?When you think about slide projectors, chances are you either recall memories of excruciating family photos or that really neat ad presentation Don Draper did that one time for Kodak. If either is the case with you, then you probably missed out on much of the wonderful world of slide projector toys. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Kenner released a ton of these things under such names a See-A-Show, Screen-A-Show, Give-A-Show, the Talking Show Projector, etc. Although the branding may have been different, each of the items essentially was a miniature projector that came packaged with a large variety of slides featuring complete stories from several popular properties of the time. These toys were a fun, lawsuit-free place where Popeye could rub elbows with the Flintstones or Mister Spock with Archie. Meanwhile, over in the UK, the Chad Valley company was also offering their own sets using the same low-fi technology (i.e. slides lit by a flashlight battery that could be projected onto any flat surface). Highlighted by psychedelic art, these tended to showcase popular UK shows like Doctor Who. But both Chad Valley and Kenner’s slide projectors made pop culture available to kids in an era before home video was commonplace.
Yet just as video killed the radio star, it also decimated the Give-A-Show projector industry. After all, why would kids watch drawings of cartoon characters when they could catch the real thing anytime they liked? Seemingly overnight a 30-year toy industry staple became obsolete and largely forgotten. One person who still remembers is Jon B. Knutson, who has meticulously scanned hundreds of old sets from Kenner and Chad Valley through his Give-A-Show Blog and his YouTube page.
For collectors who love this stuff, Knutson is doing invaluable work. Those of you who fondly remember sitting on your rec room floor making your own picture shows will find today’s list of the 10 greatest slide projector character sets to be a welcome trip down memory lane. As for everyone else, here’s a terrifying glimpse at what life was like before VCRs.
What year was it released? 1972. What slide projector was it released for? Kenner’s Screen-A-Show projector, a nifty little device that packed the slides in self-contained cassettes that could be manually advanced. It came with its own detachable screen that allowed the images to be beamed onto other surfaces. The particular set this one came with also included Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch cassettes — resulting in a hat trick of Archie awesomeness. Why is it so great? Readers of Life with Archie who are confused by Hiram Lodge’s wicked personality traits in the magazine may take some comfort in the fact that he was an evil jerk back in the 1970s, too. After discovering that his company is polluting Riverdale’s water supply, a nonplussed Mr. Lodge continues his day of golf as if he wasn’t slaughtering innocent wildlife. Then an oil-covered duck flies into his face and knocks him on his ass. In the world of Screen-A-Show adventures, karmic retribution is swift.
What year was it released?This particular example was available in 1983, but Scooby-themed adventures were a mainstay of Kenner’s various projector toys throughout the years. What slide projector was it released for?Kenner’s Discovery Time Give-A-Show Projector. Why is it so great? Scrappy-Doo is the cartoon dog equivalent of cholera. Nobody wants him around. So to have him turn up as he does here and not completely ruin the fun makes this an especially worthy outing for the Mystery Incorporated gang. In many ways, this adventure is the perfect primer for anyone unfamiliar with what makes the whole Scooby-Doo phenomenon so great in the first place. Here’s what we learn in a mere seven panels: Shaggy loves food, he’s a tremendous coward and his friends enjoy fucking with him. That about sums it up. Eddie Izzard has a great bit in his Dressed to Kill concert special about how Scoob and company are amongst the finest characters in the history of pop culture. This entry kind of reaffirms that assessment, wouldn’t you agree?
8) Land of the Lost
What year was it released? 1975. What slide projector was it released for? Kenner’s Give-A-Show Projector. Why is it so great? Duh. Because it brought Marshall, Will and Holly into your living rooms! Land of the Lost was the most coherent of the various Sid and Marty Krofft shows. It was full of creatures like the still cool-looking Sleestaks and excitement that sent 7-year-old minds into overdrive. Some of the show’s episodes, like the paradoxical mindfuck “Circle,” remain genuinely fun today. This toy may seem cheesy from a jaded 2012 point-of-view, but to recreate the show’s goofy fun anytime was a welcome thing for kids of the 1970s.
7) Planet of the Apes
What year was it released? 1975. What slide projector was it released for? Chad Valley’s awesomely named (and oh-so-British) Sliderama projector. Why is it so great? The only downside to last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that the film’s release didn’t have a corresponding merchandising blitz. There were no action figures, Shrinky Dinks or fast food tie-ins. Boo. In fact, the movie seemed more interested in getting Andy Serkis an Oscar nod for his impressive mocap work than soiling its good name with dubious spin-off products. You may see this as a positive thing, but personally, I can never have enough monkey nonsense in my life. Which is probably the main reason I appreciate this entry so much. Each of the set’s 224 slides is packed with more color and excitement than the lackluster TV series on which it was based (with apologies to the James Naughton fans amongst you). The various toy slide projectors I’m celebrating here today are niche collectibles, as are items based on the Apes TV show. So to have a product like this one that is a niche within a niche creates the sort of toy euphoria that collectors dream about. In the end, drink and drugs won’t be my downfall, but obscure plastic wonders like this set might very well be. Damn it all to hell indeed.
