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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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Steven Leung via Flickr
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To Have and to Have Snot: A History of Madballs
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Steven Leung via Flickr

When art school dropout Ralph Shaffer was hired by American Greetings to illustrate greeting cards in 1964, the 23-year-old was tasked with depicting delicate flower petals and hopping bunny rabbits. Every now and then, presumably to break the monotony of sentimentality, Shaffer would draw the rabbits being hung by a noose.

These morbid doodles didn’t make it to store shelves. Rather than offer him psychological counseling, the company decided to redirect his energies toward an eccentric squad of talent dubbed Those Characters From Cleveland. The company subdivision was responsible for creating intellectual property like the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake. In the 1980s, it was also charged with designing a line of toys that parents would find appalling and boys would find irresistible: Madballs. By the end of 1986, more than 10 million of the decapitated grotesqueries would be sold.

Those numbers weren't surprising to anyone who had done a little market research. One of the few guarantees in the volatile toy industry is that boys love to be repulsed. Beginning with Slime in the 1970s—a gooey green gel that resembled infected snot—kids could always be relied upon to embrace things that would make most adults heave.

In 1985, Topps released the Garbage Pail Kids series of trading cards, a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids featuring revolting characters. Their immediate success was noticed by American Greetings, which had cornered the cute market with Care Bears but had never tried to appeal to booger-loving boys on the other side of the toy aisle. Sensing an opportunity, Shaffer, artist James Groman, and the rest of the think tank conceived of a line of squishy rubber balls with ghastly faces and names like Slobulus, Deathbreath, and Swine Sucker. Instead of a two-dimensional illustration on a playing card, kids would have a tangible object to torment their parents with.

Madballs debuted in February 1986 with a retail price of $3.99 apiece. The balls flew off shelves, emptying displays at Toys"R"Us and capturing newspaper headlines that attempted to rationalize such purchases by asking psychologists why protruding eyeballs were a selling point.

“Children find gross toys fun because that’s sort of where they are developmentally,” Brenda Baker, a psychologist based in Michigan, told The Morning Call in 1987. “These toys aren’t gross to them. They’re fun and funny.”

Because of their irregular shape, Madballs didn’t offer much in the way of actual bouncing. Instead, they were collected and displayed like morbid little trophies or used to antagonize siblings and adults. One boy, 7-year-old Chris Herter of Detroit, told The Morning Call he enjoyed rolling them down the laundry chute of his house. His mother, Libby, referred to the spheres as “gawd-awful.”

Although the toys were popular, they weren’t always welcome. Several schools prohibited them from being taken into classrooms because they were a distraction. One Madball, dubbed “Crack Head” for having a fractured skull, was renamed “Bash Brain” due to concerns people might think the company was poking fun at the drug epidemic burdening communities.

By September 1986, AmToy—the division of American Greetings that made these playthings—had successfully expanded Madballs into licensing, including Trapper Keeper folders. Bright Ideas, Inc. said Madballs outsold their Miami Vice products when it came to educational supplies. Direct-to-video cartoons, comics, and other ancillary merchandising followed. AmToy even released a line of action figures: When squeezed, their heads would spring into the air. AmToy also conceived a line of Blurp Balls that would spew a projectile when triggered. Among the characters: Up-Chuck Yeager.

An assortment of Madballs, still in the package
freeshippingtack, eBay

Madballs remained a popular seller through 1988, at which point children began to tire of sculpted vomit and decaying plastic heads. The line fizzled out, and remained largely dormant until a 2006 revival by Art Asylum, a licensee heavily into pop culture nostalgia. Dubbed Sickballs, the revitalized line attempted to compound the ick factor by having bodily fluids ooze out of orifices when the balls were squeezed.

Since then, Madballs have undergone a series of relaunches. Just Play releases grab bags of the characters at regular intervals, and KidRobot recently issued a line of Madballs designed after horror movie icons like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. Gross-out nostalgia is alive, well, and still drooling.

