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10 Dangerous Toys from Decades Past (and the Commercials That Sold Them)

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Baby Boomers are a hardy bunch. They rode in cars that weren’t equipped with special toddler seats, walked to and from school without being electronically tethered to their parents, ate lunches filled with allergens and preservatives, played with toys that would be quickly pulled from shelves today, and still persevered to become the largest living generation of the U.S. population. Whether you owned a Johnny Seven One Man Army or just want to know more about the ultra-violent, bestselling toy of 1964, let's take a look back at some of the dangerous toys of yesteryear and the commercials that sold them.

1. SIXFINGER

My younger brother had one of these, and I’m here to tell you that as tiny as it was, this gun had some serious firepower—those little plastic bullets hurt like heck! (You think your average seven-year-old boy is going to pay attention to the package disclaimer that warned against aiming the Sixfinger at human targets?) Just in case the possibility of losing an eye to a sharp projectile wasn’t edgy enough, one of the “bullets” came equipped with a cap—the shock-sensitive exploding variety. All this mayhem was available for the bargain price of two dollars.

2. SWING WING

The Transogram Company had been producing mainstream toys such as Tiddlywinks and doctor's kits since 1959. Then one day in 1965 the vice president of product development, whose brother-in-law was apparently an out-of-work chiropractor, came up with the idea for the Swing Wing. Nothing says “fun” like a cerebral hemorrhage, so Swing Wing was eventually pulled from the market, leaving kids searching for a new fun way to get their spinal injuries on.

3. SLIP 'N SLIDE

Wham-O introduced the Slip ‘N Slide in 1961, a time when neighborhood swimming pools were few and far between and water slide theme parks were nonexistent. The idea was to cool off and have fun at the same time by running up to and then belly-flopping down on a water-slicked strip of vinyl. Wham-O sold millions of Slip 'N Slides over the years, and if a kid broke a toe on one of the stakes that secured the mat to the ground or left most of their epidermis on the driveway because they slid too far, well, as Mom always said, “It’s your own fault, don’t come crying to me.” It wasn’t until the more litigious 1990s that words like “spinal cord injury” and “death” started appearing in the lengthy list of warnings included on the Slip ‘N Slide instruction sheet.

4. WATER WIGGLE

It looked innocent enough, but if your neighborhood had good water pressure and some joker turned the hose on full blast, Wham-O’s Water Wiggle turned into a semi-lethal weapon. It danced and bobbed erratically, and could wrap around you like a boa constrictor. And that plastic head was heavy! But bloody noses and chipped teeth were a small price to pay for some summertime fun.

5. JOHNNY SEVEN ONE MAN ARMY

No wonder kids today get into so much trouble—it’s those consarned video games they’re always playing. Nothing but shooting and street fighting and an overall culture of violence. Not like the toys of the 1960s. Back then we had wholesome products like the Johnny Seven One Man Army, which was the biggest-selling toy for boys in 1964. Johnny Seven came equipped with a cap pistol, rocket launcher, and “armor piercing” bullets, along with a few other features necessary for stopping Communism dead in its tracks.

Johnny Seven weighed about four pounds fully assembled, so a kid got a good aerobic workout when he ran around toting one outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Topper Toys used a unique tactic to give Johnny Seven maximum exposure: instead of only stocking it in toy and department stores, they also made it available in grocery stores, a place mom usually dragged her kids to at least once per week.

6. CREEPY CRAWLERS

An exposed hot plate combined with potentially toxic fumes equaled fun in 1964. The Thing Maker was a gadget you plugged in and then waited until it heated up to 300°F. Then you poured “Plasti-Goop” into the creepy insect-shaped metal molds and waited for them to heat-set. Ideally, you were supposed to wait until after you’d unplugged the Thing Maker and it had cooled off before removing your Creepy Crawlers, but who has time for that when you want to put a fake spider in your sister’s bed before she turns in? Burns and blisters were a fact of life in the plastic bug business, and you simply sprayed the injury with some Bactine and hid it from Mom so she wouldn’t take your Thing Maker away. Plasti-Goop was marketed as “non-toxic,” but that was in 1964 before the dangers of little things like melted PVC and lead paint were generally known.

