Monday, November 29, 2010

New Blog: Help Me Name It!

I've got a lot of toys. Most of them are more than 50 years old, and I write about them in this very blog. Obviously.

But I also collect some newer vintage toys, like Star Wars figures, Tron stuff, old Star Trek phasers, and a bunch of weird Japanese things. And frankly, I'd like to write about them, too. But the Attic of Astounding Artifacts isn't really the place for it.

So I'm starting a new blog to focus on all these other toys. It'll be a little less formal, probably, and I can't promise it'll be as chock full of information. But it'll be cool, it'll be fun, and hopefully it'll show off some toys that not everyone has a chance to see.

But now I need help naming it. So I'm calling on you, my weird and faithful readers, to shout out some suggestions. This isn't a contest, there's no prize. If I use your name, though, I'll be sure to give you all the credit in the world. I'll give you so much credit that you'll be getting credit for stuff you didn't even do. Hardcore credit, yo.

Leave your suggestions in the comments. I'll keep them hidden until the final name is picked.


Leslie Nielsen (February 11, 1926 - November 28, 2010)

Leslie William Nielsen died early Sunday evening of complications stemming from pneumonia. He was 84.

This makes me very sad.

Nielsen was probably best known for his comedic roles in such movies as Airplane! and The Naked Gun (the latter based on a role he created in the TV show Police Squad). But for myself and most readers of this blog, he will forever be remembered as Commander John J. Adams in 1956's classic science-fiction film Forbidden Planet.

Publicity still of Nielsen as Commander John J. Adams in Forbidden Planet.

The one-sheet movie poster for Forbidden Planet.

In the film, Nielsen and his crew of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D land on Altair IV, where they meet Dr. Edward Morbius, his daughter Altaira, and Robby the Robot -- the sole survivors of a tragic expedition that landed on the planet 20 years earlier. They learn of the planet's former inhabitants, the Krell, a race of hyper-intelligent beings who mysteriously disappeared. And they discover that the planet harbors a dark secret, one that threatens the lives of everyone on the C-57D.

Nielsen with Anne Francis (Altaira) and Robby the Robot.

Nielsen and Francis.

Nielsen played Adams as a man of action whose sense of honor and duty sits side-by-side with his reputation as an intergalactic ladies man. He's noble, dashing, intelligent, and quick with a blaster -- an old-school space hero who gets the girl in the end. (If that's a spoiler, none of you have ever read a science fiction story or seen an SF movie from the 1950s.)

Half-sheet poster for Forbidden Planet.

I always admired how Nielsen took his character seriously. There was never any wink in his performance, never a sense that he was too good for the role, or that he was slumming it by appearing in a science fiction film. And as years went by, he never wavered in his attitude, always speaking fondly of the film and his part in it. (Unlike, say, Walter Pigeon, who played Morbius. He ran from Forbidden Planet like it was a swarm of bees, and always resented the promotional appearances he had to make to support the film. Oh well.)

Forbidden Planet holds a special place in the hearts of most robot collectors. Not only is it one of the best science fiction movies of all time -- and I'll fight anyone who tries to say differently! -- but it also gave us the great Robby the Robot. Toy manufacturers, in turn, transformed Robby into some of the most exciting toys ever to sit on a toy shelf. (And I'll fight anyone who tries to say differently about this, too!)

Various Robby-inspired toy robots. (back row) Mechanized Robot. (middle row, from left) wind up Planet Robot, Piston Robot, battery operated Planet Robot, and Moon Robot. (front row, from left) Space Trooper, battery operated Jupiter Robot, and wind up Jupiter Robot.

But as great as Robby was, and as near to my heart as he sits, my favorite character in Forbidden Planet was Commander Adams. For giving us that, as well as decades of goofy laughs, I humbly salute Leslie Nielsen. He will be fondly remembered and sorely missed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Space Toy Artwork of Steven Skollar

If you're in New York City this weekend, I highly recommend heading over to SoHo's Arcadia Gallery to check out the latest exhibition of paintings by artist Steven Skollar. His focus is on (mostly) vintage toys -- robots, ray guns, flying saucers, and other odds and ends. Yep, all the stuff we love!

Painting © Steven Skollar. Used with permission.

His paintings evoke the masters of prior centuries, with a very formal approach to lighting and composition. But this juxtaposes wonderfully with his pop culture subject matter, and the end result is something forceful yet whimsical. If I had a fireplace and a mantel in my toy room, his are exactly the kinds of paintings I'd want to hang above it.

I had the pleasure of meeting Steven for the first time nearly a year ago, when he asked if he could use some of my robots and ray guns as models for his paintings. Of course I said yes, and Steven came over with a pretty interesting -- and top secret! -- photo rig which he used to snap shots of a number of different toys. (I wrote about the day here.) I'm thrilled to see that many of them made the final cut, and now grace the walls of a SoHo art gallery. And people say that toy collecting isn't respectable! Pshaw!