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Landmark Entertainment Group
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When Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future Revolutionized TV
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Landmark Entertainment Group

It was Peggy Charren’s worst nightmare. For years, the founder and media spokesperson for Action for Children’s Television had been rallying against animated shows that were thinly-disguised commercials for toy lines. Masters of the Universe, ThunderCats, and others were, according to Charren, empty calories.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, a live-action syndicated series premiering in September 1987, was a new kind of threat. Charren, watching an advance copy, was appalled to realize that it was not only being subsidized by Mattel—who footed the $1 million per episode budget—but that the toy company had actually encoded a signal in the series that responded to a toy gun being marketed to the audience. When kids aimed the weapon (which was actually a ship) at the screen, the toy could recognize a light on the enemy robots onscreen. The child could “fire,” scoring points, and the TV could “fire back.” If a direct hit was scored, a tiny toy pilot would eject from the cockpit with a squeal.

With Captain Power, Mattel had not only created a series that promoted awareness of a toy line: They had created a toy that practically required kids to watch the show.

“This,” Charren told the press, “is commercial television gone berserk.”

A television series that prompted viewers to interact with the screen was not a revolutionary idea. In the 1950s, a show titled Winky-Dink and You encouraged the audience to place a transparent piece of plastic on their TVs and draw on it with crayons. When Winky wanted to cross a body of water, he’d plead with the audience to draw him a bridge.

Primitive to the extreme, Winky was nonetheless a hit, and an early example of blurring the line between filmed entertainment and audience engagement. In the 1980s, that notion gave way to home video game consoles, which offered complete control over pixels. Mattel, eager to capture that audience without diving fully into video games (their Intellivision system of the early 1980s was a miss) pursued development of a technology that allowed a sensor to read signals emitted from television broadcasts.

At the same time, director Gary Goddard—who would eventually work on Mattel’s 1987 live-action He-Man adaptation—had arrived pitching his idea for a television series. He explained it was like Star Trek crossed with Combat, a paramilitary show about a rebellion standing its ground against an oppressive robot regime in the year 2147. Cobbling elements of The Terminator, Star Wars, and other sci-fi staples, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future seemed perfectly suited for what the toy company had already been planning to do.

Production got underway in June of 1987, with actor Tim Dunigan—who had been the original “Face” in The A-Team pilot before it was recast with Dirk Benedict—playing the title character. Leading a ragtag assembly of soldiers from an indeterminate military operation, Power tries to thwart the plans of the Vader-esque Lord Dread, a man-machine hybrid with designs on fully “digitizing” human survivors of a robot war. In each episode, the action would come to a lull for 30 seconds to three minutes at a time, allowing viewers to take aim at Dread’s army.

Despite the overt commercial tie-ins, Goddard later claimed Mattel was largely hands-off during the production. Story editor Larry DiTillio recalled that the series was “saddled with the worst title for a TV show ever created,” and that the writing staff tried to produce a sci-fi series for a family audience.

A Captain Power enemy ship
luluberlu, eBay

For the fall of 1987, Captain Power was the second highest-rated new series in syndication, behind only Disney’s DuckTales. Kids seemed to enjoy the PowerJet XT-7, the gun/plane that took aim at onscreen enemies; a series of VHS tapes were made up strictly of battle scenes to shoot at; comic books rounded out the backstory. For Mattel, which had seen consumers grow fatigued with He-Man, it seemed like a multimedia franchise that was off to a good start.

But by January 1988, Goddard had gotten word that Captain Power wouldn’t see a second season. With $22 million invested in the first 22 episodes, Mattel wasn’t seeing the sales from the toys they had anticipated. Worse, Charren and other activists had declared Captain Power the worst of the worst in terms of manipulative programming. The seeming need for the $40 toy, Charren said, created a class divide among young viewers who might not be able to afford it; Jerry Rubin, who made a spectacle of protesting violent programming, declared he would fast for 43 days to raise awareness of war-themed shows like Captain Power. (To Rubin’s credit, Captain Power was a particularly violent series, with the National Coalition on Television Violence estimating it averaged one attempted murder every 30 seconds.)

With toy sales slow and negative publicity growing, Mattel decided to back off. Captain Power’s first and only season climaxed with the destruction of the rebel base and the death of Pilot, Power’s female colleague and onetime love interest. Goddard and DiTillio’s planned second season—which would see Power and his group roaming a robot wasteland—was written but never filmed.

Goddard, who had long discussed plans for a revival, made progress in 2016 when he announced he was in active development of Phoenix Rising, a continuation of the show that would see Captain Power and a new team of resistance fighters battling robot enemies. There’s no word on whether viewers will be able to take aim themselves.

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