Famous Monsters of Playtime
Children have always loved monsters. There’s a fascination with those misshapen, sometimes scary, other times wretched, pitiable creatures that even when they’re afraid of one “being under their bed” or “in their closet”, little boys (and girls) still love to watch movies, read books and of course, play with toys based on them.
As hard as it is to believe nowadays, prior to the 1960's there were next to no monster-related toys or collectibles available on the North American market. With the exception of early 1950’s EC horror-based comics like Tales from the Crypt, The Haunt of Fear and The Vault of Horror (which were not specifically marketed at children, but being read by them), monster and horror entertainment was thought of as adult-only fare. Eventually, these comics were to come under fire as being psychologically damaging to children, and the final nail on their coffin was the release of a 1954 book entitled Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham. In it, the prominent psychiatrist cited horror comics as a cause of juvenile delinquency, leading to concern from parents and educators. As expected, the publications were quickly pulled from newsstands. With EC Comics losing money, the books soon stopped being published.
However, just a few short years later, North American children and teenagers were to get their monster fix in a different manner thanks to the first-ever late 1950’s television broadcast of classic Universal monster movies in a syndicated package called Shock! Theatre. Featuring films like Dracula with Bela Lugosi as the urbane vampire Count, Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff as the creature stitched together with the bodies of dead men and brought to life by electricity, and The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., doomed to walk the earth at night as a snarling, half-human, half-wolf being--the broadcasts (often introduced by horror hosts hired from local TV stations) were immensely popular with audiences and helped to usher in a monster boom the likes that had never been seen before--one which included the creation of influential genre magazines, posters, model kits, masks, toys and much more!
The brainchild of Editor Forrest J. Ackerman and publisher James Warren, Famous Monsters of Filmland was originally aimed as a one-shot publication in February 1958, but sold so well that that it continued to be published for the next 25 years. Aiming to give kids all the information and photos they longed for on their favorite silver screen scare fests-with humorous, pun-filled captions and text, the popularity of this and others magazines (which quickly sprang up) like Castle of Frankenstein, fueled the growing interest in monsters by North American “Monster Kids” and helped paved the way for the production of toys made in the image of these frightful fiends, the first which would be a model kit based on everybody’s favorite man-made creation: the Frankenstein Monster!
In 1961, Aurora Plastics Corporation, a hobby company known for putting out a diverse line of plastic model kits including knights in armor and military vehicles branched out into their first monster kit by releasing a figural kit of the Frankenstein Monster in the image of Boris Karloff. The company got the idea for the kit from children who responded to a contest (actually a market survey) stating they would like to build movie monster kits. Before production on the model took place, Aurora Marketing Director Bill Silverstein is said to have consulted with child psychologists to make sure children would not suffer psychological damage from building such kits. And what a kit this was. Standing with arms outstretched atop a grave with a tombstone bearing the name of his creator and namesake, this wonderful model (featuring stunningly beautiful artwork by artist James Bama, who painted the covers to Doc Savage paperback books) was an instant hit and sold out in hobby shops everywhere.
Dracula and the Wolf Man were released the following year-again, to great success and the Mummy, the Creature (from the Black Lagoon), Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, Godzilla, King Kong, Bride of Frankenstein, the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Mare, as well as a huge, nearly two feet tall model of the Frankenstein Monster called “Big Frankie” followed, with several kits being released each year until 1966. By placing ads for the kits in the back pages of various comic books and monster magazines, including Famous Monsters, Aurora was able to secure their success in the toy and hobby industry for years to come. Fondly remembered by fans, the Aurora kits were among the most influential monster collectibles of all time, and have been in constant re-release (often with glow-in the-dark parts) over the decades.
The Universal Monsters were featured in a novel, yet popular product produced during the 1960’s called “Soakys.” A means to sell bubble bath soap, popular comic book, TV and film characters of the day like Mighty Mouse, Dick Tracy and Batman were rendered in beautiful looking hollow plastic figural containers that stood approximately 10 inches tall and featured heads that could be unscrewed to pour out the accompanying liquid soap. Manufactured in 1963 by Colgate Palmolive, the monster set included Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (featuring a metallic green finish and holding a fish!) Packaged with a cardboard holder at the base of the figure and a tag wrapped around the neck, specimens complete with all packaging are extremely rare.