7. WHAM-O AIR BLASTER

Wham-O introduced the Air Blaster gun in 1965 ... then pulled it from shelves not too long afterward. It turned out that some kids weren’t content to just blow out birthday candles long-distance; they were pointing their Air Blaster right against their friends’ ears to “see what happened.” (Permanent damage was the answer.) Those same pranksters also discovered that any object that could fit into the muzzle could also be shot with missile-like force. You know what they say, it’s all fun and games until someone figures out how to use their Air Blaster as a flamethrower.

8. WHAM-O WHEELIE BAR

The lack of protective helmets in this commercial is understandable, since they weren’t readily available at the time. But barefoot kids popping wheelies, riding no-handed, and performing daredevil stunts like standing on the seat? One has to wonder whether Wham-O held stock in some urgent care clinic chain.

9. SUPER ELASTIC BUBBLE PLASTIC

Surprise! We have yet another entry from those folks at Wham-O. This time the fun was contained inside a metal toothpaste-like tube filled with a colorful liquid-y plastic-y substance. You squeezed out a tiny glob of the stuff, rolled it into a tiny ball, and then plopped it onto the end of a plastic straw, which was included. Then you blew into the straw to create a multi-colored sphere that was more durable than a soap bubble, but a bit more fragile than a traditional balloon. The drawback was that one of the main ingredients in Super Elastic Bubble Plastic was ethyl acetate, a solvent used in nail polish remover. Combine that with polyvinyl acetate, the other primary component, and kids were exposed to some serious health risks if they happened to inhale too much while inflating their plastic bubbles.

10. WITCH DOCTOR HEAD SHRINKER KIT

Who knows exactly what chemicals made up the “plastic flesh” that progressively shrunk over the span of 24 hours. Given the time period (the late 1960s) we’re guessing that either the flesh or the paint had some level of toxicity. But what about the other inherent danger involved? Say you, as a kid, taking advantage of the assurance in the commercial that homemade shrunken heads were appropriate for “all occasions”? Would Mom smack the heck out of you after Grandma nearly collapsed when she unwrapped the shrunken head birthday present you’d made for her?

BONUS: GILBERT U-238 ATOMIC ENERGY LAB

By Webms (online) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m sort of sneaking this one in, as I don’t know if it was ever advertised on television, but it’s too good to pass up. In 1951 A.C. Gilbert, the man who invented the Erector Set, introduced a brand new educational toy: the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. Gilbert worked closely with physicists at M.I.T. while developing the kit, and also had the unofficial approval of the U.S. government, which thought that such a toy would help the average American understand the benefits of nuclear energy.

The Lab came equipped with a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson cloud chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity. It also included a comic book featuring Dagwood Bumstead (the man who couldn’t leave his own house without knocking the mailman down) describing how to split an atom. The Atomic Energy Lab’s main drawback, other than possible radiation poisoning, was its price tag: a whopping $49.50, which would be over $300 in today’s dollars.

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14 Deep Facts About Valley of the Dolls
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The Criterion Collection

Based on Jacqueline Susann's best-selling 1966 novel (which sold more than 30 million copies), Valley of the Dolls was a critically maligned film that somehow managed to gross $50 million when it was released 50 years ago, on December 15, 1967. Both the film and the novel focus on three young women—Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke), Jennifer North (Sharon Tate), and Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins)—who navigate the entertainment industry in both New York City and L.A., but end up getting addicted to barbiturates, a.k.a. “dolls.”

Years after its original release, the film became a so-bad-it’s-good classic about the perils of fame. John Williams received his first of 50 Oscar nominations for composing the score. Mark Robson directed it, and he notoriously fired the booze- and drug-addled Judy Garland, who was cast to play aging actress Helen Lawson (Susan Hayward took over), who was supposedly based on Garland. (Garland died on June 22, 1969 from a barbituate overdose.) Two months after Garland’s sudden demise, the Manson Family murdered the very pregnant Tate in August 1969.

Despite all of the glamour depicted in the movie and novel, Susann said, “Valley of the Dolls showed that a woman in a ranch house with three kids had a better life than what happened up there at the top.” A loose sequel, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls—which was written by Roger Ebert—was released in 1970, but it had little to do with the original. In 1981, a TV movie updated the Dolls. Here are 14 deep facts about the iconic guilty pleasure.

