It’s that time of year again, when I spend a fortune on old toy catalogs just to tear out the pages, all for your benefit. Let’s look at some of the highlights from Montgomery Ward’s 1985 Christmas catalog!
I didn’t grow up near any Montgomery Ward stores, but their catalogs were basically the same as what Sears and JCPenney published. (So much so, in fact, that I had to be careful not to pick the same toys I covered when reviewing JCPenney’s 1985 catalog.)
I was six years old when this book hit mailboxes, so the toys in these pages were absolutely my shit. Several were things I myself received for Christmas that year, or at least during a surrounding year. I could write about the stuff in this one catalog forever, but I know you have your limits. Let’s settle on 1800 words:
Sectaurs Power Cycle!
Wait, what? There was a SECTAURS POWER CYCLE?! How is it possible that I’d never heard of this, even during my internet years?
For you youngins, Sectaurs was a line of large insectoid action figures that rode even larger battery-operated bugs. I adored those toys. They were the perfect mix of “elegant” and “disturbing.”
Though Sectaurs had all of the accompaniments that ‘80s toy lines needed to survive — a cartoon, a comic book, a giant ass playset — it hardly set the world on fire. Usually, brands didn’t get the “tricycle treatment” until they’d achieved a certain status. Someone made a biiiig bet on Sectaurs, here.
Even more incredible is that this was at least as good as any other Power Cycle, and possibly even cooler. The idea, I guess, was that you were supposed to ignore the wheels and just pretend you were riding a bug. The cycle even had giant, flapping wings! That look of euphoria on the kid’s face? He wasn’t acting.
The Horde Fright Zone!
You’ll think I’m nuts, but I liked the Fright Zone more than Castle Grayskull or Snake Mountain. I wouldn’t necessarily argue that it was the better playset, but I was too much of a Horde mark to care that their “castle” was more like a patio.
The best part was the rubber dragon puppet, which let you treat He-Man like lunch. It was the cheapest thing, but man was it effective. Since the puppet wasn’t attached to the playset, you were free to take the dragon out and treat it like a random pet. I even brought it to my grandparents’ house on some long ago Sunday, and spent the afternoon whispering to Mr. Dragon about how boring everything was.
There was also a crude jail cell, in keeping with the MOTU tradition of being subtly kinky. Place was a total house of horrors. Even the TREE on top was able to grab hold of unsuspecting heroes. It was hard to qualify this as Hordak’s “headquarters,” as the only things a person could do in the Fright Zone were atrophy in jail, get eaten by a dragon and become tangled in an undead zombie tree.
For Christmas in ‘85, my older brother gave me a complete set of Dinobots. All five of them. (For whatever reason, Montgomery Ward excluded Snarl and Sludge from their catalog.)
It would’ve been a legendary gift under any circumstances, but he took things a step further. Instead of signing his name on the gift tags, my brother pretended that each Dinobot was from a different Transformer. (I suppose it was off-brand for Megatron to hand out Autobots for Christmas, but as I recall, I had “him” to thank for Swoop.)
I was six at the time. Old enough “to know,” yet young enough “to believe.” I recognized the all-caps handwriting as his, but he refused to cop to it, and besides, it was pretty unusual to get Christmas gifts from my siblings. I ignored the nagging voices and ran with the ball: “Fuck yeah, real life Transformers sent me Christmas presents!”
They were great figures, too. While I’d eventually lose Grimlock’s tyrannosaur headpiece, I spent the first few days treating the toy with such reverence that I didn’t even like to touch it. For a while, I just let the five Dinobots sit on my bedroom shelves, like fragile keepsakes. It was completely out of character for a kid like me.
Naturally, in the weeks that followed, I managed to break every single one of them. Swoop was the first to go, thanks to his terribly thin wings. The rest dropped their limbs faster than the average hermit crab, and were eventually missing so many parts that I couldn’t realistically use them as “figures” anymore.
After that, they sat at the bottom of a plastic tub, like oversized potato chip crumbs. I occasionally broke them out when I needed “casualty props,” but they were mostly a bitter reminder of how dumb it was to smash Dinobots together like Hot Wheels cars.
She-Ra’s Crystal Castle!
