On Location with GI Joe: The 1994 Hasbro International Collectors Convention and my re-introduction to the original fully articulated man of action.
It was August 20th at the First (and perhaps last) Hasbro International GI Joe Collectors Convention in New York onboard the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier that I met Pulitzer Prize-winning feminist Susan Faludi. The author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, it turns out, was preparing a story involving the convention for Esquire magazine and collecting data for a future book about male aggression (which would become Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male). It was safe to say that most of the collectors she interviewed had no idea who was listening in - particularly Vincent Santelmo (author of The Official 30th Anniversary Salute to GI Joe) when he uttered this unfortunate statement during his slide show; "The GI Nurse was not very pretty, but that's OK because she was the only woman GI Joe ever had."
Whoa - the aural equivalent of dirty underwear, Vince. The Faludi pen scribbled like a California Richter scale in the moments following that pronouncement.
Susan Faludi interviews GI Joe collector Jeff Kilian.
Despite a few awkward instances, Faludi emerged from her experience among the GI Joe faithful with a quite optimistic outlook and a souvenir t-shirt. "I think the knee-jerk reaction to toy soldier collectors as either 'macho-man-collecting' or 'violence,' or [that these] toys celebrate excessive testosterone displays is reductive and unfair," she said after some thought. "Actually, I found something poignant about the tenderness with which these collectors look after their dolls. One could theorize that by collecting GI Joes, these are men daring to enter a 'feminine realm' rather than men trying to prove their machismo. They're daring to step out of traditional roles."
Hmmm. "Of course, that's just a theory," she laughed after a moment.
I couldn’t wait to read her story. Here's mine.
Preliminaries: At the Hyatt
Collector bonding began the Friday night before the official convention itself was set to open. The Grand Hyatt Hotel served as central lodging for most participants, and by the time I got into town at around 8pm business cards and hand-lettered signs were all over the lobby. Doors were flung open on nearly all floors - "Come in! Adventure Team Joe's needed! Yo, Joe!" read one posted notice on the 23rd floor.
I heard a lot of chatter coming out of a room at the end of the hall on the 26th floor, so I investigated. Entering slowly, I was confronted by a space that only vaguely resembled a hotel room; fleets of vehicles were parked on the floor, and regiments of GI Joes arrayed themselves on all available flat surfaces.
Despite the brisk trading and dealing activity that I'd walked smack into, I was met with a warm "hello" and the invitation to simply look around. The atmosphere was gosh darn friendly. This was the room of Elvis Rodriguez, his wife Evelyn and 15 year-old daughter Jeneal.
"Elvis has too big a heart," Evelyn whispered to me. "Jeneal and I have to keep the price lists straight so he doesn't just give stuff away."
I noticed two 20-ish collectors who, after some polite hesitancy, began to investigate potential acquisitions under the helpful supervision of Jeneal. Elvis had left the area - someone down the hall brought a mint condition space capsule that he had to see - but the operation is in good hands.
Before long, the two collectors left Elvis' room with wallets slightly lighter than when they walked in. Evelyn thoughtfully provided a camo-colored plastic bag for their purchases, which consisted of various vintage accessories. Before I left, I noticed razor-sharp pleats in all the tiny uniforms. "Oh, we starch and iron everything," Jeneal explained. At Elvis' request? "No way!" she answered emphatically. "This is our collection, too; we want every Joe to look sharp."
A couple minutes later I was in the room of Georgia native Paul Gruendler and his two young sons. The Gruendler family is into "small Joes" -the 33/4" post-1982 figures - and has made the hobby a family affair. A connoisseur of many classic toys, Gruendler traded me a vintage Grunt figure and a back issue of Plastic Figure and Playset Collector for a signed copy of Baby Boomer Collectibles with my GI Joe cover story. Two guys from Kansas noticed this, and asked for their own signed copies in trade for...well, I was thirsty after my long trip, so I settled for a couple cans of the beer they said was on ice in their room. Soon everyone visiting Gruendler's suite was approaching me for my signature on a Boomer.
