Friday, April 30, 2010

Battery Operated Planet Robot (Yoshiya / 1958 / Japan / 9 inches)

The Planet Robot is another example in a long line of toys that draw upon Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot for inspiration.

Forbidden Planet landed in theaters in 1956, a $2 million science-fiction adventure story that combined wonderful characters, thrilling action, a mysterious plot, lavish sets and props, and, of course, a robot that would go on to influence all future Hollywood robots, droids, and other assorted mechanical men: Robby.

In a pre-Star Wars world, toy licensing for films was relatively unheard of, and MGM, the film's studio, never bothered to produce any space ships, ray guns, action figures, or robots of their own. Happily for us, though, many companies rushed in to fill the void. They did so carefully, of course, in an effort to avoid a barrage of law suits. As a result, we have many different toy robots from the Fifties and Sixties that look a whole lot like Robby, but with many interesting tweaks that give each piece a distinct personality. (For some great examples, check out these past posts: Mechanized Robot, Piston Action Robot, Door Robot, Jupiter Robot, and this one on cinematic robots. Also check out Pat Karris' amazing collection of vintage Robby toys at

In action, the battery operated Planet Robot walks forward while its chest and face light up. At the same time, the vertical scanner ring on the left side of its dome rotates. All in all, not the most complex action ever created, but that doesn't make it any less cool to play with.

What's always most attracted me to this toy is the metallic blue litho. I've said it before and I'll keep on saying it until someone inscribes it in the Big Book of Truth: Metallic blue is the coolest color ever, and looks great on not only toy robots, but also ray guns, rockets, space cars, houses, and grandma's hair.

The Planet Robot is one of the longest -- maybe the longest -- produced robots in the hobby. Evidence suggests that it was on the shelves in one form or another from 1958 through at least 1972 -- and probably longer than that. Of course, it mutated quite a bit during that time, and as such, you can build entire sub collections of just Planet Robots.

Besides the version of the battery operated Planet featured in this post, there's also one with rubber, three-fingered hands that more closely mirror the hands on the original Robby the Robot. As far as we know, the toy was only available in blue.

The Planet Robot was also made with a wind up mechanism that features sparks in its chest and face plate. The wind up Planet Robot was offered with both rubber and tin hands. It came in a variety of colors, including black (most common), olive green, and blue (very rare). There might be a few others -- it's hard to keep track.

But the variations don't end there. Later versions of the wind up Planet Robot saw the introduction of slightly thinner legs, smaller "ear caps" and scanner rings, and flatter face grills. These differences are often rather subtle, and can sometimes only really be seen when two different versions of the toy are posed side by side. However, at the very end of it's run, the Planet Robot underwent one more significant transformation, as Yoshiya introduced a plastic head and plastic hands.

This later version was quite common for a while; rumors suggested that a warehouse full of the toys was discovered somewhere. I do know that at least one antique toy store in NYC -- now no longer with us -- was selling them mint-in-box well into the late Seventies. Regardless, the supply has dried up considerably, making even this last iteration of the Planet Robot kind of tricky to come by.

This Planet Robot is particularly important to me. I first saw it when I visited Steve Jaspen's collection early on in my own collecting career. Steve was the first collector to ever invite me to his house to see his toys; he's the first vintage space toy collector I'd ever met face to face. We've been friends ever since, and in the ensuing years, I've learned so much about the hobby from the man. I definitely consider him a mentor within the scene.

Steve's the kind of collector who is endlessly refining and focusing his collection; he doesn't have the most toys on the block, but he's definitely got some of the best. He's always selling or trading a piece here and a piece there, and the day that I visited him, one of the toys slated for eviction from his shelves was the battery operated Planet Robot. I was definitely interested in it, but Steve, being the nice guy that he is, actually turned me off of the sale. "You don't want this one. I bought it at the height of the market and I'm trying to get a lot for it. You can definitely find one for less money." Fair enough, and I dropped the subject.

A few months later I get an email. It's Steve, and he's reconsidered the Planet Robot sale. "It's never going to get what I originally paid for it, so if I have to let it go for cheap, I'd rather have it end up in your collection." About a week later, on a chilly, blustery day, I met Steve outside his Midtown office. It must have looked like some weird drug deal going down -- me handing him a thick wad of cash, him handing off a strangely wrapped package. But no one called the cops, and a little while later the robot was on my shelf.

That's why this is an important one for me. Not just because it's a robot I always loved, and not just because it came from the collection of a good friend. No, this toy's important to me because of what it represents. This hobby can be so cutthroat. I've seen collectors smile at each other while wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to screw each other out of toys. I've seen friendships dissolve over fights for toys. I've seen scams and I've seen what can only be described as outright criminality. All because of toys. Toys!

But at the same time, I've seen spectacular generosity. I've watched people step aside at auctions so that friends can get a toy they've always wanted. I've seen collectors lend each other extraordinary amounts of money so an important deal won't fall through. I've seen dealers sell toys to friends for zero profit. I've watched collectors give toys to other collectors because their friendships were so strong.

And that's the spirit behind my battery operated Planet Robot. It represents the friendship and camaraderie within the hobby -- friendships that, I hope, will last as long as the toys themselves.

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