What would an article about monster collectibles be without mentioning Halloween masks? Don Post Studios-one of the world’s most well-known manufacturers of rubber masks released a series of twelve extremely detailed over the head rubber masks in 1963. Consisting of the usual suspects like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, Wolf Man, the Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon, the line also included some more offbeat choices like a Mole Man (from 1956’s cult flick The Mole People) and a Metaluna Mutant (from the 1954 sci-fi masterpiece, This Island Earth). Interestingly, several of the masks appeared to be made from molds of horror actors as they appeared in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Frankenstein looks like actor Glenn Strange and Dracula and the Wolf Man like a puffy faced Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., respectively. Originally retailing for around $34.00, most children were unable to buy the masks due to their extremely high price at the time, but it didn’t stop them from looking at photos printed in monster mags and hoping to get them at Christmas or at birthday time.
Also released in 1963 were a set of incredibly lurid, yet spectacularly painted and colorful monster puzzles released by Jaymar. Four puzzles were produced with titles like “Vampire’s Nest” and “Midnight Prowl,” and featured Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man and Mummy-along with numerous other creepy characters in shocking artwork that often featured two or more of the monsters in the same scene. Considered notorious nowadays, these gruesome puzzles are quite rare and hard to find complete with their boxes, and as such, are highly prized by collectors.
By the mid-1960’s, TV shows featuring monsters and supernatural themes were unearthing themselves with relative frequency. The Adams Family and The Munsters both debuted in 1964 and featured comically macabre families. The Gothic daytime soap opera Dark Shadows debuted in 1966, and was a more serious, (albeit sometimes campy and psychedelic) excursion into vampires, ghosts, demons, werewolves and man-made people.
The Adams Family spawned a host of products including coloring books, a board game from Ideal, View-Master reels, a Milton Bradley card game, a set of hand puppets by Ideal featuring lithographed fabric bodies and plastic heads, 5 inch dolls of Morticia, Lurch and Uncle Fester by Remco (often referred to as “Big Heads” because of their oversized heads) as well as an Aurora model kit of the famous house. The Munsters also led to a large quantity of merchandise including several board games by Hasbro, a beautifully designed lunch box by King Seeley Thermos, a puzzle and paper doll set by Whitman, a talking Herman doll by Mattel, an AMT model kit of the family car-the Munster Koach (designed by the very busy car customizer George Barris, who also created the Batmobile for 1966’s Batman TV series) as well as a (now extremely rare kit) kit produced by Aurora featuring the Munsters enjoying an evening at home in their living room.
The Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows wasn’t a hit in its first year and was nearly cancelled until producer Dan Curtis decided to take a chance and do a first in daytime television: he introduced a guilt-ridden 175-year-old vampire named Barnabas Collins (portrayed by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid). The ratings subsequently shot through the roof. Most items produced featured Barnabas’ familiar visage and include two board games (one produced by Milton Bradley, the other by Whitman), a soundtrack album (featuring posters of Barnabas and the show’s other heartthrob, Quentin Collins), a set of the ubiquitous View-Master reels, trading cards, comic books, figural model kits by MPC of Barnabas and the series’ Werewolf character and a Barnabas Collins “Vampire Van” vehicle--featuring a miniature coffin with Mr. Collins inside.
As the 60’s came to a close, the Louis Marx Co. (manufacturer of a wide variety of solid plastic figures including dinosaurs, cowboys and superheroes) released a set of approximately 6 inch tall Universal monsters in 1969. Molded in both blue and orange plastic, the set included the Frankenstein Monster, Wolf Man, Mummy, Phantom of the Opera, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but surprisingly, no Dracula. The figures somewhat resembled statues, included bases with small nameplates and could be painted like model kits to add lots of colorful detail.
The early 1970’s saw the emergence of a toy company whose line of beloved action figures would revolutionize and dominate the toy industry for most of that decade--Mego Corporation. Founded in the 1950s as a maker of cheap dime store toys, the company began to gain the rights to make toys based on TV, movie and comic book characters in 1971. The company experienced incredible success with their line of "World's Greatest Super-Heroes!" 8 inch tall figures (featuring well-articulated bodies, highly detailed cloth costumes and accessories) before moving into monster territory with The Mad Monster Series in 1974. Featuring The Dreadful Dracula, The Monster Frankenstein, The Horrible Mummy and The Human Wolfman, the figures were distinctively designed and clothed, giving them a look different than “traditional” monsters. A Mad Monster Castle play set was also produced, but is practically next to impossible to find without paying a fortune for it. Of note are the paint variations on the Dracula and Frankenstein figures which have resulted in rare versions of Dracula sporting red hair and Frankenstein with blue hair. Both are highly desired by collectors.
