Mego President and licensing forefather Marty Abrams lead the toy industry to its current state of licensing mania.
By John Michlig
This article originally appeared in the August 1995 edition of Collecting Toys. (C) 1998 John Michlig, reprinted with permission.
To anyone growing up in the 1970s and early '80s, Mego was a familiar brand name that represented the standard in action figures and toys. Even today, nearly a decade after the demise of the company, Mego casts a long shadow. Eavesdrop on a group of contemporary toy collectors and you will undoubtedly hear the newly coined term "Mego-esque" invoked to describe any large, fabric-clothed figure.
Though Ideal's Captain Action and Hasbro's GI Joe may have been first on the block, it was Mego that capitalized most consistently on the use of accessories and articulated figures. Hot-selling lines that ranged from classic super heroes to the crew of the TV series The Love Boat made the familiar "M" logo ubiquitous in toy aisles all over the United States. Mego was truly a pioneer of toy licensing and property development.
Marty Abrams functioned as president and chairman of Mego during the heyday of the company. He acted as its eyes and ears, seeking out characters and personalities (both real and fictional) for new toy lines, all while still in his early 30s.
Still elbow-deep in the toy business today, he's busy developing properties and toy mechanisms for toy lines, including GI Joe and Barbie.
COLLECTING TOYS spent an illuminating afternoon talking with the father of toy licensing as he discussed some of Mego's most famous lines, the nature of product development, the need for youth in the toy industry, and Cher's first foray into cosmetic improvement.
TOYS: How did Mego get started? Was it a family business?
ABRAMS: Yeah. There was a company before that in the housewares business, starting in 1954. As for the name, my little brother, wherever the family went, would say "Me go too. Me go too." That's how the name got started. Most of the first toys we did were non-proprietary things. We had a few brands, like the Joe Namath doll, our first license. You'll have a hard time finding it. We did it in 1969 right after he won the Super Bowl. We had one Namath that was 18" high and actually threw a ball. Did about $3 million in business.
TOYS: Many collectors associate Mego most closely with the Super Hero line. What are your recollections of the beginnings of that line?
ABRAMS: That was the third major line I developed. We had a couple of lines, one was Action Jackson in 1974. We already had the tooling for Action Jackson, a knock-off of GI Joe, which was less than spectacularly received. So we had a figure and we needed to find a license. We had all these tools and didn't know what to do with them. We needed a license to put them on. We bought all these licenses: Dick Tracy, the Green Hornet. Everyone said, "Are you crazy? That's like Captain Action, that failed." I said, "Captain Action failed because he's a figure with masks and outfits. He's not the real hero." And that's how we really got it together. We had the tooling done. All we did was change heads and costumes.
TOYS: Was the Super Heroes line a financial success?
ABRAMS: Oh, it was the staple of our business.
TOYS: Many avid toy collectors think Mego contracted out work to other companies to make some accessories and vehicles, like Hasbro did with GI Joe accessories.
ABRAMS: No, we made all our own stuff. Some companies got licenses to make products like ours, stuff that would go with ours, but we had nothing to do with it.
TOYS: Toward the end of the Super Heroes run there were variations like the large Superman figure, "Fist Fighting" varieties, "fly-away action," and magnetic hands and feet. Were these decisions based on falling sales?
ABRAMS: Well, what happened was the licensors would try to find holes in the licensing. They'd start to license out replications of Superman or Batman in other art forms and I got real upset with them. They said, "Well, you're not putting enough creativity into your product lines. Someone else came to us and that's why we did this piece." So that's when we started putting mechanisms in the figures at the end.
TOYS: Why did you change sizes so much in the Super Heroes line?
ABRAMS: We started off with the 8" size, which was the transition from the previous product line of Action Jackson. We then changed to the 12" size because we wanted to take a piece of the GI Joe business - get more doll for your buck, more bang for your buck in terms of the amount of work we had to do. Then, when we introduced the Micronauts and saw that we could have a whole world around it, we said, "Let's re-establish a smaller size of Pocket Super Heroes, so we can make a whole world of vehicles and playsets." So it was a natural progression.
TOYS: Did celebrities come back to you with positive or negative comments on their likenesses?
ABRAMS: They all had creative control over their likenesses. It was a constant working process. The male characters were much easier to render because in the waxes you could always create deep character lines. But when you sculpt a female character without her make-up - and most of these women were in their 20s and early 30s - it's hard to locate and sculpt identifiable lines. We went back on the Cher head eight or nine times before she approved her likeness.
TOYS: Did anyone keep the versions of sculpted heads that didn't make it?
ABRAMS: No, there's no archive. I imagine the stuff is dispersed all over Hong Kong.
TOYS: What was your favorite product line?
ABRAMS: My favorite was Star Trek. When we wanted Star Trek, nobody else wanted it - unbelievable. We got the entire Star Trek license for all toys for $5,000!
TOYS: What made you want to do Star Trek products? Did you sense the upcoming series of movies?
ABRAMS: No, that was before the motion picture. We were after the network show. Again, the whole purpose was to keep our costs down. We used the same bodies that we used for the super heroes. All we did was change the heads. We sculpted the heads, put costumes on them, and packaged them. The investment profile was very reasonable.
TOYS: Then you got on the inside track to do the Star Trek movie toys in 1979.
ABRAMS: The movies didn't help us at all. The first movie came out after Star Wars, and the level of expectation was very high. Star Trek was more ethereal and intellectual in terms of who's watching. You didn't get the 7- or 8-year-olds. Even today with Star Trek, The Next Generation, which is a major payoff - it was the number one syndicated show - we're not getting the 5- and 6-year-olds. But an 8-year-old will still buy an action figure if it looks great.
