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What Did You Say??
by Ed Olomoff, World-Renowned Expert On The Subject and Author of
"The Captain Action Attraction" and
"G.I. Joe: There's No Business Like Joe Business"
(both currently out of print)


Have you ever held a Mego Super Hero and wondered about the process that led to such a miraculous object? Have you ever looked at one of G.I. Joe's weapons and marveled at the intricate detail that goes into these tiny armaments? Have you ever wondered why Zzzax vibrates like that?

Yes, it's true. Action figures have a long and tangled history; a history known to very few. In fact, many of the best-known toy companies of today have spent millions of dollars in an attempt to cover up the distasteful, horrific origins of this industry we love so well. And it all started with a doll called "Irma."


Irma was the brainchild of one Vernon G. LaFuselle, who worked for the Lucky Duck Toy Company in the late 1930s. Lucky Duck was primarily a producer of paper dolls, although they did branch out a bit later on and were eventually driven out of business in 1953 due to the unfortunate and unforeseen results of their "Lucky Duck Chloroform Sponge Playset." [ 1 ]

LaFuselle's job was to devise new toys and new ways to market them. One day, while having dinner at a friend's house, LaFuselle noticed that his friend's daughter seemed particularly frustrated with the set of Ulysses S. Grant paper dolls she had recently received as a birthday gift.

"What's the matter, Jenny?" LaFuselle is rumored to have said.

"It's the bleedin' dolls! They been foldin' all over, they tears up all the time, and I can't even make the bloomin' things stand up!" Jenny replied in her apocryphal way. [ 2 ]

LaFuselle pondered this problem for several days, after which it occurred to him that a two-dimensional doll might simply be too limited -- and too fragile -- for realistic play. He decided to create a three-dimensional doll, one that would be more like the three-dimensional children to whom he hoped to be able to sell millions of them.

Of course dolls had existed for many years. However, very few of these had been three-dimensional; many primitive cultures believed that a three-dimensional doll would be a "false idol" or a "pagan image." Others felt that a three-dimensional doll would come to life in the middle of the night and eat their kidneys.

But by 1938, many of these fears had been overcome. LaFuselle recognized that paper was not the answer; it was too susceptible to tearing, burning, water damage, and a dozen other terminal weaknesses. In an interview given shortly before his death in 1985, LaFuselle told me:

"We knew for years that paper was no good for doll-making. Generally, we just ignored the complaints, though, because paper dolls were cheap and easy to make. But then the kids just stopped playing with them entirely. The last set we made [this would have been the Moses Meets Attila The Hun set] didn't sell at all. We knew we had to do something, so we did."

LaFuselle designed "Irma," a three-dimensional doll about 18 inches long. The first Irmas were made of marble, chiseled out of solid blocks. "That was the material that was the least like paper," LaFuselle remembered. "Well, it was either that or oatmeal. And the oatmeal dolls really didn't hold up too well under stressful play. So we stuck with the marble." [ 3 ]

It wasn't long before Lucky Duck became aware that the marble Irma wasn't quite the solution they had hoped for. For one thing, the doll weighed nearly 80 pounds, meaning children couldn't pick her up, much less carry her around. For another thing, she was quite cold to the touch, something that startled many of the children who came in contact with her. Comments ranged from "She's real creepy!" to "She's real weird!" to "Get her off my foot!"

So, LaFuselle went to work on making a new Irma. After trying a number of materials, including coal, macaroni, and foam, he finally hit upon the idea of a wooden Irma. This solved the weight problem; however, this gain was somewhat offset by the fact that few children enjoyed the plethora of slivers they inevitably acquired after playing with wooden Irma for a few minutes. [ 4 ]

In desperation, Lucky Duck attempted to revive their faltering sales by issuing a line of marble kitchen utensils with character likenesses on the handles. This series included William Henry Harrison, Button Gwinnett, and Jack the Ripper (even though nobody actually knew what he looked like -- this was sheer speculation on Lucky Duck's part. In fact, Jack's appearance on these utensils was remarkably similar to that of William Henry Harrison). Needless to say, this effort failed miserably.

The company was on the verge of bankruptcy. It was the eleventh hour, sudden-death overtime, the snow upon the lawn. All would be saved or lost within the next few hours.

And then LaFuselle had an idea. As he recounted years later:

"Well, then I got to thinking that maybe Irma herself was the whole problem. Maybe the kids just didn't like her. I mean, we never gave her a personality or anything. How do you give a personality to a hunk of marble? How many gargoyles do you know that have any personality at all, let alone one that makes kids want to buy 'em and dress 'em up in swimsuits and whatnot? So then I start thinking that maybe if she could MOVE a little bit, turn her head, maybe bend at the elbow or something, then maybe kids could have some fun with her. Oh sure, they'd still get slivered to death, since she was still made of wood at that point, but maybe they wouldn't feel the pain as much if they could actually PLAY with her, you know?"

LaFuselle's idea was soundly rejected by the higher-ups at Lucky Duck, who thought the concept of a "movable doll" was either the work of the Devil or some sort of futuristic, impossible dream like television or Shredded Wheat. He was fired shortly thereafter, and went on to a long and successful career as a carnival clown. He is also credited with the invention of the "LaFusellemobile," which was actually a school bus made entirely out of leather.

NEXT: Chapter Two: Ninety Billion Army Guys



1   Some observers argue that Lucky Duck was in serious trouble long before this. The much-maligned "Little Arsonist Kit" (1949) is often cited as an example, as is the "Fun With Cyanide" (1951) set. [ Return ]

2  No one has ever bothered to ask why Jenny would speak in this manner, inasmuch as she grew up in Trenton, New Jersey. Due to my reverence for tradition, I will not ask the question either.  [ Return ]

3  There have been occasional reports to the effect that a uranium Irma was constructed and test-marketed in parts of Arizona and New Mexico. This is an exaggeration; there were, in actuality, only a handful of prototype uranium Irmas, and these were all donated to the war effort in March of 1942.  [ Return ]

4  Quality control being, as it were, a bit less stringent in those days.  [ Return ]

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