By Brian Heiler
|Above: Vincent Baiera at the Mego offices circa 1976 and today.|
Vincent Baiera is one of the people we have to thank for a happy childhood. As Product Design Manager at Mego toys from 1974-1980, Vinny oversaw and helped create many of our favorite playthings.
Described by his colleagues as "someone who lived and breathed the toy industry," even today his enthusiasm for the subject matter is not hard to spot and his pride in the work evident. He sat down with us recently, via email, and shared his Mego experiences.
MM: Tell us about your educational background.
VB: I went to Pratt Institute, an art college here in Brooklyn. I majored in Advertising. There were no courses in toy design like there is today. The school's policy dictated I take anatomy, figure drawing, photography and sculpting, all of which I drew upon in my 20-plus years in the toy industry.
MM: Was Mego your first job in the toy industry?
VB: Mego was my first full-time position I held in a toy company. Before that, I was freelancing for Azrak Hamway, which led to my getting hired by Marty Abrams, but that's another story.In the beginning I worked on a bridge table along side Neal Kublan and basically I did anything and everything that had to do with art and product design/creation.
|Above: Vincent Baiera's business card from Mego toys.|
MM: What were your favorite product lines to work on, and why?
VB: That's tough, but off hand I would have to say Planet of the Apes and Star Trek, mostly because I was a fan of both. I was pretty well-versed on the characters and they had unlimited areas of expansion. Anything went.
|Above:Baiera, Marty Harrison and Harold Shull in the Mego R&D department.|
MM: You mentioned you inserted your initials and occasionally your photograph into packages. Can you tell us which ones?
VB: I did it a few times, My girlfriend at the time was Arlene Farrand, who also worked for Mego as Howie [brother of Marty] Abrams' secretary, and I recall putting both our initials on the brick wall of the Starsky and Hutch packages, worked in to look like graffiti. Look for "VB & AF" all over the place.
|Above: The initials "VB" can be clearly seen in the background on this page from the 1976 Mego catalog.|
MM: Any other packaging in-jokes?
VB: The Ali package. All the people on the front were Mego employees. We were all given a half-day off and were told to report to the conference room. They set up the shot with the ropes and the background was stripped in afterwards. It took real talent to do that then, before computer graphics and digital imaging. Those were the days.
Some of the people appearing are myself (behind the camera on the left), Karyn Weiss, Lisa Rapatti, Hal Shull, Orit, Art Tibbbet and Arlene Farrand. My apologies to the rest but I'm lucky I can remember what I had for dinner last night at this stage.
MM: What was Mego like to work at during your tenure?
|Above: Vincent Baiera and Marty Harrison hard at work on Mego products.|
VB: It was remarkable. I was just out of school, wet behind the ears, and I got the best education and a position worthy of someone with years of experience. It was the best.
It was a high-rolling, gambling, seat-of-your-pants whirlwind. There were no focus groups or MBA-types submitting demographic reports. If it made Marty smile and Neal get excited we ran with it and we were running in some pretty important circles. Some of the celebrities that I worked with/met were Sonny and Cher, Linda Carter, the entire bridge crew from Star Trek, Adam West and Burt Ward, the cast from Krull (if any one remembers that movie) Farrah Fawcett and many others.
I was never starstruck. In fact they had to order me to stick around for the meetings with these people. But when Muhammad Ali was coming in, I was right there. I wouldn't leave his side. I was in awe! The power, the size, the look, and the charisma I will never forget.
MM: Tell us about the Mego R&D department.
VB: The area was limited to creative personnel only. It had a push button combination lock (high-tech for 1973), access was limited to highest clearance only.
If you think I'm kidding about the secretiveness of this department: When we were working on the Cher doll even we were kept in the dark. We had to design all the clothing and playsets to fit a 9", 10" and 12" doll so the competition could not come up with knock-off accessories and playsets. We had no idea what the actual size was to be. The doll was eventually made 12".
VB: Vaguely yes, but you have to realize I brought so many ideas to the table. It was Neal's and Marty's instincts that separated the rocks from the jewels.
When I made my presentation for Planet of the Apes, I remember doing a working model of a playset that captured and raised a figure in a net, mimicking the scene in the movie when Heston was captured in the net and uttered the famous line from the movie: "Take your hands off me you damn, dirty apes."
MM: Any recollection of Logan's Run?
VB: Very little. We needed to work far ahead of the release of the movies so we could be out there when the movies broke and if the movies were a dud then basically the last six months worth of work was scrapped. Logan's Run had very limited box office success.
MM: You mention in your production notes (see below) a "Vulcan Explorer Vehicle." Did this make it into production?
VB: I would get very close to projects and spend lots of time on them through the concept and development stage. After that, I was on to the next project. So when I mentioned it, I thought it had come out. I was surprised to hear you weren't aware of it.
I remember the Spock figure lying down in something like a mini-sub and it running along the floor in the R&D department. It featured treads like a tank and if it climbed up a wall and flipped over it would right itself and continue running, as if the character were in control.
MM:Any idea why this never saw full-scale release?
VB: I imagine it was a cost issue. Making accessories for an 8" figure was challenging due to the size. This was the main reason I pushed for the Comic Action Heroes. There is quite a bit of difference cost-wise between a 5" batmobile and an 18" batmobile.
MM: What was the motivation behind the "Comic Activator", I.E. the big plunger in those great playsets?
That the plunger was the "Action gimmick" in Comic ACTION Heroes. We tried to work it into most of the playsets. It gave the child an accessory to create imaginary play scenarios around, and it added motion to the static figures and playsets.
