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Boys and Their Toys : GI Joe wasn't some doll for boys--he was an action figure. Now an army of men will salute the old soldier as he (gasp!) turns 30.

July 05, 1994|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"GI Joe . . . GI Joe . . . Fighting man from head to toe." --From a 1960s Advertising Jingle

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Maybe it was the uniform. Maybe it was the tiny M-1 carbine he carried. Or the battle scar across his polyvinyl cheek.

"When we were kids, we really got off on that stuff," recalled Vincent Santelmo, 33, who received his first GI Joe at age 3 and now boasts of being the nation's foremost authority on the miniature man of war. "It was the cool toy to own."

But it was more than a toy.

Joe, as his fans refer to him, symbolized the changing values of the time. He reeked of 1950s patriotism and yet was the first doll for boys, a socially acceptable counterpart to Barbie. Joe allowed boys to fuss over clothes. He allowed them to accessorize, even if it was with grenade launchers and daggers.

And this summer, Joe turns 30. A reissue of the original figure will arrive at stores in late August. At the same time, thousands of fans and collectors are expected to board the U.S. aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York Harbor for a weekend convention. Christie's will mark the occasion with an auction of vintage Joe paraphernalia.

Santelmo, for his part, is finishing a commemorative book on the anniversary. As author of a previous 450-page tome, "The Complete Encyclopedia to GI Joe" (Krause Publications, 1993), he believes that the occasion calls for reflection.

"Back then," the New York City collector said, "there was this mystique about GI Joe."

The mystique originated in Hollywood. In 1962, an independent toy designer approached Hasbro Inc. about producing a figure based on a television series called "The Lieutenant." Hasbro balked at tying its fortunes to a show that could be canceled before the toy had a chance to become popular.

But company president Merrill Hassenfeld and his top executive, a Korean War veteran named Don Levine, liked the idea of a doll-sized soldier. They used a wooden sculptor's mannequin to develop an 11 1/2-inch prototype.

"The concept of doing a doll for boys in the early 1960s was a big risk," said Kirk Bozigian, a vice president at the Pawtucket, R.I., toy company. "What parent would let his son play with a doll?"

Hasbro executives insisted on calling their new toy an "action figure." They chose its name from the 1945 Burgess Meredith film, "The Story of G.I. Joe." Accessories were designed with anxious fathers in mind.

"We had an engineer who would go to the National Guard armory here in Rhode Island and bring back weapons so they could be measured and duplicated," Bozigian said. "One day he came up Route 95 with a bazooka and an M-16 in the trunk of his car and he got stopped for speeding. The cop never looked in the trunk. But the whole time, the engineer was sweating bullets. Literally."

After all this, Hasbro still had to goad New York stores into giving the toy a test run. GI Joe hit the shelves on Aug. 1, 1964, and sold out within a week.

An estimated 2 million of the action figures sold, for a suggested retail price of $4 each, that first year. Hasbro raced to issue new features and accessories.

In 1966, a set of foreign Joes hit the stores. The German version bore a sculpted Nordic face. The Japanese soldier had black hair and black eyes.

The following year, Joe was given a mate. The fetching but nameless GI Nurse Action Girl, who stood a full inch shorter, was available as a blond or brunet and wore nylon stockings. But Joe's young fans were not yet interested in playing with girls. The nurse sold so poorly that it was discontinued.

More successful was a talking version of the toy. With a tug of his dog tags, Joe grunted such commands as "Take Hill 79!" and "Medic, get that stretcher up here!"

Hasbro had virtually obliterated the stigma of boys playing with dolls. By the late 1960s, other toy companies had begun marketing such figures as "Major Matt Mason" and "Captain America." But Joe soon faced a development more daunting than competition: the escalation of the Vietnam War.

"There were kids whose moms wouldn't allow them to buy Joes," Santelmo recalled. "Their moms didn't want military things around the house."

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Hasbro tried to change with the times. In 1970, Joe shed his uniform, grew a beard and became an "adventurer."

This new figure hunted for pygmy gorillas and led an archeological dig for Egyptian artifacts. He was outfitted with such peaceful accessories as a Magnetic Flaw Detector, a Thermal Terrain Scanner and a Seismograph.

Purists called it the end of the GI Joe era.

Perhaps the fighting man's last gasp came in 1974, when he acquired the "Kung-Fu Grip" that comedian Eddie Murphy made famous in a line from the film "Trading Places." By 1976, with sales declining and the energy crisis driving plastic prices skyward, Joe suffered the unkindest cut of all.

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