Azrak-Hamway International, Inc, or AHI was an important manufacturer of monster toys during the 70’s. Founded in 1964 and specialized in inexpensive novelty and “rack toys”, the company released various items including rubber jigglers, water guns and bendie figures of all the stock monster characters, but also of some lesser merchandised ones like King Kong. The most significant contribution from AHI though, was its “Official World Famous Super Monsters!” collection. Produced between 1973 to1976, this set of five Universal-licensed 8 inch action figures were available on bright pink blister cards and consisted of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the most sought-after in the line and was available in two versions: with a “wide-waist” and “slim-waist.” The wide-waist Creature figure is extremely rare, commanding huge values in the secondary collectors market, and in fact, the figure (in mint condition with original card) has been known to fetch several thousand dollars in online auctions like eBay.
In 1974, another line of monster action figures hit the market, destined to become some of the rarest (and most desirable) monster collectibles: the Lincoln International Monsters. Featuring a line up that included the Mummy, Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula and the rarely produced Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame, the figures were (at the time) thought of as cheap, crude knockoffs bereft of the quality of Mego figures. However, collectors have come to appreciate the figures’ cute, almost child-like designs and humble blister card artwork. Possessing a charm that is absent in many other toys of the period the Lincoln Monsters were not as widely available as other toy lines which may explain their scarceness nowadays.
The following year, a company named Product People, Inc. released a line of 8 inch vinyl toys called "Big G Product People,” which were based on General Mills cereals mascot characters. Included among the toys were squeezable figures of the chocolate-craving Count Chocula, the red and pink Frankenstein-like monster Franken Berry, the droopy-eyed little blue ghost Boo Berry and the coverall-clad werewolf Fruit Bruit. Available through mail-in offers on cereal boxes, they were packaged in window boxes and sold for $1.49 each. Popular at the time, the General Mills Monster Cereal mascots were also featured in a number of other toys and merchandise including magnets, children’s Halloween costumes and a host of premiums (featured inside the cereal boxes) that included cardboard records and flicker rings.
In 1977 at the height of the Star Wars phenomenon, an unusual figure set came out that was a bit more grounded in science-fiction than previous lines but featured some interesting examples of monster toys: Famous Monsters of Legend. This line of 8-inch figures-produced by Tomland, included highly obscure characters that had never made into toys up to that point, including The Fly, a Morlock (from the classic 1960 film adaption of H.G. Wells story, The Time Machine) and The Abominable Snow Man Yeti. The blister cards featured colorful artwork as well as a description of each monster’s “legend.”
The 1979 sci-fi/horror masterpiece ALIEN is one of the best cinematic examples of the genre, and an 18 inch action figure made by Kenner of the film’s frightening titular creature is one of the scariest, not to mention most sought-after monster toys ever made. Featuring retractable jaws, a spiked whipping tail and an exposed “skull” underneath a clear dome atop it’s head, the Alien was the first mainstream toy made based on an R-rated film and it may have been too intense for children (or more likely their disapproving parents) at the time. Poor sales of the toy led to it sitting on clearance shelves, but it has since become the Holy Grail for a great many collectors. Featuring stunning box graphics and instructions, the toy commands several hundred dollars when found complete.
In 1980, Azrak-Hamway’s subsidiary division, Remco Toys released an Official Universal Studios Monster figure line in two sizes: 9 inch creatures and 3 ¾ inch “Mini Monster” figures. Featuring well-sculpted glow in the dark faces and hands, the large figures-consisting of the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, Mummy, Creature, and Phantom of the Opera, featured “Monster Crush Grabbing Action,” as well as a bonus iron-on patch and glow in the dark ring. As usual, the Creature and the Phantom are the hardest of the lot to find. For the 3 ¾ inch line, the same six characters were produced and initially appeared in non-glow versions, but subsequent released were produced with a glow in the dark effect. The Mummy appears to be the least produced, and as such, is the rarest of the lot. A "Monsterizer" lab table to bring the Frankenstein Monster (or any of the other creatures) back to life was also available for both lines and for added hours of fun, a haunted house carrying case/play set was also manufactured for the small figures.
Fondly remembered and treasured by fans—“Monster Kids” both young and the young-at-heart, these classic monster toys captured a time when horror was fun (and not merely an excuse to show blood, gore and violence). There was a time when we used to shudder at the sight of these creatures of the night, but now we look at them with warmth and affection. And when you think about it, compared to the horrors of the real world around us, these monsters can be a comforting presence indeed. Here’s hoping that the kids of tomorrow enjoy their monster toys as much as we did (and still continue to do).
James Burrell is a Toronto-based journalist and writer whose work has appeared in numerous Canadian newspapers and magazines including the award-winning Rue Morgue. He is also an avid collector who has been acquiring vintage monster, superhero and science-fiction toys and movie collectibles for more than twenty-five years.