Painting © Steven Skollar. Used with permission.

Painting © Steven Skollar. Used with permission.

Painting © Steven Skollar. Used with permission.

Painting © Steven Skollar. Used with permission.

The exhibit runs until Sunday, November 26. Arcadia Gallery is located at 51 Greene Street, New York, NY. Their number is 212-965-1387, and their web site is Steven Skollar can be found online at

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Prototype Television Robot (Yonezawa/1960s/Japan/9.5 inches)

Toys aren't born, they're made. And before they can be made, they go through stages of development that begin with sketches and model-making and culminate in the creation of a prototype. If the stars align properly -- i.e., the prototype works correctly, people like the design, and production isn't too costly -- the prototype is transformed into a toy.

But sometimes a toy never gets that far. Sometimes, something about the robot prevents it from making it out of the pre-production stage and on to the toy shelf. The toy industry is full of "what ifs" and "also rans," robots that started as really good ideas but, for whatever reason, never quite made the cut.

And while most of these prototypes were dismantled and turned into scrap, some survived. They remained in dark factory corners, or sitting on shelves in forgotten closets. They dodged the ravages of time and neglect until finally, finally, intrepid collectors dragged them into the light. And now, decades later, they survive as giant curiosities that hint at all the wonderful toys that, had fate not dipped and dived in the wrong direction, might be sitting on our shelves today.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of one such toy.

Presenting the prototype for a never-produced Television Robot by the company Yonezawa. Please bask in its glory for as much time as you'd like. I'm happy to wait.

I know, I know. It doesn't look like much. Just two legs, feet, a gear box, a pair of arms, and that big, round space scene on the front of its chest. But that's part of its charm. It's a prototype. For a toy that was never produced. Of course it's not going to look like a super model. But I would argue that a prototype is even cooler when you can tell that it's a prototype.

Prototypes demonstrate the toy-making process, providing a glimpse into the often hidden world of toy development. They're stages in the act of creation, and, in my opinion, are most interesting when they illustrate these stages. This means they're often rough around the edges compared to a finished toy, but that's the point.

And it gets even cooler. These prototypes are one-of-a-kind, hand-made toys. To use an art analogy, these are the original paintings and pencil sketches, while the toys themselves are just machine-made prints. As such, I consider them wonderful works of mechanical art.

So... What exactly are we looking at? Allow me to break it all down.

This is a concept for a walking Television robot. As far as we can tell, the toy walks forward with swinging arms and a spinning antenna in what would have been its head. At the same time, the disk on its chest rotates about 30% before stopping. Then a bulb lights up, illuminating the scene, which would be visible through a TV window on the robot's chest. After a few seconds, the whole process starts all over again.

It sounds fairly basic, but the toy included one feature that was positively revolutionary -- at least, it would have been if the robot had ever made it into production: Bump-And-Go action.

Bump-and-go action allows a toy to slam into a wall, spin around, and go in another direction. It's common on skirted robots and many space cars, tractors, tanks -- pretty much anything that rolls. However, no one in the hobby had ever seen it on a walking robot until this prototype surfaced.

So how's it work? The robot walks forward until it bumps into a wall. This pushes in a tab on the toy's left foot, which engages a mechanism that causes the wheels in its feet to only roll backwards for a set period of time. As the robot continues to try to walk forward -- the right leg still works properly -- it ends up spinning itself in a circle. By the time it's facing away from the wall, the mechanism in the left foot has disengaged, allowing the wheels in the foot to roll forward again. This, in turn, permits the robot to start walking -- until it hits another wall, of course.

It's an elegant solution that would have given the toy so much additional play value. But looking at the inside of the foot, you can see that it's a fairly complicated mechanism that probably added to the toy's production cost. It's sad, but not surprising, that Yonezawa never implemented it in any of their toys.

Now, remember I mentioned that these toys are hand-made? This brings us to one of the prototype's coolest features: The hand-painted space art on the chest disk. As a fan of both toy robots and original science fiction art, I can barely express how cool I think this is. I'm amazed my head hasn't exploded already.

My friend and fellow collector, Donald Conner, pointed out that whoever painted the wonderful scenes of rockets, space stations, and robots on this disk most likely also painted the original artwork for at least some of the litho on other robots. Not only that, there's a great chance he created some box art as well.

That noise you just heard was my head finally going boom.

The scene is painted on a clear piece of round plastic using what look like water colors. It's backed with a piece of thin, translucent paper that helps to diffuse the light from the bulb that illuminates the art. The disk has warped a bit with age, and you can see spots where the paper has pulled away, taking some of the artwork with it. So the whole thing is extremely delicate. Still, it displays wonderfully, delivering a tiny, funky science fiction universe.

