When WWF Wrestling Figures Ruled the '80s

Zorro Mendez, YouTube
Zorro Mendez, YouTube

When the action figure market heated up in the 1980s, a number of companies were delivering very positive earnings reports to shareholders. Mattel made $350 million marketing its He-Man line in 1984 alone; Hasbro's G.I. Joe regularly topped holiday wish lists curated by newspapers. So did their Transformers, which earned $300 million in 1985.

Many of the more successful figures were either based on or supported by animated shows that effectively acted as advertising for their licensed merchandise. With this template established, it's not difficult to see why toymaker LJN saw opportunity in partnering with the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), a larger-than-life parade of grapplers that clashed in weekly televised matches. The end result—a large variety of 8-inch, heavy-duty rubber figures that could withstand aggressive imaginary play—became one of the most successful toys lines of the 1980s.

A screen capture of a Hillbilly Jim LJN wrestling action figure
John Wild, YouTube

Founded in 1970 by Jack Friedman, LJN had experienced some dizzying highs and lows in the mercurial world of toymaking. In 1982, the company acquired the license to produce items based on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. With other potential licensees dubious about the film's potential, LJN was able to get the rights for a relatively paltry $35,000. The movie, of course, was a massive hit and the products reaped millions of dollars in revenue. Friedman took to driving around New York with a vanity license plate that read, "Thanx ET."

Two years later, LJN was less successful when the company launched a toy line based on 1984's Dune, David Lynch's big-budget, widely ignored feature film adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel. LJN paid $2 million for the rights and watched as kids passed up Kyle MacLachlan and sand worm toys in favor of more Star Wars items.

"We all went to Mexico City to meet with [Dune producer] Dino De Laurentiis and got food poisoning," Karyn Weiss, who worked at LJN in product development at the time, tells Mental Floss. "The president of Toys 'R' Us was there. He got sick, too."

Fortunately, LJN had other prospects. As Dune was sinking, the WWF was making a rapid move into popular culture. When MTV began airing their matches, the WWF benefited from the mainstream appeal of guest stars like Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper. The wrestling league and its best-known performer, Hulk Hogan, were something like a touring superhero troupe. Vince McMahon, who ran the organization, had successfully taken the sport from its roots as a regional attraction into something that had national recognition. In addition to a weekly television series, McMahon would eventually profit from tie-in products like shirts and ice cream bars. VHS cassettes of the inaugural WrestleMania and its 1986 sequel would sell more than 1 million units each. Action figures seemed like an obvious next step.

"Wrestling was getting hot and people were talking about it," Weiss says. A meeting between LJN executives and McMahon went well, and the two companies began working on a line of figures and accessories.

According to the Fully Poseable Wrestling Figure Podcast interview with an LJN sculptor, what became the familiar 8-inch, rubber-molded aesthetic of the WWF line happened by accident. LJN planned on making the figures closer in size to the 3.75-inch height typical of most action figures of the era. They sent McMahon the larger prototypes for approval. When he saw their proportions, he figured it was more in line with his mammoth wrestlers and insisted the toys remain that size.

A photo of a Hulk Hogan LJN wrestling action figure
Grant Baciocco, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While Hogan was the clear star of McMahon's roster and was likely going to remain on top for the foreseeable future, LJN relied on the WWF to tell them which wrestlers could be expected to maintain their popularity over the time it would take to get the figures into production. "We met with McMahon every six months and he'd tell us which wrestlers he was going to make popular," Weiss says. "Those are the ones we'd go into production with each year. He'd say, 'Hogan's going to keep the belt, Roddy Piper's going to be big.'"

The first wave of nine figures released in spring 1984 featured Hogan wearing his WWF world title belt, Piper, André the Giant, Big John Studd, Hillbilly Jim, The Iron Sheik, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Junkyard Dog, and Nikolai Volkoff. (Notably absent was Sergeant Slaughter, an anvil-chinned military recruit who allegedly upset McMahon when he signed his own separate toy deal with Hasbro to appear in their G.I. Joe line.)

Once or twice a year, Weiss and other LJN employees would congregate at a production studio in New Rochelle, New York, to shoot commercials with the wrestlers. “André was bigger than life,” Weiss says. “They were all very lovely. We talked mostly about how they got into the wrestling business.” LJN also made sure the wrestlers made appearances at the annual Toy Fair in New York.

Unlike He-Man and G.I. Joe, who could bend at the joints and were made of lightweight plastic, the WWF figures were solid molded rubber. As a projectile launched at a sibling’s head, they hurt. But they were also tough enough to sustain themselves through cage matches, battle royales, and other clashes. Some figures based on massive wrestlers like King Kong Bundy were essentially blobs of heavy rubber that would have increased shipping costs. “They came in on boats from Hong Kong,” Weiss says.

By December 1985, LJN had sold 4 to 5 million of the figures, which retailed for $6 to $10 apiece. Second-quarter earnings for the company ballooned from $8.3 million in 1985 to $55.7 million in 1986, erasing the bad taste left over from the Dune deal and helping make LJN a major player in the action figure aisles, with some additional help from their Thundercats line.

Kid-sized wrestling belts, exercise kits, tag team sets, thumb wrestlers, and other products followed. Roughly 1.4 million wrestling rings—which were later recalled in 1991 due to having pointed posts that could impale children—were sold. Bendies were smaller, posable versions of the larger figures; LJN also made a 16-inch Hogan doll that had a rip-away shirt. And it wasn’t just McMahon who enjoyed the profits. In a 1986 interview with United Press International, “Macho Man” Randy Savage estimated a third of his income came from merchandising revenue.

The line continued through 1989, at which point LJN decided to make a move into the burgeoning video game industry and passed on renewing their license with the WWF. It would eventually go through a succession of licensees including Hasbro, JAKKS Pacific (which was owned by Jack Friedman), and Mattel, where it currently resides. Though the newer toys have multiple points of articulation for better simulated grappling, kids who grew up with the rubber toys prize the unopened products that can sell for hundreds of dollars on eBay.

Wrestling hasn't left Weiss’s attention, either. Now a licensing and marketing executive for Accessory Innovations, she handles licensing deals for backpacks. “We have 40 different licenses, and wrestling is one of them,” she says. “So I’m still doing it.”

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

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