1. JACQUELINE SUSANN DIDN'T LIKE THE MOVIE.

To promote the film, the studio hosted a month-long premiere party on a luxury liner. At a screening in Venice, Susann said the film “appalled” her, according to Parkins. She also thought Hollywood “had ruined her book,” and Susann asked to be taken off the boat. At one point she reportedly told Robson directly that she thought the film was “a piece of sh*t.”

2. BARBARA PARKINS WAS “NERVOUS” TO WORK WITH JUDY GARLAND.

Barbara Parkins had only been working with Judy Garland for two days when the legendary actress was fired for not coming out of her dressing room (and possibly being drunk). “I called up Jackie Susann, who I had become close to—I didn’t call up the director strangely enough—and I said, ‘What do I do? I’m nervous about going on the set with Judy Garland and I might get lost in this scene because she knows how to chew up the screen,’” Parkins told Windy City Times. “She said, ‘Honey, just go in there and enjoy her.’ So I went onto the set and Judy came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘Oh, baby, let’s just do this scene,’ and she was wonderful.”

3. WILLIAM TRAVILLA BASED THE FILM'S COSTUMES ON THE WOMEN’S LIKES.

Costume designer William Travilla had to assemble 134 outfits for the four leading actresses. “I didn't have a script so I read the book and then the script once I got one,” he explained of his approach to the film. “I met with the director and producer and asked how they felt about each character and then I met with the girls and asked them what they liked and didn’t like and how they were feeling. Then I sat down with my feelings and captured their feelings, too.”

4. SUSANN THOUGHT GARLAND “GOT RATTLED.”

In an interview with Roger Ebert, Susann offered her thoughts on why Garland was let go. “Everybody keeps asking me why she was fired from the movie, as if it was my fault or something,” she said. “You know what I think went wrong? Here she was, raised in the great tradition of the studio stars, where they make 30 takes of every scene to get it right, and the other girls in the picture were all raised as television actresses. So they’re used to doing it right the first time. Judy just got rattled, that’s all.”

5. PATTY DUKE PARTIALLY BLAMES THE DIRECTOR’S BEHAVIOR FOR GARLAND’S EXIT.

During an event at the Castro Theatre, Duke discussed working with Garland. “The director, who was the meanest son of a bitch I ever met in my life ... the director, he kept this icon, this sparrow, waiting and waiting,” Duke said. “She had to come in at 6:30 in the morning and he wouldn’t even plan to get to her until four in the afternoon. She was very down to earth, so she didn’t mind waiting. The director decided that some guy from some delicatessen on 33rd Street should talk to her, and she crumbled. And she was fired. She shouldn’t have been hired in the first place, in my opinion.”

6. DUKE DIDN’T SING NEELY’S SONGS.

All of Neely’s songs in the movie were dubbed, which disappointed Duke. “I knew I couldn’t sing like a trained singer,” she said. “But I thought it was important for Neely maybe to be pretty good in the beginning but the deterioration should be that raw, nerve-ending kind of the thing. And I couldn’t convince the director. They wanted to do a blanket dubbing. It just doesn’t have the passion I wanted it to have.”

7. GARLAND STOLE ONE OF THE MOVIE'S COSTUMES.

Garland got revenge in “taking” the beaded pantsuit she was supposed to wear in the movie, and she was unabashed about it. “Well, about six months later, Judy’s going to open at the Palace,” Duke said. “I went to opening night at the Palace and out she came in her suit from Valley of the Dolls.”

8. A SNEAK PREVIEW OF THE FILM HID THE TITLE.

Fox held a preview screening of the film at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, but the marquee only read “The Biggest Book of the Year.” “And the film was so campy, everyone roared with laughter,” producer David Brown told Vanity Fair. “One patron was so irate he poured his Coke all over Fox president Dick Zanuck in the lobby. And we knew we had a hit. Why? Because of the size of the audience—the book would bring them in.”