6) The Black Hole
What year was it released? 1980. What slide projector was it released for? This was a Chad Valley movie-specific projector set that told the film’s story in 120 slides. Taking you to hell and back, soiling your pants along the way. Why is it so great?The Black Hole is a weird little movie that kicked off Disney’s experimental period that culminated in the release of Tron in 1982. Tonally, the movie shifts from cutesy robot antics to a nightmare-inducing finale. Even if you dismiss it as being an inconsequential hodgepodge of elements from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, you’ve got to admit that it has some pretty subversive moments for a Disney flick. Fittingly, some of the tie-in products were also pretty strange. Want an example? Jump to 4:41 in the above video of the Chad Valley Black Hole projector set and you’ll see that the toy ranks alongside of the Dune coloring book in terms of inappropriateness for young audiences.
5) Super Powers
What year was it released? 1984. What slide projector was it released for? Kenner’s Give-A-Show Projector. Why is it so great? It offers definitive proof that the reason there is so much crime in the DC universe is because the people who live there are fucking rubes that are ripe for the picking. In the above video, the citizens of an unnamed metropolis (most likely Central City given the Flash’s involvement) aren’t at all suspicious about the sudden appearance of a free pop-up carnival in which they have to enter an effigy of one of the world’s best known super villains in order to gain admittance. Once there, those who aren’t instantly hypnotized into giving the Joker all of their cash obliviously climb aboard his roller coaster of death. I’ve been to enough shady carnivals in my time to know that ride maintenance isn’t exactly strictly enforced. So even in a post-Funnel Cake haze of bliss would I begin to consider hopping aboard a ride at the Clown Prince of Crime’s county fair.
4) The Empire Strikes Back
What year was it released? 1980. What slide projector was it released for? Kenner’s Give-A-Show Projector. Why is it so great? When this toy hit the market, the home video industry was in its infancy. Unless you had a Super 8 version or a then-rare bootleg VHS of The Empire Strikes Back, the best way to experience the movie at home was to get this projector. A makeshift comic adaptation of the film, the slides could be used as backdrops to action figure adventures or to simply relive the Rebellion’s crushing defeat at the hand of the Empire over and over and over again.
Once The Empire Strikes Back hit VHS at an affordable price, kids forgot about these sets and they were packed away. Today, you can host your own Give-A-Show Empire party for roughly $30 thanks to eBay. If you do, please invite me. I’m so very lonely…
3) Star Trek
What year was it released? 1974. What slide projector was it released for? Kenner’s Give-A-Show projector. This specific set also came with slides featuring Archie, Bugs Bunny, Scooby-Doo and Hong Kong Phooey. The co-existing of all these varied characters in the same box is another example of how projector toys are the product of another less litigious time. Why is it so great? In an adventure so baffling you’d think you were watching a Voyager repeat, the Enterprise crew stumbles upon an alien race that travels through the cosmos in a big ass football. After discovering that these strange beings require water for their dying world, Captain Kirk tracks down a, wait for it, SPACE ICEBERG. In a maneuver that forces me to question everything I have ever known about physics, atmospheric pressure and the course of my life in general, Kirk uses a nearby sun to melt the ice, which then somehow makes it down to the planet’s surface without drowning all the indigenous life. In a great big fuck you to Mr. Spock, the aliens declare “thank you, Earth friends” before returning to their argument about the point spread between the Giants and the Patriots.
2) Doctor Who
What year was it released?1964. What slide projector was it released for? Chad Valley’s Give-A-Show Projector. Why is it so great? Jump to 0:54 in the above video to see William Hartnell’s First Doctor fight a giant space lizard that attempts to eat the TARDIS. The Doc’s solution? He runs away. In the next adventure, the Doc rescues a scientist from the Daleks, then heads for the hills. Finally, after arriving on a water planet with Ian and Barbara, the Oncoming Storm meets some scary aliens…and promptly flees in terror. This set was never released in the United States; I originally thought this was because Doctor Who wasn’t well known here in the 1960s. Now I’m convinced that Kenner didn’t import it because they couldn’t understand why the Brits were so obsessed with an old man who was clearly a gigantic pussy (kidding, kidding).
1) Star Wars
What year was it released? 1978. What slide projector was it released for? Chad Valley’s Give-A-Show Projector. Why is it so great? Kenner had success with their own Give-A-Show version of Star Wars (which you can see here) but it didn’t hold a Wookie Cookie to its UK counterpart. The Chad Valley take on the story is a bizarre journey into a parallel universe where Luke squared off against Greedo in the Cantina, Alderaan was never destroyed and Vader ordered the Droids be disassembled. It is a fever dream of that galaxy far, far away that so many of us still find so enthralling. Experience its magic above then lament the fact that these type of bizarre toys just aren’t made anymore.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.