The Flight and Fall of Black Falcon

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September 11, 2008

By Pete Vilmur

Most collectors can immediately recite the words that accompany a Star Wars collectible's copyright date: "Star Wars Corporation" and "Twentieth Century Fox" for those items produced between 1976 and '78, and "Lucasfilm Ltd." for those produced since 1980. Ask them what appeared on the copyright line for 1979, and you may find a few astute collectors who can provide an accurate response: "Twentieth Century Fox", "Lucasfilm Ltd.", and "Black Falcon Ltd."

Don't remember Black Falcon Ltd.? Unless there's an old set of Star Wars bed sheets, a Random House children's book, a read-along cassette, or a few other items dating from 1979 in your collection, you wouldn't.

"Black Falcon was a subsidiary of Lucasfilm that was formed to handle the merchandising for Star Wars," explains President of Lucas Licensing Howard Roffman, who in 1980 acted as legal counsel for Lucasfilm. "By the time I started in June 1980, it was being phased out."

Lucasfilm records show that Black Falcon Ltd. was incorporated in February 1978 to handle the company's licensing endeavors. According to Roffman, this was a popular trend at the time. "Back in those days there was a tendency to put different businesses into different corporate entities. Why, I don't really know." Even though Black Falcon was incorporated in early 1978, few items would bear the name until 1979.

The handful of 1979 Star Wars products exhibiting the words "Black Falcon Ltd." on the copyright line include a series of children's books by Random House, a selection of textiles such as curtains and bed sheets from the Bibb Company, a Buena Vista Star Wars read-along record and cassette, the newspaper comic strips, and a few promotional photographs. Also, a singular issue of the Official Star Wars Fan Club's newsletter, Bantha Tracks, discreetly attributed Black Falcon as the copyright holder in the fine print of its fifth issue. By number six (Autumn, 1979), the Lucasfilm name had replaced it.

So why was the Black Falcon name so short-lived? By most accounts, the Lucasfilm subsidiary was launched in 1978 to handle all new licensees hitching themselves to the Star Wars bandwagon that year. It was necessary to create a new licensing branch since merchandising and other rights were reverting to Lucasfilm from Fox at that time. This arrangement was precipitated by the fact that The Empire Strikes Back would be financed and fully owned by Lucasfilm, prompting Fox to concede any future merchandising interests it had in Star Wars for the right to distribute the blockbuster sequel.

By late 1979 (December 1, according to Lucasfilm records), the Black Falcon entity was merged under the more recognizable Lucasfilm Ltd. name, becoming no more than a mere footnote in the company's decades-long history.

Vague reminders of Black Falcon Ltd. can still be found within the walls of Lucasfilm -- a serial number attached to an older piece of furniture still bears the Black Falcon name, as do several memo letterheads stored in the library archives. The original engraver's block used to print the letterheads actually survives as a desk ornament in Roffman's Presidio office.

An example of this letterhead was actually reproduced in Steve Sansweet's Star Wars Scrapbook a few years ago, introducing many fans to the Black Falcon name for the first time. As a result, the letterhead graphic has become the most memorable attribute of the subsidiary's short-lived tenure at Lucasfilm.

Suzy Rice, who designed the famous Star Wars logo that has opened each chapter of the saga since 1977, also created the striking Black Falcon logo. "I designed it so far as I was told by George what he wanted," explains Rice. "He said he wanted an 'art deco' bird image face-on to the viewer with wings outstretched."

While Rice designed the logo, another artist actually rendered it. "Kathie Broyles -- also a designer, at that time freelancing such that she was for hire for specific projects like that through to a finished inking -- rendered the logo, as to the last version I knew was accepted by George for the finish. I worked with her on the assignment, revising it along the way until it was what I thought George wanted."

The actual Black Falcon name, according to George Lucas, was inspired by a cinematic icon. "He said that the name of the company and the logo design were inspired in part by the Maltese Falcon," says Roffman, "and then corrupted into 'Black Falcon' because it just sounded cool."

As striking as the logo was, some people found it eerily similar to a rather notorious symbol. "He liked the final logo," continues Roffman, "but said that some people reacted negatively to it because it looked like something that came from the Third Reich they decided not to continue using it."

Designer Rice remembers having the same reaction to the finished logo graphic. "I knew that 'Black Falcon' was a spin-off from the film iconography, but I also thought that to explore an art deco stylization was to periodize it to just about the frame of (design) history that was parallel with too much bad actual history, and I was uncomfortable with it. However, I, too, liked the resulting design, apart from the historical suggestions and I thought Kathie Broyles did an excellent job of developing and completing the rendering of the logo."

With its wings clipped, Black Falcon Ltd. was destined for obscurity among the fine print of a few copyright lines dating from 1979. As a result, the name became the subject of mystery and conjecture among collectors in the years since its demise. Like the cinematic bird that inspired it, the aura of Black Falcon Ltd., and the merchandising era it represents to Star Wars fans, will forever remain the stuff dreams are made of.

The original printing block for the Black Falcon letterhead

Keywords: Retro, Other Collectibles

Filed under: The Movies, Episode IV, Vault, Collecting
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