Kenner was a toy company founded in 1947 by Albert, Phillip, and Joseph Steiner, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was named after the street where the original corporate offices were located. It was purchased by the toy company Hasbro in mid-1991. Hasbro closed the Cincinnati offices of Kenner in 2000, and Kenner's product lines were merged into Hasbro's. Kenner created several lines of Star Wars toys during its run.
The Kenner toy company produced a line of Star Wars action figures based on characters in the original Star Wars movie trilogy. Over 100 unique action figures were produced and sold from 1978 to 1985, during which time over 300 million Star Wars action figures were sold.
The license for Star Wars action figures was offered in 1976 to the Mego Corporation, which was the leading company in action figures in the 1970s. Mego refused the offer and the license was subsequently picked up by Kenner, a subsidiary of General Mills.
Although the original Star Wars film had been released in May 1977, Kenner was unprepared for the unprecedented response to the film and the high demand for toys. Unable to build sufficient stock in time for the lucrative Christmas market, they instead sold an Early Bird Certificate Package which included a certificate which could be mailed to Kenner and redeemed for four Star Wars action figures.
By the time the action figures were offered for direct sale in shops, the range had been augmented with a further eight figures, bringing the total number of figures in the initial release to twelve. These were supplemented later in 1978 with a number of vehicle and playset accessories, as well as the J.C. Penney exclusive Sonic Controlled Land Speeder and the Sears exclusive Cantina Adventure Set which introduced four new figures.
The four figures that were first brought out in the Sears Cantina set were released for individual sale with a further four figures later in 1978, bringing the total number of figures to 20. Demand for the action figures and accessories was such that Kenner continued to have difficulty fulfilling demand. Shortages of the toys in the lead up to Christmas 1978 lead some to claim that Kenner were deliberately manipulating the market.
In the anticipation of the release of the sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Kenner offered their first mail-in promotion, in which four proof of purchases could be redeemed for a new action figure, Boba Fett. This figure was originally intended to feature a backpack with a firing missile, but this was abandoned due to safety fears. This was following the death of a three year old boy who choked on a similar missile from a Mattel Battlestar Galactica toy. Similar mail in promotions were periodically offered through to 1984.
Sales in 1979 again topped $100 million. Kenner continued to introduce waves of action figures from the sequels and in 1984, the year following the release of Return of the Jedi, the range totaled 79 unique character designs.
In 1985, the figure range was renamed Power of the Force in which a further 15 figures were released. Two further ranges of Star Wars action figures were also released, based on the animated series, Star Wars: Droids and Star Wars: Ewoks. The Droids range comprised 12 figures (two of which were identical to figures from the main Star Wars line) and the Ewoks line comprised 6 figures.
By mid-1985, the demand for Star Wars merchandise had slowed and Kenner discontinued production of its action figures.
Variations exist for most of the different figures. These can range from major resculpts and differences in accessories supplied with the figures, to differences in paint detailing, for instance in hair color, or differences in sculpting materials. Some variations command higher prices in the collector market due to relative scarcity.
Of particular note were the redesigns of the R2-D2 and C-3PO figures. During the Empire Strikes Back run, the R2-D2 figure was altered to include an extendable "sensorscope". Similarly, C-3PO was resculpted with removable limbs. In 1985, R2-D2 was again altered to feature a firing lightsaber. Both the removable limb C-3PO and lightsaber firing R2-D2 were offered with alternate paint detailing in the Droids range.
The lightsaber-wielding characters originally featured a double-telescoping sabre mechanism. This was changed to a single-telescoping mechanism early in 1978. As the Luke Skywalker figure was part of the Early Bird promotion, proportionately more of these were released with the double-telescoping mechanism, while double telescoping Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobis and Darth Vaders are comparatively rarer and more sought-after.
The Sears exclusive Cantina Adventure Set was notable as it added four new action figures to the range. The Snaggletooth figure initially wore a blue outfit with silver "disco" boots, and was about the same size as the Luke and Han figures. Upon George Lucas' request, this was subsequently corrected and a resculpted shorter red figure was released sans "disco" boots. Only the corrected red Snaggletooth was released on blistered cardbacks.
Early Han Solo characters had a somewhat diminutive head sculpt. This was later replaced by a larger sculpt, although small head Han Solos are occasionally found on later cardbacks.
Early Jawas were released with a vinyl cape similar to that of Obi-Wan Kenobi. This was later changed to a fabric cloak.
From the period through to mid-1984, figures sold individually in stores were issued on cardbacks that corresponded to the most current movie, with figures being sold on cardbacks with Star Wars designs through to 1980, then on Empire Strikes Back cards through to 1983, followed by Return of the Jedi cards and, in 1984, Power of the Force cards.
As the number of figures in the range increased, the cardback design would be altered accordingly. Thus the earliest figures released for direct sale in shops were issued on a cardback, the rear of which illustrated the then full range of 12 figures, known as a 12-back. The 12-back was supplanted by the 20-back, and subsequently by the 21-back, the 31-back, the 32-back, the 41-back, the 45-back, the 47-back, the 48-back, the 65-back, the 77-back, the 79-back and the 92-back.
Variations exist for each of the cardback fronts. These range from differences in promotional offer stickers applied to the card to differences in photograph illustrating the character. Similarly variations exist for all of the cardback rear designs with the exceptions of the 47-back and 92-back designs that were only available in a single version.
Currently there are 57 different cardback front-rear combinations recognized. This does not include figures released through overseas companies or the Droids or Ewoks ranges.