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A Kung-Fu Grip on Their Hearts

G.I. Joe reigns as the ultimate action hero at a convention of military toys and demonstrations.

April 11, 2002|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a weekend convention where hundreds of foot-high G.I. Joes were posed doing everything from patrolling the Tora Bora mountains on horseback to fighting the enemy with their kung-fu grips, Hollywood resident Larry Taylor found a way for his prized action figure to stand out. He made it look just like him.

It wasn't just that the 38-year-old and the ageless doll were outfitted with the same rifle, helmet, gloves, goggles, boots and desert camouflage fatigues. They also had the same face. Taylor, who works for a movie special-effects studio in Burbank, custom crafted his doll's mug to replace Joe's store-bought original.

"I never thought I'd be one of those guys standing here holding one of these," said Taylor, hamming it up with his G.I. Joe mini-me. "But I've really gone full bore into this."

Like a couple thousand others of his stripe, mostly young and middle-aged men, Taylor couldn't resist the bugle call to "A Weekend of Heroes," a gathering of military buffs buying and selling collectibles and participating in demonstrations, lectures and reenactments at the Pacific Palms Conference Resort in Industry last weekend. Sponsored by what could best be called the toy military-industrial complex, the three-day spectacle's main mission seemed to be to sell as many dolls as possible, or pretend to die trying.

Conventioneers, some of whom flew in from as far away as Washington, D.C., and Guatemala, were greeted by an impressive fleet of authentic and still-functioning World War II tanks, planes and armored personnel carriers. Scores of World War II reenactors--representing German, Russian and American G.I.s--roamed the grounds as well.

Demonstrations of commando tactics by Navy SEALS were staged. Retired Col. Danny McKnight, depicted in the movie "Black Hawk Down" by actor Tom Sizemore, talked about his experiences commanding troops in Somalia in October 1993. The piece de resistance was a nighttime Nazi-Soviet battle reenactment featuring a real Russian T-34 tank.

But tanks and reenactments are child's play, mere distractions, compared with a conventioneer's serious pursuit of G.I. Joe. To outsiders, G.I. Joe is often used as a generic term for all action figures with a military bent made by a number of different toy manufacturers. But enthusiasts will never go that route; "G.I. Joe" will always mean the specific brand created by Hasbro, which first introduced the wildly successful doll in 1964.

Since the 1960s, the patriotic action figure and his many, many new cousins have come a long way. A peek inside the bag of a conventioneer who would identify himself only as 23-year-old "Matt the Dork" clearly illustrates how the toys have changed.

Matt, sporting a Mohawk cut with black and orange hair, a dozen body piercings and 4-inch platform shoes, didn't want to give his full name because he said he didn't want to draw even more attention to himself. He bought dolls of Adolf Hitler, German tank commander Erwin Rommel and a Navy SEAL.

"I like to get here early and leave early," said Matt, who helps design action figures for fast-food restaurants. "Those guys in there are dorks ... just dorks. But I guess I am too."

While Matt's choice in fashion and action figures were somewhat atypical among the conventioneers, his spending total was not. He shelled out $240 for the trio. (The SEAL was most expensive at $110, in part because of its elaborate scuba accessories; at $50, Hitler was the cheapest.)

With prices like that, it's easy to see why G.I. Joe and his legions of action-figure imitators are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales. The profit potential has translated into virtual warfare among the handful of toy manufacturers, such as 21st Century Toys, eager to capture Matt the Dork's dollar.

And when 40-plus toy vendors are crammed into a hockey rink-size hotel ballroom, flaring tempers are inevitable, said the show's affable promoter, John Lu.

"Toy politics," said. Lu. "My hair is turning gray over toy politics. It's like a car show where GM doesn't want Honda there and Honda doesn't want GM there."

There are times, for instance, when one vendor complains that another has an unfair vantage point for sales, and the tension can become so thick you'd think shooting might break out, jokes Lu. Of course, it doesn't. But if so inclined, the vendors wouldn't have to go far for weaponry.

A company called Airsoft Elite was selling authentic-looking handguns and rifles that shoot BBs. In addition to the Airsoft Elite Babes drawing attention to their booth, the company also set up a shooting gallery. One 11-year-old boy in safety goggles fired off 200 rounds from an MP-5, a weapon costing roughly $500 that shoots semiautomatically or automatically at the flick of a switch. From less than 10 yards away, the boy blew the face off an Osama bin Laden poster.

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