Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Interview: Author and Collector Leslie Singer

In the Seventies and Eighties, ray guns weren't the big-ticket items they are today. You could find them at toy shows and flea markets for a few dollars; some might cost $25 or so, and a few rare ones could fetch just about $100. But Leslie Singer loved them, and had been reliving his childhood for years by picking them up whenever he had the chance. "These were the toys I played with as a kid," he says. "Forget cowboys -- I wanted to play space. And that meant playing with ray guns!"

In 1991, while looking at his collection, Singer suddenly hit on a great idea: Why not publish a book on ray guns? With his background as an ad director and copywriter, and his obvious, head-over-heels infatuation with these toys, he was the perfect person to make the project a reality. So, grabbing some guns and a photographer to take a few demo pictures, he put together a package for Chronicle Books. Then he waited. And waited. And waited, until, three months later, they got back to him: Do it.

The result was Zap!, the world's first book on vintage toy ray guns. Slick, brightly colored, and full of amazing photos, it took the hobby by storm, opening up a whole new universe of collectibles for space-toy fans everywhere. Today, the book stands as a major milestone in the history of space-toy collecting, and its author is rightly hailed as an innovative, groundbreaking collector. 

During a recent visit to New York City, Leslie Singer stopped by the Attic of Astounding Artifacts to discuss ray guns, his days as a collector, and, of course, Zap!

Leslie Singer posing in front of some of the Attic's toy shelves.

DOC ATOMIC In the introduction to Zap!, you discuss playing with some of these ray guns as a kid. 
LESLIE SINGER I grew up in Long Beach, Long Island. My dad was a science fiction fan, and I was really taken with anything called, in the 1950s, "modern." So me and my friend Jeff were totally into space-play. Captain Video, Tom Corbett, Space Patrol. I just loved the futuristic look of that stuff. The guns, toy cars, consoles. And of course, guns and boys go together perfectly. I played space all day long, built rocket models, that kind of thing. I used to go to the Hayden Planetarium all the time; I was totally enamored of the future, space travel, the graphics -- everything! 

Did you own many guns from that time?
I only had a few from the 1950s, when I was growing up. I hadn't collected any guns from the Thirties or the Forties. I just got the ones you could get off the TV commercials, or from the five and dime store. I didn't have that many, we didn't have a lot of money. So when I did get one, I treasured it. My friend Jeffrey had more money, and he had a lot more of them.

One of my favorites at the time was the Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun -- I loved that one. It's interesting that it seems to be a favorite of other people, too. I had a Three-Color Gun by Ideal -- my father had given that one to me when I was a kid. It always fascinated me -- others were sleek and art deco, but that one was bulbous and funky. Another of my favorites was this little, grey, swirled plastic gun with a whistle on the end. I don't even know if it had a name. It was a cheap little gun, but I love it. I also had the Buck Rogers Sonic Ray Gun -- the black one with the yellow cap. That was a real favorite because it had a lot going on. There were those mysterious plus and minus signs, the telescopic sight. A great toy.

Two early faves: The U.S. Plastics Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun (top) and Ideal's Three-Color Gun.

What got you back into ray guns?
When I met my wife in 1976, we were both antique and pop-culture collectors -- we both loved stuff from the 1950s. I was at an antique show with her and I saw a Nu-Matic Paper Popper. I remember saying to her, "I'm going to collect ray guns." I bought that one for $10. 

The flame was lit under me. I had a happy childhood, and the whole nostalgic thing kicked in. So whenever I'd go to a toy show, I'd get a ray gun. There was no big market for them, and they only cost $10 or $15. The most I'd spent at that time was for a mint-in-box Hubley Atomic Disintegrator -- $90. Then things started picking up. I bought my Buck Rogers XZ-31 Rocket Pistol for $90, and had to drive 100 miles to get it. Another one that was a favorite of mine was the Spin Ray -- that was a fabulous find for me. I'd never seen it before. I was excited about that -- that's the most bizarre looking toy. I remember finding the Flash Gordon Radio Repeater. That was the first time I'd ever seen it -- remember, there weren't any toy books with these things in them that I knew about. So I'd go to toy shows and dream about my childhood for days. It was fabulous.

Nu-Matic Paper Popper (top) and Hubley's mighty Atomic Disintegrator.

How often were you adding to your collection?
I was lucky if I was getting a new gun every three months. I'd be lucky if I found two at a toy show that I could afford. I don't think I ever got more than one or two over a 90 day period. I don't think I ever paid more than $125 for a new gun, though. 

What was attracting you to them? Was it just nostalgia?
Oh no, it was aesthetics for me. I liked old toys. In fact, the newer toys in Zap! were included because the publisher asked me to put them in. [Zap! features guns from the Thirties through the Eighties -- Ed.] know, I didn't really care about the history, the variations, or the different stories behind the manufacturers -- I was strictly into them from a graphical, design point of of view. 

You were collecting before anyone knew much of anything about these ray guns. Often times, they were missing parts and no one even knew. So how important was condition to you? 
I didn't need it to be mint. I actually liked the idea that they were played with, and I liked when they showed that. And like you said, in some cases, we just didn't know. Like the Renwal on the cover -- it's missing the cap, but that wouldn't have made a difference to me because it still looks so great.

