Friday, 28 March 2014

Eee, buy gum!

A long time ago, Star Wars was chewy, and I don’t mean the Wookiee…

Like many of my peers, George Lucas’s 1977 Space fantasy whipped up an all-encompassing mania for me.  I was probably just the right age to be completely absorbed by the mythology and magic of Star Wars, and my fanaticism was nothing short of an out-of-control firestorm.  Fortunately, a conflagration of this intensity couldn’t last, and burnt itself out after a couple of years - to the extent that I didn’t even bother to go and see the first sequel in 1980 (always from one extreme to the other, with me). Naturally, I’d missed the very best the Lucasverse had to offer, but that’s another story.
At the height of Star Wars mania in early 1978, a classmate gave me this at our school sports day, claiming he’d found it on the side of the road.
Two things struck me about this generous gift, the first being that this was obviously part of a greater collectable set, and secondly: as everyone knew I alone loved See-Threepio, the co-incidence of this card featuring nobody else’s favourite droid seemed fishy. The truth came out.  My young colleague had been secretly collecting the whole set in some kind of covert competitive exercise, but finally decided to let me in on the wonder that was Star Wars collectible bubblegum cards.

Topps bubblegum cards had been around for a very long time, the grayish-pink, reputably chewable tiles of gum packaged with cards mostly featuring American sporting stars.
But the previous year,  a set emblazoned with images and pre-production artwork from Dino De Laurentis’ King Kong had been all the rage (I might even have got the whole set of those), and with Star Wars now
changing the face of marketing forever, Topps wasn’t slow in gaining similar rights from 20th Century Fox.

Allen’s and Regina (“A&R Playtime Gum is fun!”) distributed the product in New Zealand.  Printed either here, or by their affiliate, Scanlens, in Australia - this might explain why there weren’t any ‘movie facts’ on the reverse despite the promise on the wrapper.
However, you could piece together a crude re-interpretation of the famous Hildebrandt poster artwork (used on the gum packaging in the US), and the much-used still of Chewbacca, Ben, Luke and Han gazing out of the Millennium Falcon cockpit (also featured on card 31), by turning the cards over and using them like a jigsaw puzzle.

There were 72 cards to collect; 1-66 based on the original blue-bordered American set, and then 67-72 (of which my Threepio ‘gift card’ belonged) were reprinted artwork from part of a set of stickers only available in the US.
These garishly out-lined ‘portrait’s actually turned out to be the only kind you would get from a particular Dairy. Somehow they had been sent an entire consignment of packs containing numbers 67-72 only, and the blameless proprietors lost our custom as soon as the discovery was made.

But mainly we were all happily experiencing the thrill of tearing open the yellow paper wrapping (which surprisingly featured Threepio – maybe because he was gold, and Artoo-Detoo already had his own ice-block with collectible stickers) to see what card was stuck to the elastic, fleshy-coloured wafer within.

Another friend showed me how an empty cassette case with the interior spindles broken off made the perfect container for these cards, and our collections (and jaw muscles) grew throughout the late summer.
Ultimately, I think my natural frugality was my undoing here.  If I’d spent a tiny bit more money, I might have got the full set.  Friends moving on to other things tended to give their cards to me, so I stood a very good chance – one even gave me the box which the packs came in (empty, though probably worth something today if I’d kept it!)
But suddenly, they just weren’t available anymore.  Star Wars bubblegum disappeared from dairy shelves seemingly overnight I was left stranded with a tantalising six cards left to collect.

I realise now that I could have written to Allen’s and Regina and they’d probably have completed my set, although it didn’t matter; it had all been fun while it lasted. 
But to this day, I still have no idea how to blow a bubble with gum.

(With thanks to the NZSW site)


  1. My courtesy cousins as they were had the entirety of these cards, as I recall, displayed forming the Falcon cockpit reverse poster - I was so envious, being the utter SW nutter at the time. But I believe family friends may have got the jump even on them as the Read boys' mum worked at Allens and it was consequently their job over some summers to collate those cards in the sleep-out at their house, seemingly spending days walking the perimeter of the family pool table atop which were amassed a trove of film-related images. I can't honestly remember SW themed cards - it's possible I made this discovery well after the movies and cards had been and gone, but I do remember Goonies cards.

    Those ice block stickers were fantastic, even if they did confuse me as to why the lightsaber battle between Vader and Ben didn't look quite as Ralph Macquarrie had envisaged it. never mind - those wonderful defacers of headboards and wardrobe doors were everywhere for a while. I think I might still have some of the Empire-themed ones - circular, larger, and essentially character portraits, with me somewhere... the ice blocks weren't bad either, as I recall!

    One thing you haven't mentioned may have been an Oamaru thing, I don't know. But with one run of ice blocks (perhaps the aforementioned R2-D2 Space Ice, or maybe larger 1.5L tubs?) a local dairy gave away an A4 line-art cut out mask of either Vader, a Stormtrooper, C3-PO or Chewbacca. In the days before easy access to a photocopier they themselves were a playground trading item.

    Kids these days, etc.

  2. Thanks for that, Mr Simian - you were lucky living in 'NZ Star Wars merchandise Central'. Definitely no masks available where I grew up: I would have known about it and probably worn them to social occasions.

    And the great Ralph McQuarrie - there's a man who deserves a lot more recognition. His glorious paintings almost seemed to get lumped in with actual stills and publicity shots from the film on an equal footing at the time. Maybe one of the first instances where pre-production artwork has transcended its original purpose and become representative of a film, and merchandise, in it's own right?