Yes, folks, my 15 minutes of fame had arrived - I was bartering my autograph. I disseminated close to a dozen copies of Baby Boomer Collectibles #9 - all with my name scrawled across the cover - in a single night. The GI Joe Convention hadn't even begun, and I'd already parlayed my minuscule brush with America's Moveable Action Hero into free gifties and refreshments. I figured these people would be beside themselves if, by chance, they bumped into any real GI Joe personalities at the convention. "Make sure you have your pens ready if you bump into Don Levine or Sam Speers," I said.
"Who are they?" everyone asked.
Later, I went down to the first floor convention headquarters set up by the show organizers, Marz Productions. Staff members were busily eating pizza and assembling some truly impressive goody packages for Dealers (who paid $185 to set up at the convention) and Officer's Club members (non-dealers who ponied up $285). Attendees who spent the extra dough were handsomely rewarded - dealers got display and table space, a shirt, hat, patch, special limited edition small and large figures in specially made boxes, dog tags, etc., and Officers Club members got a variation of the same package minus display space. Dealers and members of the Officer's Club were also invited to dinner with Hasbro on Saturday night.
I admired the Dealer exclusive 12" MP figure, one of only hundreds produced by Hasbro for the convention. The next day on the convention floor, one of these metal-helmeted Joes was offered for sale. Opening bid: $300.
Out on the Floor
The show floor on the USS Intrepid.
Arriving at the Intrepid at 9:30am, I was confronted with a line of people that snaked from amidships (as they say in Navy movies) down the entire length of the aircraft carrier. Friends, aircraft carriers are looong boats, so we are talking about a mass of humanity.
This line started forming at 7:30 that morning in anticipation of the 10am convention opening. Fortunately, what the word "Shazam" did for Billy Batson, the phrase "I'm Press" accomplished for mild-mannered me; I was in the back entrance in under two minutes.
Sound unfair? I can assure you that if I would have had to stay in that line, you would be reading an alternate topic in this column, perhaps dealing with John Michlig's walking tour of the New York docks. I'm simply not devout enough in my GI Joe enthusiasm to have cooled my heels for two-plus hours. Everyone in the line, however, stuck with it like troopers; they wanted first crack at the 30th Anniversary Figures being premiered at the convention by Toys R Us.
At the front of the line, attendees were let in five at a time right past a bank of TRU cash registers and merchandise, and most folks were able to divest themselves of a couple hundred dollars before even getting onto the dealers floor. The patient, well-behaved attendees entered in this manner for the majority of the first day.
Dealers had been an the floor since 9am. Preliminary intramural trading and buying was done and prices had flattened out by the time I began wandering among the tables. Paul Ivy of Tripwire Toys was displaying his amazing custom outfits after driving all the way from California. And I was too big a wuss to stand in line.
Two aisles over I met Jeff Kilian, who produced the exclusive (and sturdy) 12" and 3-3/4" boxes for the convention The task of locating and commissioning one of the original GI Joe artists, George S. Eisenberg, led him to the startling discovery that neither Eisenberg nor any of the original designers or artists had been invited to the Hasbro GI Joe Convention. With only names to go on, Kilian searched state by state until he found each one and encouraged them to attend; a good turn that enriched the convention for everyone lucky enough to happen upon artists Eisenberg and Sam Petrucci, to name but two.
Once the public was let in to the show, "gotta-have-it-now" mania prevailed. You know those really BIG bags Toys R Us uses when you buy a bike or kiddie kitchenette set? At the GI Joe Convention they served as bulging badges of honor that attendees lugged through the already narrow dealer-table aisles. Even the most conservative of collectors felt the need to get at least one of everything offered in the 30th Anniversary lineup; a Marine, a Soldier, a Pilot, a Sailor (all four in both 12" and 3-3/4"formats) and the 3-3/4" Set (four figures with space capsule and astronaut). All eight hundred Black 12" Soldiers were sold out by noon on the first day of the convention. According to an estimate by Tomart Publications, 35% of all advance buyers went home with two or more complete sets. Whew!
I saw Paul Gruendler and his sons at the convention - bagless. "We'll wait for the after-market," Gruendler said. "The boys and I don't buy product made in Communist China."
I laughed. He, however, did not. "No. Really," he said. I had to admire his resolve. Holding that principle in the buying atmosphere that swirled around us was like being the only shark in blood-slicked waters willing to say "No thanks" to a bit-o-surfer.