MM: Many of the concepts mentioned in your notes are for superhero figures that weren't produced. A lot of people wonder why Mego didn't produce certain superhero characters or continue on with the Worlds Greatest Superheroes.
VB: You have to realize that there were different meetings, engineering, R&D and merchandising/marketing. I was not privy to the marketing meetings all the time since I was R&D, but my best guess is that there was a slack in sales. Also, DC would give us feedback on the comic book sales. If the comics were not hot we would not pursue that character. Plus, funds were limited. New characters were put on the back burner so new types of lines could be developed.
MM: Thank you for sharing so much. We really appreciate it.
VB: Mego was the best six years of my working life, and I thank you for helping me relive some of it.
After Mego, Vincent left his mark with many other toy companies, starting at Aurora where he worked on their racecar lines and then moving to Knicker Bocker, which was later sold to Mattel. At Atari, Vincent worked on robotic and computer game items, and at Hasbro on the popular "Inhumanoids" and "Quints" lines . He sums up his experiences in the toy industry: "A fun ride. I loved every minute of it."
Daily Life in the Mego R&D Department: Vinny shares photos
In all our years of pursuing conversations with Mego employees we had never obtained photographs of daily life at Mego. The photos from Vinny are incredibly exciting for Mego fans to see and we are very grateful to have them.
Vincent Baiera on the Mego offices:"This is general office space outside the R&D area. Remember, this is Mego's second office. The first office was in a building about a block away. a run-down walk-up on Broadway with fire escapes and dusty wire mesh on the windows. It could be clearly seen from Marty Abrams' new, penthouse-like, ultra-modern office, and people say he chose it so he could always see the old building and remember where we started."
Vincent Baiera with Art Director Marty Harrison. Note the picture on the wall behind them. It is a proof of the first Micronaut blister card.
What Might Have Been: Vinny Baiera's Mego Production Notes
Vinny was gracious enough not only to share photographs but also some of his original production meeting notes. Vinny described them as "The Dead Sea Scrolls." These notes give us a fly-on-the-wall view of the creative process at its purest: Talented toy people brainstorming visions that made the world a fun place to be a kid.
One of the enduring discussions in Mego fandom is what might have been: "Why didn't they make such-and-such?" or "Why didn't they expand this line or think about this?" As these notes illustrate, creative ideas were not in short supply at Mego. Expansion of the World's Greatest Superheroes or Star Trek was always on the table, as were new lines based on hits of the era such as Scooby Doo. But the path from R&D to the toy shelves is fraught with obstacles from financial and production issues, to retailer tastes and the whims of the public.
Note that these are scans of his notebooks with comments added by him directly onto the image.
It's only two days after Christmas 1976 and already the notes are all about the 1977 offerings. Here Vinny has compiled a checklist of production samples he received from Hong Kong including King Kong, CB McHaul and Comic Action Hero items. Of these, many would never see production such as the Climbing King Kong figure and the Spider-Man and Collapsing Tower for the Comic Action line. No doubt these are the exact same items that were photographed for the 1977 Mego Catalog.
In this note from a new product meeting for 1978 Vinny himself elaborates on his "World of Batman" concept at the top. He recalls, "This is when we brought up doing action figures in a smaller size." Of the many licenses in Vinny's suggestions are Baretta and Scooby Doo. Vinny notes that he suggested Scooby Doo as a license with figures, villains and vehicles.
In terms of line extensions for the World's Greatest Superheroes, Vinny had proposed a Superheroes Child-sized Gym. The real kicker is the proposed "Superman with launching phone booth." A brilliant and very Mego-like item. It's a shame it was never produced!
This note from the early seventies shows that Mego was considering other superhero characters. Vinnie had pitched Bizarro, an arch-enemy of Superman.
The Superhero Talking Adventure Pack would have been a backpack of sorts that added a talking mechanism to the standard 8" figures.
Also of great interest is the description of "Batman's Radioactive Adventure," featuring a radiation suit, tongs, a container and a Geiger counter.
Of this page, Vinny recollects that these are more character concepts. He says does not remember what Superman 'ball, disk' was. From this page, however, it is obvious that Mego was considering Doctor Octopus for something.
This page seems to be about licensing opportunities for a line called "Screechers," which may have become Speed Burners. Of the concepts thrown around are a series of vehicles based on Man from Atlantis, Star Trek, Starsky and Hutch and Ark 2.
The interesting items on this page are Vincent's notes regarding Superman: The Movie toys. While the 12" line is already being planned, notes also refer to an "Ali size" (10") Christopher Reeve figure, as well as playsets of Krypton and Superman's Spaceship. On the bottom of the page are mentions of Submariner and Aquaman along with the Man From Atlantis television series which Mego was obviously looking at.
These 1977 notes touch upon the Star Trek science kits Mego offered that year. Vincent explains the concept : " Star Trek Science Kits were a series of science-based learning toys that were designed to look as if they were used by the crew of the Enterprise, such as a microscope, telescope, solar-powered motor, etc."
This page mentions the Vulcan Explorer Vehicle (see above in interview section) that must be delivered to Durona, the agency that produced Mego's television ads. The page also notes the Micronauts carrying case for an upcoming TV shoot. It was truly a very busy time at the World's Greatest Toy Company.
Thanks again, Vinny!
Vinny's famous insertion of his initials into product packaging and photography inspired this digital illustration by Scott C. Adams.
Thanks to Julie Feinstein Adams for her editorial and proofreading services on this article.