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Credit: Kenner

History's hottest holiday toys: The magic of 1979's Millennium Falcon

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Dec 17, 2018, 11:00 AM EST

I got the Millennium Falcon toy for my birthday when I was eight, and I was enraptured. In the first place, it was enormous; so big that you had to carry it in both arms to make it swoop around the house. And it had seemingly infinite nooks and crannies; a secret compartment for smuggled contraband, a chess table ("let the Wookiee win!"), a gun turret, a ball for lightsaber practice — you could spend days just finding all the bits. Plus, there was a C-battery-powered alarm you could press on the side, to annoy family and friends alike.

Inevitably, I started to lose pieces almost as soon as it was unwrapped.

That's more or less the Millennium Falcon experience for kids of my generation. The ship was one of the most recognizable and biggest items in the Star Wars toy universe. At 17 x 6 x 23, it was almost two feet long, and weighed 3.75 pounds. It retailed for $29.99 when it was released in 1979, over $100 in today's prices.

Even though it was expensive, the toy was so successful it was produced for seven years, from 1978 to 1985, throughout the entire run of Kenner's classic toy line. "The Millennium Falcon was one of the more popular Star Wars toys because it was more than a mere vehicle or starship; it was a playset," according to toy expert Mark Bellomo, author of Krause Publications' The Ultimate Guide to Vintage Star Wars Action Figures: 1977-1985. "All good fictional settings such as the Millennium Falcon, Hogwarts School, Gotham City, the Pequod, or Deadwood, seem to breathe with a life of their own. As a kid, buying the Millennium Falcon was as essential to Star Wars role-play as buying Luke Skywalker or Han Solo."

The Millennium Falcon as a toy, in other words, wasn't just a ship, or an accessory; it was a character in itself. Kenner's toy line did a brilliant job of capturing the importance of setting in the Star Wars films, where the grimy robots, vividly puppeteered background aliens, swamp-drenched Dagobah, and sandy Tatooine, were as much the draw as the plots or dialogue.

Star Wars wasn't just a movie, it was "a new way of marketing toys," critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once observed with some bitterness. And that marketing was so successful because the movies themselves were a kind of giant playset for audiences. Kenner took the hint, Bellomo says, and "devised an entire world for kids and collectors alike, with near-countless amounts of action figures, accessories, creatures, mail-away items, playsets, promotional-pack-ins, spacecraft and other vehicles, and weapon systems."

The Kenner line was one giant toy, with tons of smaller toys inside it. The Millennium Falcon reproduced that feeling on a (moderately) smaller scale. The top of the ship was a detachable panel, which you could lift off in order to place and position characters in the interior. There was also a detachable floor panel which you could remove in order to hide goods or people underneath (remember, the Falcon was a smuggling ship.) There were also landing legs which you could put down or retract, and of course, the pilot compartment opened up so you could put Han and Chewie in there.

All the different moving parts and detachable toys-within-the-toy were great fun to take in and out and rearrange and fiddle with. As you'd expect, though, they also tended to get lost, bashed, mangled, and snapped in two. The lightsaber training ball was gone almost immediately; it took me longer to break off the landing gear. By the end, I think I'd even lost the top panel of the ship, so the Falcon was open to airless space whenever it took off. Of course, the battery-powered battle alert sound (which I used as a gun sound, like everyone else) stopped working after enough abuse. Han may have evaded the Empire, but 8-year-olds are less forgiving. By the time the ship went into the long, long ago, it was about as dirty and beaten looking as the film version. Maybe even more so, if that's possible.

I wasn't alone; a whole generation of kids was rough on their Millennium Falcons. That's part of why the ship is a collector's item today. While huge numbers of the toys were made, and they're by no means rare, finding one complete and intact is another matter. According to Bellomo, a vintage Kenner Falcon with all of its parts and working electronics can run from anywhere between $140 and $220, depending on the coloration of the outer shell (they tend to brown over time.) If you've got everything in the original box, the price can jump to $300-450.

"Finding a factory-sealed sample of a vintage Millennium Falcon is an exponentially more difficult proposition," Bellomo says. "Obtaining a box with its factory-tape still applied and with the toy never removed from its box? Thousands of dollars. Who saved their 1979 Millennium Falcon in its original, unopened box? Nobody, that's who."

Interest in the Millennium Falcon toy did tail off at the end of the Kenner years; the company had to destroy thousands of the toy in 1984. But overall, Solo's ship has remained a reliable headliner for various Star Wars toy sets. Bellomo counts nine major Falcon toys, including the Kenner edition, since 1979. The Falcon was one of the first toys resolicited when the line was relaunched in 1995, and since then new editions have included a 2008 Hasbro toy (the radar disk rotates; there are buttons you can press to play brief snippets and sound effects from the movie) and of course a toy released for the Solo movie (with a removable escape mini-ship.)

With more Star Wars films in the works, there's a good chance that there will be more Millennium Falcons as well. Still, none of them will replace the original — whatever parts of it are left.