I have no such willpower. My purchases included a 30th Anniversary 12" Action Sailor ($40), 10 small Green Berets in limited edition boxes ($100 total), three official programs by Tomart ($30 total), a convention t-shirt ($10) and a limited edition baseball cap ($10). The last item mentioned went up in value 400% in 24 hours - people were willing to buy it right off of my head for $40.
While all eras of GI Joe were represented on the dealer floor at some level - even some Captain Action figures were scattered about - the main concentration on tables were classic 12" soldiers. I don't care how many flea markets you've attended, you've never seen a mass of GI Joes the likes of which was present on the Intrepid that weekend. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I have now seen everything Hasbro has ever made for GI Joe. In fact, after three or four complete circuits around the various tables and exhibits, I began to detect the trademark Joe scar on the faces of everyone I looked at.
Thank God it was time to move on to the press conference.
That Unavoidable Underside
The press assembled to hear the news that I reported two issues ago in this column; GI Joe will be de-commissioned and replaced by the Captain America-esque Sgt. Savage. As I also mentioned, Hasbro itself was drastically re-configured the week previous to the convention, making Sgt. Savage a Kenner project and product.
Ironically, Hasbro volunteers consisting of the former GI Joe team contributed much to the smooth running of the Convention. Upper-level staff members did everything from run R&D and sculpture seminars to provide security at the overloaded entrances and Toys R Us counter - all the while knowing that this would be their last GI Joe project.
Additional ripples surfaced soon after the convention; I was told of rumors floating around that Kenner had already decided to scrap the entire new Sgt. Savage line as originally presented, planning the release of only one small and one 12" Sgt. Savage figure - the other nine or so characters and figures will remain on the drawing board. This would, if true, leave the future of GI Joe figures up in the air.
Also heard were reports of dissatisfaction over the way the Christie's GI Joe memorabilia auction was handled. Current Hasbro personnel donated their work with the understanding that all proceeds would be donated to a children's hospital. Persons alleged that when Marz Productions was notified of the hospitals decision not to accept the money (on the grounds that it would be derived from a "war toy"), that knowledge was not shared with the designers who donated their work.
"It's a kick in the butt," said one designer. "That money is in the pocket of the promoter now. I certainly didn't intend to donate my art to them." In response, Marz Productions stated flatly that all funds went to pay for convention overhead, with no profit derived.
Artists from the original era didn't fare much better. A clumsily put-together catalog handicapped bidder interest; any neophyte going by the mis-captioned program was irretrievably lost. An addenda sent out a month later by Christie's - the folks trusted to sell Van Gogh paintings - listed 41 corrections to their original listings.
"An (original GI Joe artist George) Eisenberg painting executed for the Officer's Club Limited Edition 30th Anniversary box was valued at $800 to $12.000," an angry Jeff Kilian recalled. "It went for $450!"
Old Soldiers Never Die
Looking beyond some of the above unfortunate circumstances, the final verdict on the Hasbro International GI Joe Collectors Convention remains positive. Enthusiasts were given unprecedented access to the contemporary creators of their favorite toy, original "architects of pop culture" from the '60s were finally given some portion of the credit due to them (however backhanded), and Hasbro was clearly shown the commercial viability of the classic Joe. How any GI Joe-type toy line of the future is handled by Kenner will clearly be affected by what was seen onboard the Intrepid.
Susan Faludi's article, "Guys and Dolls," eventually ran in Esquire's December 1994 issue. Fortunately for Mr. Santelmo, Faludi used kid gloves. The PR guys at Hasbro, however, hated the piece.
In her book, Stiffed, Faludi reported hearing a common lament from males: "My father never taught me how to be a man"
"What the fathers really passed on to their sons was not the GI ethic but the GI Joe 'action figure,"' Faludi wrote. "A 12-inch shrunken-man doll whose main feature was his ability to accessorize."
The principles of Marz Productions parted ways soon after the 1994 GI Joe convention, and newly formed Majic Productions handled the next official convention, which took place in Chicago. The contract for "official" GI Joe Conventions was awarded by Hasbro to another convention coordinator soon after.