Heroes & Outlaws: Western toys need media tie-in

By Mark Bellomo

As I’ve stated in my book, Toys & Prices, the success of a modern toy line is dependent upon a media tie-in. Regardless of how it’s delivered: via book, graphic novel, film, or television program (live-action, CGI, or traditional animation), it matters.

Western Toys Could Benefit From Media Attention

Wagon Train Game

Wagon Train Game, Milton Bradley, 1960, $50. (Photos courtesy Mark Bellomo, Toys & Prices, 20th Edition.)

Nowadays, it appears that companies and corporations utilize these modes of support as a way to directly influence sales and reinforce what they like to call “brand awareness.” And it’s these forms of media that allow a property to endure well past its expiration date. From a marketing standpoint, most toy lines were only meant to last approximately three years. That’s three years if the company producing the line is lucky and the general public “bites” on the idea. However, once in a great while, a line endures for decades and morphs into a franchise. This includes heavyweights as Star Wars, Transformers, Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Pony, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What’s the common denominator for the success of all of these lines? They’ve all been resuscitated in recent years by an expertly-rendered media tie-in.

Beyond the lack of interest evidenced by many Baby Boomers, the shortage of contemporary brand awareness and media tie-ins is hurting Western Toys. Modern American children are not replacing the fans of Western Toys who’ve retired, passed on, or have left the hobby because of a lack of disposable income due to the global economic crisis.

Passing On Admiration Can Influence Others

At this critical juncture, aficionados simply must pass their love of the genre on to their children and grandchildren. Due to these obstacles, the prices of Western toys in most cases have barely held value. In most cases, these values decrease—some Western toys do so dramatically. Heck, even the premiere collectible pieces of a Western-related character in dead mint condition have declined in value.

I can only appeal—once again—to those of you dedicated collectors of Western toys and memorabilia to effect a change. Please perform every task within your power to save these franchises. For if you don’t, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and even the Lone Ranger will slip backward, sealed into the vault of time immemorial. Cowboy fever blossomed [and essentially controlled] American pop culture in the forties and fifties. This was a full 75-65 years ago. Most new collectors couldn’t pick these characters out of a crowd. Or their names off of a list.

Bright Spot: Hartland Horse & Rider

However, there are a few isolated bright spots within the Western toys genre that continue to light up

Lucas McCain Hartland figure

Lucas McCain, The Rifleman, Hartland statue, $610

the secondary market: Hartland Horse & Rider figurines, manufactured by Hartland Plastics from the late 1940s until 1999 appear to be recession-proof. Although produced by six different companies over a period of nearly seven decades, these magnificent Horse & Rider sets have commanded the attention of many zealous Western collectors for years. Could it be that these superb artifacts are finally garnering the attention of younger collectors: toy collectors from Generations X & Y? Is it possible that even those unfamiliar with the genre have recently identified the beauty and grace in these timeless artifacts? Maybe so, since many of the rarer Hartland Horse & Rider sets in mint condition with their original accessories intact, with their circular “Hartland” hang tags present, and packed within their original boxes… are exceedingly expensive.

Reinvention Benefits Lone Ranger

The second bright spot in Western toys is the marvelously-detailed Lone Ranger Rides Again toy line. Oddly enough, the Lone Ranger Rides Again franchise (with a name based upon the original 1939 Republic Lone Ranger serial) was initially concocted by 1:25 scale toy car producer Hubley from 1973-1976 as a result of the company’s over-diversificaton in the late sixties/early seventies—a tactic that would ultimately interfere with their profits and prove disastrous.

This interference led to the sale of Hubley to Gabriel Industries, where the Lone Ranger Rides Again line was expanded and produced for a further three years (1976-1979). This superbly-detailed, “fully jointed” toy line was comprised of a series of highly poseable 10”-tall action figures with outfits and uniforms constructed from soft goods, and with a bevy of authentic hard and soft plastic accessories. With the addition of a series of super-poseable horses, adventure sets and deluxe playsets, the line has skyrocketed in popularity within the last few months.

Distributed by Marx Toys in the UK, there were a slew of UK-only releases not documented in this book that are highly prized by collectors of the toy line.

Hope for Western Toys

Toys & Prices 20th edThankfully, it appears that these two toy lines represent a glimmer of sustainable hope in the marketplace for Western Toys.

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