- Historic Sites
"You Can Tell It’s Mattel… It’s Swell!”
Forty years ago, Cold War technology and memories of a still-recent World War II combined to make a plastic paradise of great toys—which wistful baby boomers can now revisit.
November/December 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 8
As historical objects, perhaps more than anything else these toys are part of the coming of age of television. They were not only mass-produced; they were mass-marketed. There were tie-ins with popular TV shows, and memorable one-minute spots vividly detailing all the fun to be had. It’s impossible to look at an Ideal Mr. Machine without having the ditty from the commercial echo across the decades: “Here he comes! Here he comes! The greatest toy you’ve ever seen, and his name is Mr. Machine.…” When I see a Remco Fighting Lady, I can hear the tag line: “Every boy wants a Remco toy… and so do girls.” The clear afterthought quality of the addendum seems astonishing—until you remember that Remco made mostly boys’ toys. The reference to girls was really a pitch to the tomboy set. Generally, these commercials appear crude- and often not a little misleading—when seen again today, but back then they were visions of desire itself.
Commercials and tie-ins were only the most obvious dimensions of the interplay of TV and toys in the fifties and sixties. Just as today, TV defined and developed themes of interest that spilled over into other areas. World War II was a fresh memory for baby-boomer parents, and many of them were veterans. Documentary shows such as “Victory at Sea” were immensely successful and influential. Watching them certainly helped spark my lifelong interest in history and no doubt contributed to my—and other kids'—appetite for war toys.
My favorite TV show at the time was “Combat!” It portrayed the exploits of an Army squad in the hedgerow country of France following D-Day. The central character was “Sarge” and he carried a Thompson submachine gun. As it happened, my father had been a sergeant in the war. Wearing one of his uniform jackets with the sleeves shortened by my mother and armed with my Tommy-Burst, I spent countless happy hours shooting imaginary “Krauts” in the woods behind our house.
This recollection goes to the heart of the matter. These toys are personal time machines.
I cannot have been more excited as a kid at Christmastime than I was when a coveted Tommy-Burst bought on eBay finally came in the mail. With Malcolm looking on, I loaded a roll of vintage Mattel perforated “greenie” caps and squeezed off a burst. As the wonderful, slightly acrid smell filled the air, I was watching “Combat!” and playing in the woods of my childhood again. Only for an instant, though. I’d gotten this Tommy-Burst to show Malcolm what a “real” toy gun was like. Now it was his.
Occasionally, when I walk down a hall, Malcolm will pop out of a doorway and cut me down in a hail of fire. Alas, such scenes themselves will soon be only memories. His days of playing with toy guns are fading fast. I am oddly touched by the thought that before they are gone, his childhood and mine have overlapped in the form of an old Mattel Tommy-Burst.