9. IT MARKED RICHARD DREYFUSS'S FILM DEBUT.


Twentieth Century Fox

Richard Dreyfuss made his big-screen debut near the end of Valley of the Dolls, playing an assistant stage manager who knocks on Neely’s door to find her intoxicated. After appearing on several TV shows, this was his first role in a movie, but it was uncredited. That same year, he also had a small role in The Graduate. Dreyfuss told The A.V. Club he was in the best film of 1967 (The Graduate) and the worst (Valley of the Dolls). “But then one day I realized that I had never actually seen Valley of the Dolls all the way through, so I finally did it,” he said. “And I realized that I was in the last 45 seconds of the worst film ever made. And I watched from the beginning with a growing sense of horror. And then I finally heard my line. And I thought, ‘I’ll never work again.’ But I used to make money by betting people about being in the best and worst films of 1967: No one would ever come up with the answer, so I’d make 20 bucks!”

10. THE DIRECTOR DIDN’T DIG TOO DEEP.

In the 2006 documentary Gotta Get Off This Merry Go Round: Sex, Dolls & Showtunes, Barbara Parkins scolded the director for keeping the film’s pill addiction on the surface. “The director never took us aside and said, look this is the effect,” she said. “We didn’t go into depth about it. Now, if you would’ve had a Martin Scorsese come in and direct this film, he would’ve sat you down, he would’ve put you through the whole emotional, physical, mental feeling of what that drug was doing to you. This would’ve been a whole different film. He took us to one, maybe two levels of what it’s like to take pills. The whole thing was to show the bottle and to show the jelly beans kinda going back. That was the important thing for him, not the emotional part.”

11. A STAGE ADAPTATION MADE IT TO OFF-BROADWAY.

In 1995, Los Angeles theater troupe Theatre-A-Go-Go! adapted the movie into a stage play. Kate Flannery, who’d go on to play Meredith Palmer on The Office, portrayed Neely. “Best thing about Valley of the Dolls to make fun of it is to actually just do it,” Flannery said in the Dolls doc. “You don’t need to change anything.” Parkins came to a production and approved of it. Eventually, the play headed to New York in an Off-Broadway version, with Illeana Douglas playing the Jackie Susann reporter role.

12. JACKIE SUSANN BARELY ESCAPED THE MANSON FAMILY.


By 20th Century-Fox - eBayfrontback, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The night the Manson Family murdered Tate, the actress had invited Susann to her home for a dinner party. According to Vanity Fair, Rex Reed came by The Beverly Hills Hotel, where Susann was staying, and they decided to stay in instead of going to Tate’s. The next day Susann heard about the murder, and cried by the pool. A few years later, when Susann was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, she joked her death would’ve been quicker if she had gone to Tate’s that night.

13. PATTY DUKE LEARNED TO EMBRACE THE FILM.

Of all of the characters in the movie, Duke’s Neely is the most over-the-top. “I used to be embarrassed by it," Duke said in a 2003 interview. "I used to say very unkind things about it, and through the years there are so many people who have come to me, or written me, or emailed who love it so, that I figured they all can’t be wrong." She eventually appreciated the camp factor. “I can have fun with that,” she said. “And sometimes when I’m on location, there will be a few people who bring it up, and then we order pizza and rent a VCR and have a Valley night, and it is fabulous.”

14. LEE GRANT DOESN’T THINK IT’S THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE.

In 2000, Grant, Duke, and Parkins reunited on The View. “It’s the best, funniest, worst movie ever made,” Grant stated. She then mentioned how she and Duke made a movie about killer bees called The Swarm. “Valley of the Dolls was like genius compared to it,” Grant said.

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6 Tips From Experts on How to Fake Loving a Gift You Hate
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In this season of holiday giving, it's almost inevitable that you're going to get a gift you just don't like—and nobody wants to hurt another person's feelings when they went to the trouble of buying you a gift. So as you struggle to say thanks for that gaudy scarf from a beloved relative, or that stinky perfume from a well-meaning coworker, we bring you these tips from Jack Brown, a physician and body language expert from New York, and Alicia Sanders, a California-based acting coach with the conservatory program Starting Arts, for how to fake enjoyment—at least until you can exchange your gift at the store.

1. FIND ONE TRUE THING YOU CAN SAY.

Your inner voice may be saying "No!" the moment you peel pack that paper, but there may be a hidden yes inside you somewhere that you can mine for.

