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Pushing Tin: Space Toys With Golden-Age Style
By Tom Janulewicz

Special to

posted: 01:09 pm ET
29 February 2000

Pushing Tin: Space Toys with Classic Style

"Interactivity" is a big selling point these days, and many exhibitors at the American International Toy Fair highlighted the futuristic lights and sounds their new toys could produce. However, some companies are still drawing their inspiration from the future as it was imagined at the dawn of the space age.

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Rocket USA

Liliput Motor Company

Osaka Tin Toy Institute

Their collections showed a reliance on the fundamentals, particularly the "three Rs" of space toys: rockets, robots and rayguns.

Innocence and fancy

Rocket USA says it's committed to reproducing toys from, as it puts it, "America's Space Age of Innocence: a time when space exploration and robotics were in the beginning stages and every man, woman and child was full of fanciful notions about robots, space travel and galaxies beyond."

The company's products are tin recreations of these fanciful notions. The company offers faithful replicas of the space toys produced in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, buying the toys directly from original manufacturer Masudaya.

For example, the Mars Patrol line features the battery-operated Mars Patrol flying saucer and the MP-1 and Raider X-1 friction-powered rockets. Since no mission to Mars would be complete without a trusty sidearm, the company also offers a tin Space Gun that spits real sparks when you pull the trigger.

Return to the fanciful notions of galaxies beyond

No robots? No future!

Rocket USA has an abundant collection of windup robot toys. At the center of their collection is the Gang of Five replicas of Masudaya creations from the 1960s -- Machine Man, Non-Stop Robot, Sonic Robot, Radicon Robot and Target Robot.

The company recently unveiled the capstone to the Gang of Five collection: a recreation of the rare Shooting Giant Robot from 1965.

While the toys alone are impressive, Rocket USA's motto is "Collectible toys in collectible packaging." It's not an idle boast.

The toys come in beautifully designed boxes by artist George Eisner -- brother of Rocket USA co-founder John Eisner -- who captures the design sensibilities of the early space age with uncanny accuracy.

An army of tiny robots!

On a Bender

Sales director Chris Ruben thinks Rocket USA's appeal reflects a longing for the early days of the space program.

"There was so much we didn't know," he remembers. "Imagination filled in the gaps."

Now that we do know more about space, it's difficult to look to the stars without the contempt that comes of so much familiarity.

One person who never lost that early excitement about space was Simpsons and Futurama creator Matt Groening. According to Ruben, Groening and his co-conspirators keep lots of Rocket USA toys in their offices.

When it came time to begin licensing Futurama, Groening knew where he wanted to begin.

"A mindless worker is a happy worker!"

Rocket USA's Futurama line is scheduled to debut in April with the release of tin signs featuring characters from the series. The signs carry catchy slogans like, "Resist the permanent career implant chip. You have the right to choose your own dead-end job!"

They also plan to produce wind-up, walking tin toys of Futurama characters. The first of these will be Bender, slated for release in May, with a toy Nibbler expected to follow in July.

If the Bender prototype on display at Toy Fair is any indication, these will become must-have items for Futurama fans and tin toy maniacs alike.

Bender's antenna rotates to change his mouth's expressions. His chest panel opens to reveal the coiled spring responsible for the walking action.

The eight-inch-tall character also comes with his ever-present cigar and a bottle of Olde Fortran malt liquor.

The company will also produce 3-inch die-cast figures of Futurama characters.

Unlike Rocket USA's impressive Masudaya line, the packaging artwork is being handled by the actual Futurama artists

The blue, white and orange color scheme of the prototype packaging taps into a deep vein of nostalgia. The garish combination calls to mind the days when space belonged to pulp SF, and the futuristic city on the box cover looks like what forward-looking people at the dawn of the atomic age expected to be living by the end of the century.

Tin nostalgia: more precious than gold

Elsewhere at Toy Fair, Steve Singer, "Chief Mechanic" of Lilliput Motor Company, displayed his company's collection of tin space toys.

Though Lilliput carries Rocket USA toys, they have an expansive line of their own. Singer and business partner Justus Bauschinger has contacts at other Japanese tin toy companies, including the Osaka Tin Toy Institute and MEDI-COM Toy.

From Osaka, Singer obtained a collection of tin wind-up Star Wars characters. The Lilliput Toy Fair display showcased robotic versions of Darth Vader, C-3PO, and an Imperial Storm Trooper.

Although Lilliput's catalog also includes a tin Boba Fett, Singer said he has a hard time keeping it on the shelf. He attributes this to "the Internet Generation's" 20-year obsession with arguably the most famous bit player in space film history.

Singer understands the appeal of nostalgia. Before founding Lilliput, he and Bauschinger owned a toy store called Kinderzimmer in San Francisco.

When they went out of business in 1989, they began a mail order business to import and sell Micro-Racers. These recreations of German toy cars from the 1950s were popular with San Francisco businessmen who discovered Kinderzimmer and remembered the original toys from their childhood.

A miniature empire

The cars proved to be just as successful in the direct mail marketplace. When the man who made the Micro-Racer recreations passed away, Lilliput purchased his equipment and set up their own tin toy workshop in Europe.

Since then, their mail order business has expanded to include wholesale and online components. Their toy line expanded as well. Lilliput now imports and distributes toy cars, ships planes, and of course tin space toys from all over the world.

Singer has not forgotten the affluent collectors who made Lilliput. While most of the Rocket USA toys in their catalog sell for between $20 and $50, high-end imported toys from the Osaka Tin Toy Institute command a much higher price.

Lilliput's Star Wars characters retail for about $300. The Osaka Astronaut Robot weighs in at nearly $700.

Despite the grown up price tag on some of these pieces, tin toys are still kids' stuff.

Whether intended as playthings for youngsters or as a way for adults to ransom a piece of their childhoods, tin offers interactivity in its most basic form: the joy that comes from playing with well-made toys.

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