There’s a short story by Neil Gaiman called Chivalry. It tells the tale of Mrs. Whitaker, a pensioner in England who visits her local charity shop and finds the Holy Grail beneath a fur coat. She recognizes it for what it is, buys it and takes it home to put it on her mantelpiece. And the very next day she begins a series of negotiations for its release with none other than Sir Galaad.
It’s one of my all-time favorite short stories, not only for its magical realism, but also because most of us can kind of sympathize. When searching among the usual things found at yard-sales, junk shops and flea-markets, most of us dream of discovering items of incredible rarity and value. What usually goes unspoken in this is our hope that the current owner of the rare item in question is unaware of its value. We might not even know the value ourselves, but we all secretly hope the thing we buy for a song will turn out to be priceless, or at least with a price hundreds of times greater than the price on its little round sticker, and that we can later sell it for a fortune on eBay, or perhaps, dare we hope, Pawn Stars. In other words, we’re all horrible greedy jerks out to cheat others out of the fortune that rightfully belongs to them.
I made a few of my own horrible, greedy jerk Holy Grail finds at the local flea market recently. They included three vintage MEGO action figures from the 1970s, complete with all their original accessories as well as some… not-so-original accessories.
Now, for those not in the know, MEGO was a toy company in the 70s and early 80s that produced a number of toy lines of 8″ tall articulated “action dolls.” These were inspired by the original G.I. Joe toy-line—famous for giving boys in the late 1960s blanket permission to play with dolls—MEGO toys came similarly dressed in cloth outfits, with plastic footwear, weapons and accessories. The most memorable toy lines from MEGO were of DC and Marvel super heroes, a few of which I had as a kid. MEGO also had licenses for Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and Logan’s Run among other action genres. The most memorable toy line MEGO turned down the opportunity to produce was Star Wars. Instead, Kenner Toys made a billion dollars on Star Wars while MEGO expanded into several lines of not-so-action figures based on 1970s TV shows, such as like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, the Dukes of Hazard, and The Waltons. Not surprisingly, MEGO went under by 1983. But before they were gone for good, I had a handful of their toys as a kid and they were among my favorites. They also, in proper condition, with the right accessories, tend to be lucrative to sell.
While I used to dable, I’m not really a toy collector anymore; well, unless you count my extensive number of toy and model TARDISes from Doctor Who. These I continue to buy as ongoing restitution to my inner 4th Grader for having no access to Doctor Who toys as a kid. My wife, on the other hand, views them as evidence of a mental disorder, but I digress.
The flea market booth was run by a lady I’d put in her late 50s who didn’t look like the typical vintage toy retailer. And while she did not have any Doctor Who MEGOS—which did exist, by the way, but only in England—she did have two card tables filled with a wide variety of toys primarily from MEGO’s western line, such as Buffalo Bill, Davy Crocket, Wyatt Earp, etc. There were also toys of the Lone Ranger and Tonto, which were made by a competing MEGO knock-off company called Gabriel. All of the dolls were loose, which is collector-speak for toys out of their original packaging, which automatically makes them less valuable to collectors. However, each of the dolls seemed to be dressed in its original cloth outfit and came sealed in a zip-lock baggie to help contain their various accessories. Finding MEGOs with accessories in the wild is a pretty rare thing. Actually… examining them a bit closer, a few seemed to have some accessories included that were not original to the toys, or sometimes even the time period of the setting the characters were from. There were small automatic weapons included with some of the western characters. And a Ninja Turtle sword, I was pretty sure, too. The Lone Ranger, for instance, a MEGO figure I owned as a child, came packaged with his blue outfit, removable mask, hat, red sash, gun belt, silver revolver, and a tiny black Glock 9 mm pistol small enough to stash in his boot. Okaaaay. His kemosabe Tonto seemed to have only his original items, with headband, gun-belt, revolver, and moccasins. Each of the figures had a bit of wear on them, with chips in the paint of their hair, or minor stains on their clothes, but nothing too bad. They looked as though they had been played with, but lovingly cared for otherwise. And these amazingly well-cared for toys were priced at only $10 each.
It was cool seeing the Lone Ranger again. My own vanished long ago—no doubt during one of my dad’s culling sessions, instituted after he’d told my sister and I to clean up the toys in the living room for the 18th time and then finally just bagged it all up and hauled it to Good Will while we were at school. Still, I was absolutely not going to buy any of these doys—even as an investment. Then a third toy caught my eye and made me smile: Fonzie from Happy Days.