When I was young, there were these stupid invisible lines that divided toys by gender. I hated them and I wanted to cross them, but I was rarely brave enough to risk schoolyard scrutiny. I already had enough problems there, y’know?
Looking back, I think Princess of Power was one of the first lines that helped to break those barriers. I’d assume that tons of little boys who collected He-Man figures wanted “a She-Ra.” I’d also assume that plenty of little girls who collected Princess of Power figures couldn’t live without “a Hordak,” since he was the cartoon’s main villain.
These were teensy baby steps towards a marginally better world, but I think it counts for something. For my part, I’m still ticked that I wasn’t self-assured enough to ask for a Frosta doll, because I spent my whole childhood knowing that a blue-haired ice goddess would’ve improved my action figure storylines in ten thousand ways.
As for the Crystal Castle playset, picture Grayskull mixed with Disney’s Grand Floridian. I’m jealous of the girls who grew up with accessories like “beds” and “fireplaces,” when all Mattel gave me were ways to torture monsters.
I never had any Wuzzles as a kid, but I admired them from afar. Simple as the concept was, it charmed me to the point where I had a whole notebook stuffed with sketches of weird animal hybrids.
Combining two animals is still my go-to exercise whenever I feel like drawing without having to think too much. Until today, I don’t know if I’ve ever given these dolls their due credit in being the root of that.
I doubt that it was just me, either. Hey, fellow old people: Did generalized Wuzzles awareness lead YOU to design shark-eagles or monkey-frogs? I bet it did. Bumblelion and Eleroo were bigger parts of us than we realized.
Side note: I was already familiar with most of the characters shown above, but that blue creature on the lower-left tripped me up. Turns out, that’s Moosel. Half-moose, half-seal! I’d never given much thought as to which Wuzzle was my favorite, but now, if anyone asks, I definitely know the answer.
Star Wars Stuff!
($11.98 – $15.98)
Kenner’s Star Wars collection was running on fumes by this point, and would be completely absent from toy catalogs just a year later. I hated that. Star Wars never fell out of favor for me, and I’d spend my remaining childhood years pining for 3¾” action figures with tiny guns and zero knee joints.
While Star Wars got two whole pages in this catalog, almost everything was on clearance. That Ewok Village playset, which played home to soooo many of my action figure luaus, cost less than half of what Montgomery Ward charged for a Horde Fright Zone.
I have such fond memories of these toys, and many of them are tied directly to Christmas. Take that Jabba the Hutt playset. I got it during our Christmas Eve party in *1983*, when I was barely old enough to even articulate my great need for a Jabba the Hutt figure.
My mother hadn’t found time to wrap Jabba, and hid him under a blanket. I uncovered him purely by accident, and she let me run off with the thing a few hours early. I spent the bulk of that party completely ignoring every single person except Jabba the Hutt.
In one corner, drunk uncles caroled. In another, grandparents fried thirty pounds of shrimp. Somewhere off to the side, there I was, putting slave collars on Luke Skywalker.
(PS: If you’re wondering who the weirdos on that Tatooine Skiff vehicle are, they’re characters from the old Droids cartoon. Long story!)
Wishing Well Nutcracker!
This isn’t a toy, obviously, but I had to include it. These old catalogs are full of housewares and bric-a-brac that spark all sorts of weird memories. It’s fun to look at the ancient playthings, but I get just as many jollies from the goofy clocks, lazy Susans and jade green desk lamps.
Take this “wishing well nutcracker,” for example. We totally had that shit. We had that shit FOREVER. The actual “nutcracker” portion was hardly ever used, but around the holidays, the base was perpetually filled with walnuts. In its own quiet way, it was as much a part of Thanksgiving as the turkey, and as much a part of Christmas as the tree.
I hated walnuts as a kid, but that didn’t stop me from busting ‘em open as often as I could. I used seafood crackers, which just completely pulverized the things, but that didn’t matter since I had no intention of eating them. I’d repeat the process five or six times before someone invariably shouted, “STOP WASTING WALNUTS.”
That wishing well nutcracker must’ve been “in service” for a solid twenty years. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if my mother still has it. It’s probably in her laundry room, buried under a pile of blouses from a prior lifetime, right next to that never-used popcorn maker from 1988.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be covering more old catalogs between now and Christmas, so if you’re into oversized scans and obscenely thick paragraphs, don’t forget me.