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G.I. Joe turns 50

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) - G.I. Joe is turning 50.

The birthday of what's called the world's first action figure is being celebrated this month by collectors and the toy maker that introduced it just before the nation plunged into the quagmire that would become the Vietnam War - a storm it seems to have weathered pretty well.

Since Hasbro brought it to the world's attention at the annual toy fair in New York City in early 1964, G.I. Joe has undergone many changes, some the result of shifts in public sentiment for military-themed toys, others dictated by the marketplace.

Still, whether it's the original "movable fighting man" decked out in the uniforms of the four branches of the U.S. military, or today's scaled-down products, G.I. Joe remains a popular brand.

"Joe stood for everything that was meant to be good: fighting evil, doing what's right for people," said Alan Hassenfeld, the 65-year-old former CEO for Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro Inc., whose father, Merrill, oversaw G.I. Joe's development in 1963.

But it's Don Levine, then the company's head of research and development, who is often referred to as the "father" of G.I. Joe for shepherding the toy through design and development. Levine and his team came up with an 11½-inch articulated figure with 21 moving parts, and since the company's employees included many military veterans, it was decided to outfit the toy in the uniforms of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, with such accessories as guns, helmets and vehicles.

Levine, who served in the Army in Korea, said he got the idea for the moveable figure as a way to honor veterans.

But he and his team knew the product wasn't in Hasbro's usual mold, and it took years of pitches before Merrill Hassenfeld gave it the company's full backing.

"Most boys in the '60s had a father or a relative who was or had been in the military," said Patricia Hogan, curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, home to the National Toy Hall of Fame. "Once you've bought Joe, you need to buy all the accessories and play sets and add-ons, which was great for business."

G.I. Joe hit the shelves in time for the 1964 Christmas shopping season and soon became a big seller at $4 apiece.

It remained popular until the late 1960s, as opposition to Vietnam intensified and parents shied away from military-related toys. Hasbro countered in 1970 by introducing "Adventure Team" G.I. Joes that played down the military connection. Into the '70s, G.I. Joes featured "lifelike hair" and "kung-fu grip" and were outfitted with scuba gear to save the oceans and explorer's clothing for discovering mummies.

Hasbro discontinued production later that decade. In the early 1980s, Hasbro shrank Joe to 3¾ inches, the same size as figures made popular by "Star Wars." It has stuck to that size, with the occasional issue of larger special editions.

Over the decades, G.I. Joe has spawned comic books, cartoons, two movies starring Channing Tatum, and a G.I. Joe Collector's Club and its annual convention - GIJoeCon - held in Dallas in April. But for many G.I. Joe fans of a certain age, the newer products hold no appeal.

"The 12-inch G.I. Joe built that company," said Tearle Ashby, of the New York village of Ballston Spa. "The stuff they put out now is garbage."

Ashby, a psychotherapist who turns 50 in June, played with G.I. Joes as a boy, but few survived, falling victim to encounters with firecrackers and little parachutes that failed to open.

"Casualties of war," said Ashby, who started collecting 12-inch G.I. Joes 20 years ago and now owns about 2,000.

On Saturday, he and other collectors plan to bring their 12-inch G.I. Joes to the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs to celebrate the 50th birthday.

The exact date of G.I. Joe's introduction remains hazy. Ashby and others, including Hasbro, believe it was in February 1964 - but American International Toy Fair organizers say it was held in March that year.

Hasbro said it intends to announce details of its 50th anniversary plans during this year's fair in New York on Feb. 16-19.

G.I. Joe was elected into Toy Hall of Fame in 2004, six years after Barbie was enshrined. Hogan said the hall doesn't have policies prohibiting toy weapons from induction, although all candidates must be deemed safe. The U.S. was in the early stages of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq a decade ago, so G.I. Joe's induction didn't meet the opposition it might have faced as the conflicts dragged on, Hogan said.

"I suspect," she said, "most people would have acknowledged that G.I. Joe really does belong in the Toy Hall of Fame."

Join the discussion

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jchowell3657 February 06 2014 at 11:06 PM

I'm sure that G.I. Joe had something going on with Barbie while Ken was out surfing.

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Kate jchowell3657 February 07 2014 at 12:12 PM

Many of us kids played that game, grin.

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vlawyer February 06 2014 at 11:14 PM

I had GI Joes fromm the age of 5. They beat the **** out of my Barbies because they had moveable arms and legs and they could ride my toy horses.

Years later when my friend was killed in the attacks on the WTC I tried to enlist but was too old. So they had my part in my life and inspired me, along with being much better toys than Barbies. My gratitude and inspiration goes out to honor the creataion of the GI Joe action figure. He formed my childhood. God bless you and God bless AMerica.

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bigred8690 February 06 2014 at 11:16 PM

I was a child during the 1970s, and I totally missed out on GI Joe because during the post-Vietnam years this was not popular anymore. I would've loved Joe but instead I had to play with an assortment of western action figures and Six Million Dollar Man. I hate it when the left-wing anti-military PC police get their grubby little hands into the toy industry.

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Kate bigred8690 February 07 2014 at 12:11 PM

Don't be silly. I was a child in the 60's, my parents were as liberal as they came, and all the boys I was friends with had a GI Joe. They didn't mind. Military service is military service, and so many of our citizens were serving that they wouldn't have dreamed of getting het up about a toy.

They didn't like the war itself, no, but they had nothing against the people who were fighting it, or their children playing with an action figure that represented 'dad.'

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theodore183 February 07 2014 at 8:14 AM

This is a must see. Google the term SLICK MARKET CASH and go to the top site. Click on the PENNY STOCK page and see what the rich are trying to hide from all of us.

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lexdman February 07 2014 at 8:33 AM

GI Joe the doll was invented by my Friend Larry Reiner. He worked for several toy companies as a toy designer. He developed the doll using elastics. He took it to many companies but only Hasbro (Merrill Hasenfeld) saw the potential. He took a lump sum payment rather than a royalty thus costing himself a great deal of money.

Don Levine who was markrting director for Hasbro named it GI Joe and as the man used to say the rest is history.

David Leven

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Kate lexdman February 07 2014 at 12:07 PM

Very cool, that you knew the inventor. I agree he would have done better to stick with the toy equivalent of royalties, but nobody can predict that something is going to be such a hit, smile.

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Kate February 07 2014 at 12:04 PM

I have no problem with the toy (lots of my friends had them when I was a kid in the 60's), but I definitely take issue with the opening statement that Vietnam was a 'storm we weathered well.' Oh yeah? About 400,000 dead soldiers would not agree with that, and neither would the severely traumatized survivors.

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audiopulse February 07 2014 at 4:56 PM

One of the greatest marketing triumphs of all time happened when the geniuses at Hasbro figured out how to sell dolls to boys: call them "action figures". And the rest was history, sort of.

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