When I was a little kid in the Eighties, oh boy did I LOVE popular culture. I must have seen every episode of Happy Days, Gilligan’s Island, and the original Scooby-Doo by the time I was 8. I had the store layout for my local Toys R Us memorized. And I started my highly annotated Christmas wish list right after Halloween ended.
Here is a list of the 10 things I loved the most as a kid; what I was most likely to drop everything to watch on TV or beg my parents for in the middle of a crowded department store:
I didn’t nearly love Garfield back then as much as I do now (of course now I’m doing it to be cooler-than-thou, which is an attractive reason), but I still loved him a lot. And by “love” I mean it in the capitalist sense of, I needed every product with his big orange head on it. Ironically, it was a jumbo stuffed animal of Garfield’s dumb sidekick Odie that I *really* adored. My first wave of Garfield worship would be supplanted in the mid-Eighties with the advent of Bill the Cat.
Ninjas were largely a mid-to-late 1980s thing for me, mostly spurred on by my friends at school who were flat-out obsessed with them and talked about them non-stop. Methinks they really didn’t have a grasp on the historical or correct ethnological aspects of the Ninja, but instead had watched a bunch of Sho Kosugi flicks and became “experts.” One thing we used to do is fold aluminum foil into ninja throwing stars; until the school banned them.
8. The Fonz
For the longest time, Arthur Fonzarelli was the only positive Italian role-model I had as a kid (remember, this was before Super Mario Bros.). He seemed more or less a real person to me; I mean, he wasn’t animated or anything (until he was animated). The Fonz taught me that no matter what happens, you can always flash the thumbs-up sign, say “ayyyy,” and you will still be cool. You could also snap your fingers and girls would come out of nowhere to be with you; but that seemed pretty boring to me.
To be precise, I loved the iconography of Pac-Man…but didn’t actually love playing the game. I was not a big video game buff, and the only one I really got into was Burger Time (because constructing a burger seemed at least practical). But I collected Pac-Man stuffed dolls, figurines, and, most importantly, trading cards (as you can imagine, I was very popular and cool). There was also a board game I would have killed to own, where you had a plastic Pac-Man “eat” power pills on the board. (I received the MAD Magazine board game instead, which I like to think at least knocked my IQ a couple of marbles higher simply by default.)
6. Pro Wrestling
Good lord, was I obsessed with professional wrestling! It started by watching these grainy matches on our old black and white TV set when I was *really* young…the only wrestlers I remember from back then were Bob Backlund and Pedro Morales. Then in the mid-Eighties (admittedly, a flashpoint for me when I started “discovering” a lot of new characters and shows on my own), the WWF really branched out and hooked up with both Cyndi Lauper (my fave singer at the time) and Mr. T! The wrestler I loved most was Rowdy Roddy Piper, who became a personal obsession for me within an obsession. (“Obsession” was also the name of a 1984 hit song by the band Animotion, and was sometimes used by the WWF as incidental music leading into/out of commercial breaks.)
5. The Smurfs
Wow, the Smurfs were another huge thing for me. Not only did they have that NBC cartoon on Saturday mornings, but their highly collectible figurines were on sale at our local Hallmark store. And they were licensed up the wazoo, with toy cars, board games, video games, stuffed animals, Play Doh sets, Colorforms, and even canned pasta. Along with Garfield, the Smurfs were definitely a capitalist dream merchandise-wise (though certainly, their own societal organization seemed to be quite socialist). Oh, and the episode of the cartoon with the highly infectious “Smurf virus” scarred me for life.
4. G.J. Joe
The initial draw of G.I. Joe for me was the unusually intelligent and well-written syndicated cartoon series, which was like leaps and bounds from most of the Saturday morning fare being offered. Then I read some of the comic books, which really played off of, and expanded on, the animated show and I think involved some of the same people. So the show & the comics were like the perfect engine to get kids buying the toys (which came first). Most kids in my class were into Snake Eyes and that whole mythology (back to the ninjas again), but I really had a thing for Shipwreck (finding out years later that he was essentially modeled after Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail really blew my mind).
Specifically, classic Universal Monsters (though I barely understood back then what that designation meant). Hammer monsters were way too gruesome and gory for me, and I barely could deal with Jason/Freddy et al. But what I’m really talking about are lovable old monsters like Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein, and Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman. You know, completely harmless. I’d catch their adventures largely on public television, or vicariously through books on the subject at ye olde locale library. My first encounter with an early issue of Fangoria (documented here) was sort of the beginning of the end of that innocent era for me.
By “Peanuts” I largely mean Snoopy, who was just like omnipresent and ubiquitous from the cradle onwards. But I was very familiar with all the animated specials, and especially the little paperback reprint books (that I collected and voraciously devoured). Charlie Brown was really the only tangible representation in my early childhood of the idea of “depression,” and Linus of “neuroticism.” Charles Schulz really had a gift of making a comic strip both entertaining on one level for kids, and then something entirely thought-provoking for adults. I like to think Peanuts really lessened the blow of encroaching adulthood by covertly preparing me to be disappointed.
I cannot express to you the titanic fascination Batman (and friends) had on me from the earliest age. It would just be a picture of me holding on to a handful of Batman comics or toys at the store and screaming “Batman! Batman! Batman!” at the top of my lungs (until said items were securely purchased and wrapped up for home enjoyment). There is something about this iconic character, much like Spider-Man, that seems to invoke this fanatical loyalty on sight of the logo alone. And yet the original 60’s TV series only ran in syndication where I lived for a handful of years before inexplicably disappearing for a long, lonnnnnng time. I tried reading the comics to fill the void, but by then all the new stuff was slowly careening from “sort of adult” to “Frank Miller” level. But I always carried the core “idea” of a Batman in my mind; like the Platonic concept of “ideal forms.” The “Ur-Batman,” if you will, permanently embedded deep in my subconscious. Also: lotsa collectibles, capitalism amok, yay!
And there you have it, Folks: the ten things that I loved the most as a kid, that would send me into a sugar-coated-cereal-induced swoon. And some still do.