Some of you may not be old enough to remember the show Happy Days’ or its most memorable character Arthur Fonzerlli, a.k.a. Fonzie, a.k.a. the Fonz. Played by Henry Winkler, Fonzie was the coolest cat 1970s TV had to offer—cooler still than John Travolta’s Vinny Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter. Fonzie was a greaser and semi-reformed motorcycle gang member who dispensed wisdom to the local high school kids. Fonzie was so cool that when he snapped his fingers girls would instantly flock to his side. He was so cool that juke boxes did his bidding with only a bump from his elbow. You’ve heard of the phrase “jump the shark”? It describes the moment in which a TV show starts to lose its creative footing and begins the downward slide toward cancellation. Well Fonzie originated that term by motorcycle jumping an actual shark in a water tank in the premiere episode of Happy Days 5th season in 1977. You might think that spelled the end for the show, but it actually lasted another six years beyond that! That’s the power of Fonzie’s coolness!
Among my first-grade peers, Fonzie was the MEGO figure to own. However, my dad evidently didn’t think I was cool enough to have a MEGO Fonzie, because all I ever got was MEGO Ralph Malph. (Similarly, I never had the Vinny Barbarino toy that Mattel made. I only rated Arnold Horshack. Thanks a LOT DAD!!!!) The MEGO Fonzie toy was the coolest. It was also one of the only MEGO figures with articulated hands, with fingers that could be folded back and a thumb that could be extended to make his trademark thumbs up “Ayyyyy!” stance. MEGO even made a version of the toy with a lever on his back that would fire one of his thumbs into “sit-on-it” position in under a quarter of a second.
The MEGO Fonzie at the flea-market was in remarkable shape for a 37-year-old toy. (You have no idea how painful that is to type.) His articulated fingers were present and accounted for on his little plastic hands. He had both of his boots. He had his white t-shirt and his trademark leather jacket. He even had the “sit-on-it” lever. Now the Fonzie toy didn’t normally have accessories, but strangely this one did. It came packaged with a tiny machine gun. “Eat lead, shark! Ayyyyyyy!”
I mentioned to the lady who ran the booth that I was pretty sure the machine gun wasn’t original to Fonzie, but I thought it was cool that he had it. She said, “Oh, I don’t know anything about them toys.” She then also admitted that she’d spiced a few of them up with new tiny weapons and accessories, but only because she had two shoeboxes full of plastic munitions without homes. She said the toys themselves had come from the estate of a guy who collected vintage toys and kept them in good shape. He was also possibly her nephew. He had also died tragically of a heart-attack at too young an age. His toys, the lady said, had been destined for the landfill until someone told her about them and his parents gladly gave them to her, scarcely believing anyone would want any of it. She was just hoping to sell them for $10 each.
My mind boggled at this, because $10 was a steal for almost any good-condition, clothed MEGO from the 70s, let alone ones that still had all their accessories. Perhaps sensing my boggle, the lady went on to note that while she herself knew nothing about “them toys,” an enterprising soul might purchase them and resell them on “that, um… that computer thing they got.”
“EBay?” I offered.
“Yeah. That’s the one,” she said with a nod.
I looked down to find myself suddenly holding a hook, a line and a sinker. However, I did not immediately pierce my own cheek with it and willingly leap into her boat. No, instead, I spent the next twenty minutes wandering around the flea market with my nose in my phone, looking up eBay prices and salivating. There was a Fonzie going for just under $80, and he didn’t even have boots. I found a Lone Ranger going in the $50 range, and a Tonto going for a bit less (racists!). Soon enough, I found myself back at the lady’s booth, handing her $30. She bagged up my toys and thanked me for my business. Then I took them home, lifted up the back of their tiny costume shirts and saw on their backs giant red letters reading: “Guess what, asshat, I’m a 2004 reissue!”
Yessir. Way back in ought four, some geniuses called Classic TV Toys bought the MEGO molds, and evidently the Gabriel molds, and began making new Happy Days and Lone Ranger toys for fun and profit. Sadly, today they’re all going for around $10 each on eBay.
It should be noted that the kindly lady at the flea market who probably scammed me never actually said these were original 1970s MEGO figures. In fact, she had repeatedly stressed that she didn’t know anything about them. And while I don’t know for certain that I was grifted, I pretty much did most of the heavy lifting for her. That’s how the really good cons tend to go. If it was a con, it was so skillfully executed that I don’t think I mind having been conned. It was almost an honor to have fallen for it.
Plus, I can’t be too mad. I mean, hey… I finally have MEGO Fonzie. And one with a machine gun.