collapsed. Hence, I went into history and not engineering, but fun they were and imaginative we attempted to be. In the end, whenever I see Lincoln Logs, which is more often than one may think, I think of my extravagant attempts at architectural design and my Aunt Sybil offering those buckets to us as soon as we walked in the door.

Perfectly 1980s: Monsters and more Monsters

“Forky is the most important toy for Bonnie right now. We all have to make sure nothing happens to him.”

– Tom Hanks (Woody) from Toy Story 4 (2019)

Lite-Brite, which “consists of a light box with small colored plastic pegs that fit into a panel and illuminate to create a lit picture,” TalkBoy, Madballs, Spy-Tech, Etch-A-Sketch, and Super Soaker are a few of the non-action figure and non-building toys I get nostalgic over. Each brings back specific memories, as do all the toys I have covered so far on this journey into those few that molded my young imagination. Sure, I don’t mean to be disrespectful to my Figment plush or the Goofy stuffed animal, which my Aunt Madeline made clothes for, but they do not offer the same sense of nostalgia, even if, when thinking of them, brings on a wicked large smile. But one such “stuffed” animal that I could not refrain from including in this post is My Pet Monster.

First produced in 1986, I know for a fact it was introduced into my home as a holiday gift, one for me and one for Jeff, in its first year of popularity. My Pet Monster had “horns, blue fur, and a fanged smile, wearing breakaway orange plastic handcuffs.” I loved this thing and have unforgettable memories and old photos with this stuffed creature in them. This random blue monster was undoubtedly an excellent addition to my childhood, especially when movies like 1989’s Little Monsters, starring Fred Savage, were released on VHS. It would be best if you had a pet monster while watching a film about monsters under a bed and then looking at cards like Leaf 1988 Baseball’s Greatest Grossouts Monster Cards, but that’s a different story. Still, My Pet Monster was the best, but randomly was not the only late 1980s monster-esq toy I owned, but at least it wasn’t as weird as Boglins.

Boglins were toy puppets distributed by Mattel, the brainchild of Jim Henson Company Alumni Tim Clarke and “Maureen Trotto and Larry Mass, and licensed by Seven Towns. Boglins’ was released in 1987, coinciding with a ‘creatures’ craze” that included awesome 1980s horror films like Critters and Gremlins. These things were strange, but I remember having several of them, and they came in a box, with an open face front, where you observed the little goblin-like Boglin, but it was behind bars as if it was a prisoner. Again, I am not sure why a kid would ask for or want one of these since they were a slime-like but not sticky material. They had tails, small arms, and an owner could puppet the creature by wearing it like a glove. For hours I chased my sister or mother around the house with these things, which I am sure they enjoyed. Unlike most of the toys I have discussed today, Boglins never had a television show. They had a short backstory as being creatures from “a swampy bog that time forgot,” but otherwise, they were monster-like, but without the friendly squeeze ability of My Pet Monster. I don’t have any significant or nostalgic attachment to these specific toys, only that they were a part of a monster trifecta that dominated the late 1980s in my home.

Time to Close the Memory Toy Box, but Don’t Lock It

“We’re going into attic mode, folks. Keep your accessories with you at all times. Spare parts, batteries, anything you need for an orderly transition.”

– Tim Allen (Buzz) from Toy Story 3 (2010)

Most people have a favorite toy. While I am nostalgic about many and have lots that produce memories from my childhood, action figures are probably those I identify with most. Whether G.I. Joe, He-Man, ThunderCat, or wrestling figures, I built terrific storylines that allowed me to tap into a powerful creative outlet. Sometimes, those toys, like the metal and labor-intensive go-kart, are not inherently part of my core but provided laughs then and deep reflection today. I do not have many memories of my grandfather or most of my grandparents, for that matter. So, those go-karts, while not Power Wheels, are more than memories of rust and steel. They are a link, a window, into a man, for good or bad, who brought those random “picked” goods to my home and offered hours upon hours of childhood entertainment. Sure, I don’t have them today, but I don’t need to, nor can I reclaim them. As a historian, I quickly recognize that it is both unnecessary and impossible. The memory must, and certainly has to be, enough.

It might be odd that I have included absolutely no video games or any games for that matter in this post. For one, I will be covering video games for a second time, the first you can read here, A Newcomer Joins Borderlands 3, but more extensively in a month or two. Secondly, I wanted to think about solely those toys that allowed for my imagination to be sparked, run wild, and develop narratives that required characters, even if the audience was simply one; me. If not days, I spent hours of my childhood building a world that I rarely think about today. I teach history daily, have a family, and have adult stress and anxiety that I had not considered the past as a resource to help me sort through. Since starting this blog, I learned it is by thinking about the past and finding comfort in music, movies, food, toys, and memories that I found the ingredients necessary to confront small pockets of emptiness. Of course, therapy helps, but so does writing and reminding myself of the worlds I built with those little plastic toys.

Without knowing it, it seems I have built a few “series” on my blog. I examined nostalgia through several lenses. The best way to truly understand and illustrate my enjoyments and fulfillment is to explore them from various positions. I have enjoyed my wicked traveled discussions on nostalgia, especially related to my childhood or adolescence, but there are more to come. Like music and film, and food, toys are one of many ways I seek to reflect on the past. As a historian, rather than covering the history of a people, nation, or civilization, it has been wonderfully healthy exploring my past. For me, toys are a significant ingredient that has inspired me to be creative and dive deep into my imagination’s unexplored and untapped potential. I can only assume that most of us have those unique toys that taught us something and maybe even gained a more in-depth understanding even in those moments of loss. Toys are fabulous, and today reflecting on those that hold sentimental value has been an excellent exercise in nostalgia. Now, if only I can get a personalized Funko POP! like the one below!

10 thoughts on ““Hold your breath, make a wish, count to three”: Recalling Sentimental 1980s Toys

  1. Ah, yes! I remember my brother having G.I. Joe and He-Man action figures and getting a Castle Greyskull for Christmas one year. My favorite toys then were Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake dolls, and Cabbage Patch Kids. Thank you for taking me back to what were much simpler times! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We had the best toys in the 80’s! I remember I had She-Ra, Cabbage Patch, Gremlins, etc. Such nostalgic memories. Now if I asked my nephew if he wants to play he automatically thinks it means Fortnite 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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