Kenner products was formed in Cincinnati Ohio in 1947. Their most significant claim to fame was of course the insanely successful and influential Star Wars line but if you look at their history they were behind a great deal of the toys we remember.
Back in the 40’s the global toy business was still in its infancy so their first popular products were the Bubble Matic Gun and the Bubble rocket. They were one of the first toy companies to use nationwide television advertising.
In 1963 they released the Easy-Bake Oven, a light bulb-assisted muffin-warming toy that is still on sale today.
In 1966 we got Spirograph.
In 1967 General Mills who had previously bought Cincinnati-based Play-Doh manufacturer Rainbow Crafts also purchased Kenner, making Play-Doh part of their extended business. In 1968 they also acquired game company Parker Brothers, originally founded in 1883.
Then in 1975 Kenner managed their first successful television license, The Six Million Dollar Man. This would become their business model for their remaining 25 years.
1976 Kenner introduced Stretch Armstrong and also toys based on The Bionic Woman.
Then in 1977 Kenner negotiated the Star Wars license. They had no way of predicting how wildly popular demand would be, issuing empty Early Bird boxes that Christmas with promises to send the kids figures in the new year.
To put what followed in perspective, in the twenty-eight years between their establishment in 1947 and 1975 Kenner made $100 Million.
But in the three years between 75 and 78 they made the same amount again. That was how significant Star Wars was to them.
This was also significant as it cemented the 3.75 inch scale in the action figure collection market, an industry standard from that point on.
In 1980 The Empire Strikes Back was released, along with many more figures and Strawberry Shortcake.
In 1983 Return of the Jedi and over 300 million Star Wars toys sold up to that point.
In 1984 Kenner gained the license to DC comic heroes in the Super Powers Line.
Then in 1985 just in time to not quite rival Transformers Kenner released the tie-in toys for the M.A.S.K cartoon. This was also significant because it was the first one Kenner out-licensed to other manufacturers. They also released cartoon tie-in figures of Silverhawks, Centurions and The Real Ghostbusters.
In 1987 Tonka acquired Kenner products.
In 1988 Kenner released the Starting Lineup series of sports action figures which became immediately highly collectable.
In 1991 Hasbro bought Tonka and thus Kenner became a division of the largest toy company in the world.
In 1993 Kenner expanded their Batman line with animated series figures. They had also acquired the hugely successful Jurassic Park license for dinosaur toys.
They had also by this point sold figure lines based on Beetlejuice and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which recycled several Return of the Jedi moulds, Robocop, Terminator, Aliens, Predator and tougher than all those put together; Chuck Norris. This was a period of big, chunky, colourful figures with action features and simplistic paint detail and sculpting, definitely aimed at children, not collectors.
Starting with The Real Ghostbusters in 1986 Kenner began elaborating on their initial lines into wild, crazy colourful and silly figures. While most series would start out fairly faithful to their source material, given enough time and success you would see neon costumes, madcap action features and huge, gaudy accessories. Some might say these artificially extended the lifespan of the lines and gave us hundreds of Batman figures in wetsuits, arctic armour and rocket-firing sonic jetpacks clogging up the pegs and making figures based on actual characters from the TV shows short-packaged and harder to find. This was unfortunately a tacky tactic capitalised on by Toy Biz, Mattel, Hasbro and other industry leaders and persists to this day.
In 1995 The Star Wars Power of the Force line which had originally trailed off following Return of the Jedi was re-released as Power of the Force II. Since then Star Wars figures have emerged from Hasbro on an annual basis and show no signs of stopping.
By now, though the other licenses were becoming a little less on the money with figures from Gargoyles, The Shadow and VR Troopers. Waterworld and Dragonheart were again movies dwarfed by the Star Wars phenomenon, along with Transformers forgotten step-brother Beast Wars. It was becoming apparent that focus on what would be a guaranteed success was needed.
In 1997 Batman & Robin, Jurassic Park II, Steel and Sabrina the Teenage Witch toys met varying success. The main focus however was Star Wars which had been gathering steam with the re-released Special Editions in theatres and gained plenty of toys to tie in with them. Hasbro acquired the license to make toys based on the upcoming prequel trilogy.
In 1999 one of the last Kenner lines was Small Soldiers, based somewhat ironically on a toy company purchased by a global corporation.
In 2000, Hasbro closed the doors on the Cincinnati operation and by and large stopped using the Kenner name.
Subsequently there were several lines of Star Wars figures produced paying homage to the vintage Kenner originals, including limited edition over-sized 12-inch re-releases from Gentle Giant and a faithfully reproduced Boba Fett replica.
Kenner, in capitalizing on their Star Wars license back in 1977 changed the face of action figures forever.
In many ways, that unexpected success is what everyone has been chasing ever since, both in terms of businesses grabbing whatever may turn out to be the new hotness, creators trying to get that movie, comic or TV show to capture the hearts of the world and of collectors jumping in on the ground floor to buy and store in mint condition those first, emerging treasures from a toy phenomenon.
But it was this tendency to tie in toys with cartoons and movies, with neither being the complete success without the other that also mired down all involved parties with a thousand bandwagon-jumpers, bringing with it a culture that requires us, as collectors, to sift the gold out of the stormy rivers of big-business merchandising.