For this edition of the Toy Box I would like to talk about some less championed childhood toys. These toys sort of fell into the gaps between action figures, play sets, stuffed animals, and the like, but each was a lot of fun in its own right and deserves to be remembered. I don’t want to call these obscure, because each one has its fan base. They’re more like “Oh right, those!” toys. Once you recall them you probably have fond memories, but they’re never the first things you think of when it comes to childhood toys.
1985 was a good year for toys designed to appeal to the gross instincts of little boys. In addition to the launch of Garbage Pail Kids cards, Cleveland based American Greetings introduced Madballs. Madballs were essentially Nerf Balls, except that they were shaped to resemble whatever name they were given, with corresponding facial features. This meant that the balls were meant to resemble classic monsters or extreme takes on traditional sports.
The original Madballs were released with eight different designs, with Screamin Meemie being the face of the brand. Screamin Meemie resembled a baseball, except that it featured a wide open mouth with a prominent row of teeth and a large tongue hanging out. It was one of two I owned, along with Dust Brain, a mummy and a clearly better design.
The appeal of Madballs to kids also made them essentially useless when it came to playing with them. They could be thrown, but on many occasions I tried to use them to actually play baseball, which didn’t work on account of their asymmetrical shapes.
Madballs made their way into other media in the 1980s, becoming the subject of a PC game and a couple of direct to video shorts, plus a Marvel comics mini-series. A second series of balls was also released, plus Super Madballs and Head Popping Madballs. Subsequent rights holders later re-released the early series, and Kidrobot did a take on the originals in 2016.
Given that it was maybe six feet long, the downstairs hallway at my parents’ house played an outsize role in several of our childhood activities. It was the place where my sisters and I acted out scenes from Carol King’s Really Rosie. It was also where I would flip over a laundry basket to serve as a table and I would try to peddle my toys to my sisters, like a trader in some Middle Ages Silk Road marketplace. The walls were maybe three feet apart, so it was also a great spot to play Spider-Man and work my way up to the ceiling by bracing myself between them.
The final and most common use for the hallway was that it contained the designated wall at which Wacky WallWalkers could be whipped. Wacky WallWalkers were sticky toys shaped like an octopus. They looked like oversize fruit snacks, or the gummy lures we used to fish as children that never caught anything but were better than having to run a hook through a live worm. The concept behind Wacky WallWalkers was simple: you throw it at the wall, and gravity and friction did the rest. The WallWalker tumbled end over end in a controlled fall, and if you were smart you caught it before it hit the carpeting. Once hair and fuzz became affixed to the WallWalker it was as good as garbage, so keeping it from reaching the floor was of the utmost importance.
Wacky WallWalkers were available to purchase, of course, but it also always seemed like one brand of cereal or another was giving them away as prizes. Since my parents bought sugary cereals by the cartload, we picked up a lot of Walkers this way.
I’m using dinosaur sponges as a catch all for the various grow capsules that were popular in the 1980s and are still available today in various forms. I feel like the dinosaur ones were the most popular, and even showed up in a scene on The Simpsons.
It should have been in a capsule, obviously, but Lisa being squished without being hurt because it was a sponge mouth was a nice touch. Dinosaur sponges (and Shrinky Dinks below) are toys that I closely associated with my grandmother’s house. I think that’s because they were reasonably priced, so it was easy for my Grandma to pick up packs for all of us without spending a fortune. We spent a lot of time in my Grandma’s kitchen in Avon, Ohio, tossing those capsules into bowls in the sink. The novelty of watching them grow was enjoyable enough that you didn’t think about how at the end of it you were left with a little sponge you’d never use for anything.
Shrinky Dinks were more of a thing for my sisters than they were for me. I think I associated them with Easy Bake Ovens even though they involved actual ovens, and therefore decided they were toys for girls. If you’re unfamiliar, they were essentially pieces of plastic shaped like whatever licensed characters you had purchased, and when heated they hardened and shrunk. I remember having Disney ones, and I remember Grandma’s kitchen being involved again. The irony of believing ovens constituted girl stuff as a child and doing nearly all of the cooking in my apartment as an adult is not lost on me.
Look, none of us want to admit it, but Silly Putty is dumb as hell. The fact that it’s existed as a toy since World War II and is in the National Toy Hall of Fame, a thing we all definitely knew existed, is testament to the lies we’ve been telling ourselves for the last 75 years about Silly Putty being fun. Sure, Silly Putty bounces, but so do rubber balls. That’s what rubber balls are for. The only thing anybody really used Silly Putty for as far as I’m concerned, was to copy the funnies onto it. Then you had an imprint of the comics panel on your Silly Putty, which is also useless but was cool to a child. I felt obligated to include Silly Putty on this list because it was a staple of Christmas stockings, but given the toy options in the 1980s if you were playing with Silly Putty you messed up somewhere along the way.
I completely forgot about this toy until a commercial for it popped up in a YouTube compilation I was watching yesterday. Put simply, a Wizzzer is a top. It’s a very cool top, but a top nonetheless. I associate these with the late 1980s and early 1990s, but Wizzzers were introduced by Mattel in 1969 and still exists for sale today, both in stores and on subway platforms. Among the many alternate economies in NYC, there’s a weird niche for selling stuff that nobody on the street has had the urge to pick up on a whim in at least 15 years, and that niche consists of self-produced hip hop CD-Rs and knockoff Wizzzers. I’ve never once come down the stairs to the R platform at Atlantic Terminal, seen the five or six tops spinning and taking way more foot space than is necessary during rush hour, and thought anything other than “how can I get to the other end of the platform without being subjected to a sales pitch?”
That being said, these were cool toys when I was a kid. As they name suggests, they made noise! And they spun very fast! Plus they were colorful! As tops go, they were pretty neat.
(video will launch at Wizzzer commercial)
What were some of your favorite eclectic childhood toys? Have you ever bought a Wizzzer while waiting for the subway? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.