TOYS: Was Mego offered the Star Wars license?
ABRAMS: We were the first company they called, but unfortunately I was out of the country at the time.
TOYS: Did your relative youth help you get a grip on what was "hot" at the time?
ABRAMS: Yeah. Actually, I believe that the people who select products for manufacturing companies should not be over 35 years of age. When I made presentations to guys who were 50 to 55-years old who would make the decisions for little kids, I thought it was absurd. My partners have children between the ages of two and eight - there are five of them, girls and boys -and they get on the floor with them and play with them, take them to the movies, see what they like and don't like. They understand what the word "suck" means today versus what I grew up thinking it meant. They understand the language of the children. They understand their likes and dislikes.
TOYS: Were there any Mego toy lines that you thought would be hits, but stiffed?
ABRAMS: Yeah, Muhammad All. It was one of the best projects we ever did. We had plenty of time to do it because it wasn't a TV show - he was an icon. We had time to make it, time to conceptualize it, and put the mechanism in so it could box. It just didn't happen.
TOYS: Did race play a part in the toy's failure?
ABRAMS: No. I believe it clearly wasn't racial. He was a popular personality, but never appealed to 5 or 6-year-olds - he wasn't on television Saturday morning.
TOYS: Anything you went into with some ambivalence, but it just took off?
ABRAMS: 2XL. I loved the product (computer game), but I had no idea it would be the success it turned out to be.
TOYS: It was one of the first "shortage" toys that people wanted but couldn't find on the shelves.
ABRAMS: Yeah, because we had no idea. You know, it's a "herding" industry. Everybody turns around and gets on the bandwagon or gets off the bandwagon. Your greatest opportunity to have a big success is usually when no one believes it's gonna be a hit. Cabbage Patch Dolls - nobody wanted the Cabbage Patch Dolls. The testing was terrible. Nobody wanted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The testing was terrible.
TOYS: Hasbro has made big waves by re-introducing and commemorating the 12" GI Joe. Is there any Mego product you'd like to do that with?
ABRAMS: We're doing it right now with the Micronauts.
TOYS: Are you approaching it as Hasbro is with GI Joe?
ABRAMS: No. We can't. If you look at the Micronauts line the way it was in the 1970s versus what's selling in the'90s, no one would get near it. It was more of a construction set. It had great play value, but we have to re-design it to bring it up to date.
TOYS: Jealous collectors would surely like to know if you have one of everything Mego made.
ABRAMS: No I don't. I'm not even close. I have no idea what I have.
TOYS: The Wizard of Oz figures from 1974 are currently very sought-after. Was that line your idea?
ABRAMS: Yes, it was. In fact, the man who produced that picture, Mervyn LeRoy, was on our board of directors for seven years.
TOYS: What made Planet of the Apes appealing to you?
ABRAMS: We acquired the rights to Planet of the Apes, and I hadn't even heard of the original Planet of the Apes movie. By the time the fourth one came out, my son said, "Let's go." He was maybe seven or eight at the time. The local theater was showing a retrospective of all the Planet of the Apes movies over eight straight hours, and I told him, "I can't sit through these movies for eight straight hours." Then my son says, "Ah, Dad, c'mon. You never take me anywhere." If my kid wouldn't have made me go and watch Planet of the Apes for eight straight hours, that toy line never would have happened. And again, when I saw the kids watching The Wizard of Oz, and I took a look at the ratings and it accounted for 45 of the top 100 movies ever shown, I thought I just had to go talk with MGM and get the rights to do it.
TOYS: There were time back then when you listened to younger voices to get ideas?
ABRAMS: Sure. We did the Kiss dolls. My son was seven years old and was into Kiss. We had to go to their concerts. I'm sitting there thinking, "Geez, these guys are weird." By today's standards, they're mild. But by the standards of the '70s, they were pushing the envelope. Like I say, it's gotta be young children - if not young children, people who just came out of their childhood - who tell you what's happening.
TOYS: In hindsight, was there anything on a figure or line of figures that you regret doing in terms of execution? For example, when I was little, my friends and I all had a problem with the "mitten effect" on the Super Heroes.
ABRAMS: I hated that! I hated that with a passion! We didn't know how to make gloves. We clearly should have made hands and painted the hands to get the tight glove effect. That mitten effect was preschool positioning. We never got beyond that, and we should have.
TOYS: Some figures evolved over time. Specifically, the Batman action figure started with a removable cowl, then it changed to a painted cowl, and then Mego added a removable Bruce Wayne alter ego head to it. Did these creative changes come down from the top or up from the design department?
ABRAMS: Well, it's a combination. Once I made the deals, then I had to go on to the next property because we were always generating business. We had 35 licenses, and that had nothing to do with all the noncharacter toy licenses we had as well. We were at full-tilt boogie getting all this stuff. We had creative guys who would do it, and I would do my line reviews once every month or once every six weeks, making my comments. But I wouldn't be down in the shop on a product-by-product basis.
TOYS: Your Eagle Force series looks a lot like the modern small GI Joe figures.
ABRAMS: That was done in 1981 or '82, I guess. They were done in die-cast metal. We were doing die-cast metal 12 years ago, and now everybody is doing it. At Toy Fair this year I saw some real quality pieces in the works.
TOYS: Any thoughts on the new toy and collector markets?
ABRAMS: Clearly this is a young person's business from a career point of view. That's what made the collector's market. There are collectors now in the business who have stepped up and are collecting because it was part of their youth. People in their 20s and 30s have that fresh memory of what makes a great toy - a real "shorthand" - and if we don't continue to use that shorthand as developers, inside and outside the company, we lose the perspective on whats happening here.
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