One of the greatest toy legends of all time was how Kenner sold four "Star Wars" action figures without really selling the action figures at all. Christmas 1977 would have been a monstrous windfall for toy companies if they had made any "Star Wars" toys and Kenner was doing its best to get a new line of three and three quarter inch action figures to market ... but they didn't make it and they wouldn't make it for the massive cash influx that the 1978 Christmas holiday season promised to bring. Kenner, not having any toys to offer (but knowing that they would be coming in the months to follow) did what I think no other toy company has ever done ... they sold what amounted to an "IOU".
Some of you may not be old enough to know what an "IOU" is ... basically, Kenner sold an empty folder with a promise to mail four new (and then unavailable in stores) "Star Wars" action figures to the kid who took the chance on Kenner.
Kenner sold an IOU in that they pre-sold four of their new action figures in a special mail-away offer, the first of three very important mail-away offers associated with the original release of "Star Wars" in 1977; the Kenner "Early Bird" kit.
This IOU promised kids four hot new action figures ... Luke Skywalker with an extending / retracting telescoping Lightsaber (strangely colored yellow), Princess Leia with a vinyl cape and a laser pistol, Chewbacca with his Wookie bowcaster (minus the crossbow part) and R2-D2.
MAIL IN ... the postage paid Early Bird Certificate
RECEIVE ... between FEBRUARY 1 - JUNE 1, 1978, before they're available in stores, poseable Action Figures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and Artoo-Deetoo (see back of package for full details).
The kit included some stickers, a mail-in certificate for the first four action figures, a "Star Wars" club membership card and a colorful fold-up display stand (featuring the original 12 Back artwork) to display your figures. The Early Bird Certificate kit was the first of the 12 Backs and a hint of what was to come from Kenner in the next 18 months.
Kids went nuts and the Early Bird Certificate kits flew out of the stores.
Here is a television commercial from that time period for the Kenner Early Bird Kit.
When the figures finally arrived (shipped in a cardboard box, packed in a white package tray), here is how they came ...
Included in the mail-in offer you received the four action figures you were owed by Kenner, a plastic bag filled with twist-in foot pegs to secure your four figures to the fold-out display (plus enough plastic pegs to secure another 8 figures later on as you purchased them), the first of the small Kenner "Star Wars" toy catalogs (these things were gold to a kid back then), and yet another mail-in offer ... this time for the "Star Wars" Action Figure Collector Stand.
"Stars of STAR WARS look-alike action figures available soon!"
The truth is that I never had one of these ...
Personally, while I remember seeing these kits in the store (and picking them up and looking them over in great detail) I never had an Early Bird Certificate kit because I just didn't "get it" as a kid. Here was a toy company, selling me an empty package and promising to mail me four figures at sometime in the future. When you're a kid and you want something really bad four to six to eight weeks isn't just a month or two, it's a frigging eternity.
By the time I got interested in the kits locally and by the time that my interest had been piqued by the television commercials the December 31, 1977 expiration date had passed and the kits were pretty much useless after that. I remember finding three of these kits still on the shelf at the "toy cave" at Howard's department store sometime in January 1978 but my dad didn't let me get one because he looked it over said that the kit had an expiration date on it and I wouldn't be able to get the figures by mail if I bought the kit.
Man, I wanted those action figures! Some kids at school started to get their action figures by mail and brought them to school and we played with them during recess. These figures were my new want and I kept checking the toy department of the local department stores looking for these figures.
One day I found them.
There they were.
Each figure, individually sealed in a clear plastic blister on a picture card.
The 12 Backs had arrived. The first "Star Wars" figures, a set of twelve figures on card backs.
Strangely enough, my first four action figures that I bought that day were Luke, Leia, R2-D2 and Chewbacca, all purchased at Wilson's department store in the University Mall area in Hattiesburg, MS in January of 1978.
These were the first of my 12 Backs and they would start a collection craze and an action figure hunt that would last for the better part of the next 12 months.