Monday, June 15, 2009

Door Robot (Alps / 1958 / Japan / 9 inches)

In 1956, science fiction fans were given the ultimate present: Forbidden Planet, a multi-million-dollar cinematic extravaganza starring a young and vigorous Leslie Nielson, an even younger and -- ahem -- more vigorous Anne Francis, and an older-but-no-less-vigorous-thank-you-very-much Walter Pigeon. However above all these luminaries loomed the one and only Robby the Robot. In reality nothing more than a costume -- a cunningly designed, brilliantly conceived costume, no doubt! -- audiences nonetheless embraced the robotic character and turned him into one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

MGM, who released Forbidden Planet, had a lot riding on the film, which cost roughly $2 million to make. With the movie's flying saucers, space guns, memorable characters, and, of course, Robby the Robot, you'd think that some sort of licensing deal would have been a no-brainer money-making strategy. Nothing mints quick and easy cash like a line of toys.

But alas, this was decades before Star Wars, and George Lucas hadn't yet arrived on the scene to show the world how copyrighted characters could be turned into cold, hard lucre with only a few deft signatures. MGM missed the boat, and kids across the globe were forced to do without officially licensed toys.

"Officially licensed" being the two key words. Lack of permission did't stop Japanese toy manufacturers from creating their own versions of Robby the Robot. Most were only thinly disguised and immediately recognizable as the iconic robot. However, one toy company called Alps decided to re-imagine the character from practically the ground up: Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, let me introduce to you the simply named "Robot."



(Of course, "Robot" is a bit vague, so collectors quickly nicknamed Alps' creation "Door Robot" due to the small hatch located on the toy's chest.)

And in case you're looking at the toy and saying, "Um, Doc, that looks nothing like Robby the Robot," I'd like to point out the "sausage link" legs, the dome, the "gyro rings" inside the dome, the three-fingered hands, the neck window, and the cylindrical body. If this isn't Robby's cousin, then I'm his dad.

One of the more imaginative robots to come out of the toys' Golden Age, the Door Robot was controlled by a two-buttoned, wired remote control. One button caused the toy to walk forwards with lights and swinging arms. The second button made the dome rotate while a light up color-wheel spun in the window at its neck. At the same time, it made a wonderfully raucous clacking noise that probably made parents question just why they bought junior the toy in the first place.



The door itself opens to provide access to the toy's light bulb, a nice concession to budget-minded moms and dads who might not like the idea of tossing the robot once it lost its illumination.



Door Robot moves via a pin-walking mechanism wherein two thin metal rods move in and out of slots in the toy's feet. It's a system commonly found on older toys -- this is one of the later appearances of the mechanism, which was pretty much pased out by the Sixties as toy designers began to favor moving legs.



This particular Door Robot is an extremely rare "accidental" variation: the green, inner, rectangular dome is usually completely clear. Mine is the first one I've seen with a tinted dome, and I've since seen only one other. Personally, I like how it picks up the colors in the "Gumby green" remote control and wire.



I call it an "accidental" variation because it's probably the result of poor quality control at the factory; oftentimes, workers would grab whatever materials were on hand and didn't bother to pay attention to consistency. In this case, they grabbed some translucent green plastic instead of completely clear. Or, it's possible that whoever used the injection molding machine failed to clean it properly, leaving a hint of green behind that went on to contaminate the plastic used to make the domes. Either way, a green-domed version of the toy was never officially released. This is one of the reasons they're so incredibly rare today.

The Door Robot was available with at least two different color remotes, and two different styles of wire: Green remote with green wire, and a dark blue remote with a braided dark-blue/dark-red wire. Both appear often enough to be conisdered legitimate; sometimes other combinations pop up, and whether they're factory releases or after-market repairs is anyone's guess. No documentation has surfaced that indicates one way or the other.



When I bought mine, it had the green wire but a blue remote. I could tell that the remote was a repair job (the solder was still shiny) but decided it didn't matter, the toy looked fine the way it was. But then, one day, a friend called me up and asked if I wanted to purchase a loose, green remote. The price was right, so I jumped at the opportunity. Of course, I was curious as to how he ended up with just a remote.

"Some guy sold it to me after a piece of furniture tipped over and crushed his Door Robot," my friend told me.

Ouch.

I told my friend that I felt kind of bad profiting off some guy's pain, but he said not to worry. "This guy had his toys insured -- he got his money back and ended up buying a new Door Robot in nicer condition."

Which just goes to show, don't forget to insure your toy collection! More on this in a later post.

The Door Robot is an extremely popular toy, both for its play value and wonderful, weird looks; of course, prices reflect the desirability. The Door Robot shipped with a particularly wonderful box, and you can expect to pay more than twice as much for a mint, boxed example of the toy. Which is precisely why mine's loose...

7 comments:

  1. Although I don't own one, this is one of my favorite vintage robots. In Alphadrome's "Robot Time Line" this beauty is listed at a whopping cost of $2.79 in the 1960 Sears catalog! It's hard to believe they made any money at that price considering the time and materials that went into making them. See the Door Robot Time Line at: http://danefield.com/alpha/forums/index.php?showtopic=1428&hl=door+robot

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  2. Thanks for pointing this out.

    It really hammers home the idea that these were TOYS, not collectibles, and that they were considered disposable by people back in the Fifties and Sixties. Kids were expected to bang them around and then, when the next Christmas rolled around, mom and dad would just get a new one for Junior. The companies wanted these things to die an early death so they could sell more of them.

    At least, that's the conventional wisdom, and that's how they do it today. Frankly, I think that the people making these took more pride in their toys than the people making mass-produced toys do today. So while the people importing them into the States from Japan wanted the toys to end up in the junk pile after a year, the toy-makers themselves would, I think, be really happy to learn that the robots are still collected and loved today.

    (They might be astonished -- and confused by and terrified -- that we're willing to spend so much on them, though!)

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  3. Me and my grandma found a door robot. The paint is almost perfect. The left hand broke but I have both pieces. The only problem is we dont have the remote. Do you know where we could get one?

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  4. Hi, thanks for the email. Unfortunately, it's tough to find loose remotes for the Alps Door Robot. However, many other toys use similar, two-button remotes that, when wired correctly, will operate the toy. If you check eBay you should be able to find some inexpensive, old battery-operated toys -- often animals -- that'll do the trick.

    You can also try toy restoration companies. They often sell replacement and reproduction parts. Two that I know of are Classic Tin Toy Company (www.classictintoy.com) and Randy's Toy Shop (www.randystoyshop.com). Please keep in mind, I haven't used either of these services, so I can't speak directly to the quality of their work. However, I know many other collectors have bought from them, and seem quite happy with the results.

    Good luck, and please let me know how it turns out!

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  5. Hi Doc,
    I would like to know what the price of a nice door robot with box is going for these days?
    Thanks,
    George

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  6. Hi, George. I don't like to comment on prices in the blog itself. If you'd like to email me, feel free and we can discuss it privately. My email is up near the top, right-hand side of the blog -- the button that says "Email Doc Atomic."

    I don't want this blog to turn into a price guide -- especially because the prices of these toys fluctuate so wildly sometimes. So I prefer to keep things one-to-one when talking value.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

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