I don't really know too much about the Television Robot Prototype's history. It was discovered in Japan, and at some point it made its way onto the Yahoo Japan auction site. A well-known dealer won it for a collector here in the States, and he owned it for a couple years. Recently, he decided to get out of the hobby -- his collection was amazing! -- and he's been selling off his toys over the last couple months. When I saw the prototype on the block, I jumped at it.

When the toy was originally discovered, it was missing its right leg and foot. The funky bump-and-go mechanism was attached to the left foot plate, but the foot plate itself didn't fit perfectly to the foot housing. The toy had no battery box -- there was no way to see what it could really do.

(Photo: John Rigg)

So it was sent to toy collector, and robot-builder extraordinaire John Rigg. The prototype's owner knew that John could find a way to replace the missing parts and provide the toy with power -- but without doing anything that would damage the prototype itself. It was important to preserve this piece of history, so like all conservation and restoration work, anything done to the robot needed to be completely reversible.

John is a legend in the hobby. He's got an amazing collection, which he houses in the Robot Hut, a giant building that he constructed himself on his farm out west. John's also a genius when it comes to electronics, fabrication, and all-around mad science. In his spare time, he likes to customize toy robots for himself and other collectors; he also builds life-size recreations of famous Hollywood robots, like Robby from Forbidden Planet and Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. He's opened and repaired more vintage robots that most of us will ever own, and there's probably no one left alive who knows more about how these toys work. So of course he was the perfect choice to take on the job.

Never let it be said that John doesn't commit 100% to a job! Using the left leg and foot, he created templates for the missing parts, which he then painstakingly fabricated out of tin. He even made molds of the medallions on the side of the legs in order to create copies. The new foot was given a simple walking mechanism, and then attached to the leg. The leg was then put in the body, and careful attention was paid to how it would hook up to the gear box. After all, John wasn't satisfied with having the toy merely stand up -- he wanted it to work, too!

(Photo: John Rigg)

(Photo: John Rigg)

To give it power, he attached a battery box to a piece of metal, which was then screwed into existing holes on the robot's back -- most likely where the actual battery box would have attached. Everything was attached to the toy's motor. Of course it all worked perfectly. (John didn't bother to re-attach the bump-and-go mechanism. It didn't fit right, as I mentioned, so it was decided to leave it off so that it could be displayed next to the robot. It's a choice I wholeheartedly support and agree with.)

(Photo: John Rigg)

Unfortunately, not much else is known about this robot. There's a picture of another prototype piece that might be the toy's body and head, and I'll discuss this in a future post when more information becomes available. But the robot's name, the exact year it was created, where it was found -- it's all still a mystery. Obviously, one that I'd love to solve.

A lot of collectors just aren't into prototypes. Their attitude: "It's just a step in the process, who cares? And an unproduced prototype? A step in the process that didn't even lead anywhere? Pshaw! What's the point, man? You got rooked!"

Of course, a lot of collectors also feel just like I do. They understand that this is an important, rare, and -- yes -- beautiful piece of history, and as such, is valuable to the hobby in ways that can't be understated. It's also an inspiring reminder that for every toy we've seen, there are probably hundreds that never made it out the factory doors. These unproduced toys are flights of fancy for some enthusiastic toy designers, efforts that demonstrate talent, imagination, and technical expertise. They're a direct link to the people who made all these wonderful toys that we collect, and something that very few people have the opportunity to see, much less own.

So I'm kind of freaking out. As a collector, I consider this a grail piece, something I've tried to find for a long time without ever really knowing what I was looking for. And now that I've got it? I couldn't be happier.

Special thanks to John Rigg, whose work with the Television Robot uncovered all of its cool features and ultimately brought it back to life. John's the one who figured out the walking mechanism, and he's graciously allowed me to paraphrase his description, and use his photos, in this post. 

For more information on the prototype, and to see more of John's repair photos, check out this thread on Alphadrome: Yonezawa Prototype.

I'm Back, Baby!

Too long have I let this blog lie neglected. Too long have I disregarded my right -- nay, my obligation... my duty -- to write about vintage space toys. Too long has the door to the Attic of Astounding Artifacts remained closed.

Today, that ends!

Time to start posting again. I've got lots of new toys, lots of new stuff to talk about... and lots of guilt for not writing anything in a while.

So... I'm working on a post right now. Photos are taken, information is collated, and sentences are being constructed. I've recently added something to my collection that's so freakin' cool I can't wait to share it with everyone. It's a little bit different, a little bit funky, and definitely kind of meta, but it's also historic, intellectually fascinating, and endlessly fun.

Check back later today. I promise, there will be an actual post!