Sanders explains that the key to successful acting "is finding the truth in your scene." She encourages her students to tap into a moment when they felt the emotion they are trying to convey, for authenticity. "So you get an ugly sweater with a hideous shape and a terrible image, but you think the color blue is not so bad. You can say, ‘This color blue is so beautiful,' because it's truthful," she explains. The more you can find a real truth to speak from, "the more convincing you can be."

By opening with a grain of truth, you don't set yourself off on a chain of lies. "When you have to start to lie, that's when it's going to show through that you're an inexperienced actor, because you'll be more transparent," Sanders says.

2. WATCH YOUR HAND GESTURES.

However, faking joy runs deeper than just the words you speak. Sanders reminds us to think of what our hands are doing. "If you sit there statically, it feels like you're working too hard," she says.

Your hands can be a telltale giveaway that you don't really like a gift, according to Brown. People experiencing unhappy emotions tend to ball their hands into fists, tuck them against their bodies, or put them in their pockets. "If a person likes what they are getting, their arms and hands are going to go further out from the body, and tend to be more loose and relaxed," he says.

Similarly, we can reveal falsehood by touching our face or head, which often signals lying, anxiety, or discomfort, Brown says. People in these emotional states "tend to touch their face with one hand, and slowly. They might scratch near their eye, right in front of their ear, or their forehead."

Sanders suggests you put a hand on your chest or bring the gift closer to your body as a way of showing that you can stand to have it near you.

3. AVOID GIVING A FAKE SMILE …

Indeed, the gift-giver is most likely going to be looking at your face when they assess your reaction, so this is the canvas upon which you must work your most convincing efforts at false gratitude.

While you may think a bright smile is the perfect way to fake joy, Brown says smiling convincingly when you're feeling the opposite is not as easy. "Most people aren't good at it," he says.

A fake smile is obvious to the onlooker. These usually start at the corners of the mouth—often showing both top and bottom teeth, he points out. A sincere smile almost always just shows your top teeth, and begins more from the mid-mouth. Another giveaway of a fake smile is tension in the mid-face: "If you see someone with mouth tension, where the mouth opening gets smaller, the person's got some anxiety there."

4. … AND USE YOUR EYES.

Smile with your eyes first, Brown advises. "Completely forget about your mouth," Brown instructs. "If you smile with your mouth first, you're absolutely going to mess up."

And be sure to make eye contact, which Sanders says is "crucial to convince someone that you like their present."

But keep in mind that there are degrees of appropriate eye contact if you want to look natural. "If the eye contact is too little or too much, it'll feel like it's not sincere," Brown says. You want to be sure to avoid a stare—which can feel "predatory or romantic," he explains. Instead, make "a kind of little zig-zagging motion that people have when they look around a face."

5. SKIP THE CLICHÉS.

As you unwrap your unwanted gift and have a moment of unpleasant surprise, you may be tempted to reach for the simplest phrase, such as "awesome," which Brown calls "a one-word cliché" that tries to convey a happiness you don't really feel. Brown says this is a no-no, too: "If you use a cliché, your body language will parallel that."

Instead, eliminate canned words and phrases from your repertoire, he urges, "because then you'll think more about what you're going to say."

Aunt Suzie will also notice if your voice is strained or you have to clear your throat before choking out a "thanks." But how do you convincingly soften your tone of voice so that your words sound as authentic as they can?

Back to acting. Sanders suggests mining your own personal happy experiences for honest emotional content; you may be seeing an ugly sweater you'll never wear but thinking of those prized theater tickets you received another year.

Brown, meanwhile, recommends you think of your favorite comedians; they're good at improvisation, and are often laughing or smiling. "When you do that, you're getting yourself in a better emotional state," Brown says. "Or you can think about a funny time in your own personal life."

A mental rehearsal before you get a gift is a good idea too. Brown says you can imagine a gift that this person could realistically have gotten you and draw on the joy of that imagined gift instead.

6. NOW, DO ALL OF THIS AT ONCE.

If you aren't completely overwhelmed yet, keep in mind you must try to get these small communications by your eyes, mouth, hands, language, and tone in alignment with one another. Brown calls this "paralanguage."

"If they're not congruent, if they don't all line up, then you're not going to come across as sincere," Brown says.

If all of this advice has you contorting yourself into a state of confusion, Brown says that if you remember nothing else, just smile with your eyes. You might just fake it until you make it.

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