I lived in a time when “Star Wars”movies didn’t exist. Seriously, young people. The first “Star Wars” arrived in theaters in 1977, and I arrived in this world just a few years earlier. Furthermore, enjoying that first “Star Wars” movie was sort of a one-shot deal when I was a tot; unless your parents took you to the theater for additional viewings. (VHS tapes were a few years down the line.) And the sequels subsequently arrived two or three years apart.
What I am leading up to here is that there was an entirely different sci-fi movie universe already firmly entrenched in popular culture long before this world first glimpsed “a galaxy far, far away.” That universe was the one we saw in the “Planet of the Apes” films. There were five of them between 1968 and 1973. (Pierre Boulle’s original novel was published in 1963.) By the time I was a little boy, they were a fairly regular staple on broadcast television (y’know – signals sent to those huge, bulky boxes with movable antennae).
If you have any expertise in film history, or if you’re just an online flick nerd like me, then you know that George Lucas redefined the term “movie merchandising” with “Star Wars” toys, shortly after Steven Spielberg redefined the term “blockbuster” with 1975’s “Jaws.” Nevertheless, neither man invented those things. And the “Planet of the Apes” movie franchise is maybe the best proof of that.
The 1970’s were a weird time. (I was born then, for example.) If you google “1970’s Planet of the Apes merchandise,” you’ll see that the products it spawned were occasionally just weird. There were jigsaw puzzles that were sold in … cans, for example. I guess that’s understandable. There were a sheer plethora of cheaply made plastic or rubber piggy banks. (Do kids even have piggy banks these days?) There were action figures, but they were eight inches tall, and the playsets were made of … cardboard and vinyl, instead of plastic. And of course there were the predictable lunchboxes and ultra-cheap Halloween kiddie costumes.
All of this is a little strange, too, if you agree with me that “Planet of the Apes” was kinda not for young kids. Think about it. If you look past the high camp, the 70’s cheese, and your own nostalgia, it was dark stuff. It was a story whose premise was sentient man’s extinction. The first movie, early on, showed human beings getting the museum-display taxidermy treatment, after glimpses of genocide and slavery. The second movie, in 1970, has its story helpfully resolved by a nuclear bomb that freakin’ kills everybody. Today’s remakes (which I happen to like, by the way) didn’t go that far. Anyway, if you’re curious about movie toys being inappropriately being marketed to young children, go ahead and read up on the toys licensed for 1979’s really violent, really Freudian “Alien.” (Wow.) Cracked.com has a terrific article about it.
But anyway … this meandering blog post is actually about one product in particular, so I’ll go ahead and promptly name it here, in the sixth paragraph — the plastic “Dr. Zaius” piggy bank. It’s there, below, in the first photo. It was maybe a foot and a half tall, if memory serves, and it was somewhat crudely fashioned out of very thick plastic. I can find little information about it on the internet — beyond the fact that it is still purchased by collectors on sites like eBay and Etsy. It appears to be one of four such toys produced — the others were made for the characters of Cornelius, Zira, and General Ursus. (That’s Latin for “bear,” isn’t it? I only know because I once saw a cheap paperback horror novel about a monster bear with that title.) It also was manufactured in either the late 60’s or early 70’s.
Mine was unpainted — as were those in the other sparing images of this product I can find via Google image search. (The second image shows, however, that painted versions were apparently sold at one point.)
Mine was also kind of defective in a big way — it had a slot at the top where coins were deposited, but there was no opening at the bottom to withdraw them when needed. So a forward-thinking child could save his money, only to be confounded by the evil Dr. Zaius when his savings were needed. (It worked like banks during the Great Depression, in other words.)
I rectified this when I was … a very frustrated eight-year-old, I think, on a summer morning when I really wanted change from that bank. I took a large kitchen knife to that thick plastic on the bottom and just sort of murdered a jagged, elliptical hole into it to get my quarters. I don’t remember how I got a hold of such a huge knife, as I had pretty attentive parents. Neither do I remember why I needed the money so badly. Was it the ice cream man? A yard sale? “Sgt. Rock” comic books? Cocaine again? (This was about 1980, after all.)
Anyway, I also remember other strange “Planet of the Apes” merchandise being around when I was a very little boy. That horse you see was a toy my older brother had. (And when he was absent, I raided his stuff in much the same manner that the Viet Cong raided American patrols — employing stealth to avoid retaliation by a larger, stronger force.) The horse was made by Mego to accompany the 8-inch tall movie action figures (which were really more like “dolls” than the Star Wars figures that would hit the scene later). The handheld device and wire you see represents cutting-edge toy technology for the 70’s. You flicked a switch to activate the horse. It didn’t exactly gallop; instead it sort of shuffled and buzzed forward on its stiff legs like a particularly unfortunate animal with both arthritis and epilepsy.
My sister told me that I had a “Planet of the Apes” playhouse that I refused to leave when I was very young. I absolutely can’t remember that. Is it the product in the fourth photo? I hope not, because that is one cheap-ass product, not worth $14.99 in today’s dollars. It also is just basically a plain cardboard box with an undecorated interior, which would mean that, as a child, I had the same mentality as a housecat.
Finally, pictured below is a novelization of one of the movie’s sequels, “Escape From the Planet of the Apes” (1971). I think I saw this among the disheveled paperback library that always occupied the back seat and back floor of my Dad’s car. I saw Boulle’s source novel in that back seat once, with a weird minimalist art cover. My Dad explained that it was “very different from the movie.” Or I might have seen it on the floor of the closet I shared with my brother. (That closet functioned according to trickle-down economics — the really cool stuff occasionally fell from his top shelf to the floor where I could grab it.)
I might still have that Dr. Zaius bank in the shed or in storage. I should grab it and determine its value. (Christ, I’m paying a lot of money for that storage unit.) It would be nuts if that hole I cut made it less valuable as a collector’s item.