That shows you the kind of collector I am. I'm not an aficionado. I was reading a review after the book came out. Now, most people liked the book, but one reviewer was just furious. He called it a pathetic attempt at a collection because it didn't have the Quisp gun! They were just appalled! [laughs]

Are you still collecting? 
Yes and no. After I wrote the book, I happened to meet the artist Peter Max. He collects collections, and he asked me if I'd like to trade my ray gun collection for an original painting of his. I said yes, but I wanted to keep some that were particularly personal, like the Space Patrol Cosmic Smoke Gun, and the Ideal Three-Color Gun. I also kept the first gun in the book, a really wrecked example of the Buck Rogers XZ-38 Disintegrator Pistol that a friend had dug out of his yard. I gave him the rest, though -- like my Hiller Atom Jet water pistol, my early Buck Rogers guns, the Flash Gordon Radio Repeater, and the Flash Gordon Siren Gun --  and ended up with a big, original painting of the Planet Jet Gun from the cover of my book. 

How did you meet Peter Max?
My wife and I are from Little Rock, Arkansas, and we've known Bill and Hillary Clinton for many years. In 1992, we were at an event for the Presidential campaign, and Peter Max was there, too. A mutual friend introduced us -- Peter asked for a copy of my book, so I sent it to him. He came back to me asking about my collection.

Besides the allure of an original Peter Max painting, why did you decide to trade away your ray guns? 
I was just ready. I'd already had the collection for a number of years, and I'd published the book, and I felt like it was just a great opportunity. So except for keeping those personal favorites, I was ready to move on.

Do you still buy any ray guns today?
I collect some of the newer ones, and some of the limited-edition creations made by artists. I love the pieces Weta does, and I've got a couple of the beautiful hand-blown glass ray guns, too. I also collect other space toys, like walkie talkies -- really, anything that shows off the retro-future.

So what made you decide to write the book?
I was looking at my collection when I realized there wasn't a book out there. I'm in advertising, and I'm a writer. I work with photographers. I knew how to do it. I said, no one's done it, I'll do it. I literally wrote a two-paragraph letter to Chronicle Books. I included some photos a friend of mine took, just as a test, so they could see the toys. I sent it all to Chronicle with the letter saying, "Hey, how about a book on ray guns?" Three months later, I got a letter saying they decided to do it. Then they asked for the copy and the photos in time to get it out by Christmas -- 90 days! So I shot 4 x 5 film and I did a little research on when the guns were made. I wrote the story in the introduction about playing with the ray guns as a kid, and I sent it all to the publisher. I never saw it again until it came back as the book.

How much input did you have with the final product? 
I suggested the name, and they did the layout. They sent me back a cover with some gun on it from 1965, one of the Japanese tin guns. I thought I'd rather have something else, something more deco, so they replaced it with the Planet Jet. That was it, the rest was all them. 

What did you think when you finally saw the finished product?
I just loved it. I loved the way it looked: Just this big yellow gun on a black background. I loved the way they designed the book, too. It actually won an international design award the year after it came out. A pretty big one -- that was all the publisher's doing. Really, the book was exactly what I wanted it to be. I still have the very first copy I took out of the box. 

What about the price guide in the back of the book? Was that your idea, or the publishers?
They asked me to put it in. They said it would double the number of books they could sell by appealing to collectors who might not care about the look of the guns. The prices are all off today, of course, but they were what I was seeing at the time. It's interesting today to see how the prices have changed, actually. 

Did you ever think your book would have such an impact, or that it would even be remembered today?
It never crossed my mind. Even after it came out, I never even considered that I'd be talking about it nearly 20 years later. You know, I went to a film festival in Memphis that had Tom Corbett and the whole crew in attendance. I brought them each a book. I was sitting there with [Tom Corbett actor] Frankie Thomas and all the other actors, and he says, looking at the book, "This is my whole childhood." 

I said, "Guess what? You're my whole childhood." I think that's what I was trying to capture in the book. 


  1. LOL! Well, well, Leslie...we meet again. I just did a custom project for Mr. Singer about a month ago and here he is talking to my fellow Alphadromer, Dr. Atomic! Small world.

    Great work as always, Doc.

  2. We were actually admiring the two Andy-Bots on my toy shelf -- Blasto and Cosmo -- and he mentioned having just gotten something from you. Hopefully he'll choose to post some pictures once he's back home.

    Glad you enjoyed the interview.

  3. Wow, a Hubley, that guy is either really lucky or really rich!

  4. Well... He snagged the Hubley many years ago for $90 (according to the interview). And the one in the photo is actually mine.

    Truth is, Hubley's aren't that expensive compared to many vintage space toys. EBay brought so many out of the woodwork. In mint condition, yes, they'll get pricey. Throw in the box and the dollars really add up. But run of the mill condition -- like mine, for instance -- is definitely on the lower end of the vintage space toy spectrum.

    Granted, everything is relative. Does it cost more than a carded Star Wars figure? Yes. Does it cost as much as a vintage robot? Most often, no. Collecting these toys can really screw up one's sense of value... It's actually probably very unhealthy, in the long run!

  5. Great interview Doc but sad in the sense that Mr. Singer no longer has his collection, other than the pages of a book. Personally, I would think if you're passionate enough to write a book on the subject it would have been a lifetime endeavor.

  6. There is something to be said for the "making it to the top of the mountain" sensation you get from having capped your collecting by writing a book on a subject.

    For some thoughts on this, check out my post on the six stages of collecting.


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