Mattel Tries to Stage a Revival : Floundering He-Man Brought to Life and Told to Hit the Road
He-Man was in a pickle. He’d spent all morning saving Radio City Music Hall from the forces of evil, relying on a blunt sword and baby-oiled biceps to massacre the Snakemen, humiliate Beastman and even clinch the interplanetary roller derby.
He-Man was tired and He-Man was hungry, and now the unthinkable was happening.
Some snooty Manhattan restaurant was refusing him service. No jacket, no lunch. And borrowing a jacket from the house is out of the question when you wear size 54.
“How embarrassing,” said He-Man, Master of the Universe, as he slunk away.
Fear not, boys and girls. It will take more than a snub to stop this superhero in his 245-pound tracks.
For the uninformed, He-Man is the most powerful man in the universe, leading the Masters of Good from Castle Grayskull on the planet Eternia. The Masters of Evil answer to Skeletor and hang out on Etheria.
Since Mattel Inc. introduced the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line of toys in 1982, sales have topped $2 billion for the toys and myriad spin-off products, including cake pans, toothpaste caps and underwear.
The official Masters magazine boasts 750,000 readers.
There is no official fan club, but the plastic hunk’s appeal was so great at one point that he even edged out Barbie in the popularity polls.
Half-hour He-Man cartoons are beamed to between 3 million and 6 million viewers five days a week on 101 television stations nationwide, and He-Man has conquered the airwaves in 48 other countries.
His trademark cry of “I have the power!” can be heard in Zulu, Swahili, Chinese, Korean, Arabic and Turkish.
It would seem that all was dandy in the Universe.
But the big numbers belie an inevitable truth: He-Man is in trouble, facing a fate even worse than the Evil Hordes’ dreaded slime pit.
The fad is dying.
So an amazing rescue attempt is afoot, a mission unparalleled in cartoondom:
They have brought He-Man to life and told him to take his show on the road, in four semi-trailers and two buses. To Memphis, to Philadelphia, to Minneapolis, to Mobile, with a cast and crew of almost 50 and a portable Castle Grayskull.
The $3-million live-action show is an entertainment enigma: people imitating cartoon characters imitating toys. Evolution in reverse.
“I have the power!” He-Man bellows in city after city before throngs of loyal children who salute him with $5 plastic swords. “Pint-sized groupies,” sneers Skeletor, who loses the war but gets the best lines.
Jack Wadsworth, a 33-year-old Teamster from Alaska, seemed custom-crafted for the role of He-Man.
He has a 49-inch chest, 20-inch arms and 28-inch thighs--a redwood tree in search of a dinner jacket. Although blond and bronzed with a raspy voice that suggests even his vocal chords do bench presses, Wadsworth is humble.
“I think we were chosen for the parts because of our sword-fighting ability,” he explains over a plateful of meat.
“We” includes his wife, Leslie, 25, who plays She-Ra on the tour.
The couple met when playing Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja in a show on the Universal Studios Tour in California a few years ago. Universal offered to pick up the wedding tab if they would exchange vows on the set. The wedding album shows bride and bridegroom in the set’s dungeon with barbarians looking on.
Now, they don skimpy costumes, duel with villains and lip-synch their lines to the taped voices of cartoon characters. They will be doing it for at least 60 weeks and possibly two years.
“People ask us if we don’t feel kind of silly,” Jack volunteers. “And the answer is yeah, we feel real silly at times.”
The traveling salvation show has been well-received, selling 106,078 tickets and grossing $1.2 million at Radio City alone. Souvenirs fetched $352,311 in the two-week run.
The 90-minute show, co-sponsored by Mattel Toys, Pace Concerts, MTM Presentations Ltd. and Front Row Theatre, features acrobats, a black light circus, a roller derby, simulated explosions and more than 100 costumes, including a few electronic ones.
Although the live tour, a summer movie and new toys in the line may guarantee He-Man one last, lucrative spin around the galaxy, the Universe may already be beyond saving.
Mattel’s quarterly report last September largely blamed the faltering Masters of the Universe for a $127.3-million drop in domestic sales over the preceding nine months.
At least 30 stations have dropped the cartoon, and there are no plans to add to the library of 130 He-Man shows, which Group W Productions made for $250,000 per episode.
“I’m sure they thought they had another Barbie in the making,” said Paul Valentine, a toy industry analyst with Standard & Poor’s Corp.
Instead, battery-operated water pistols, laser guns and a “more robust” GI Joe now top the toy heap, Valentine said, and the industry’s Top 20 list no longer includes Masters of the Universe.
Joseph F. Morrison Jr., Mattel’s executive vice president of marketing, concedes that the toys “may not be around that much longer.”
“Sales have been slowing down, but the appeal of the character isn’t,” he added, pointing to the success of
the road show and high hopes for the Masters movie.
However, the decline of the billion-dollar beefcake did not discourage Mattel from adding seven figures to the Masters line this year, including He-Man’s prehistoric relatives. The toys range from about $5 for He-Man to $80 for Mt. Eternia.
He-Man and his twin, She-Ra, the Princess of Power, have been scrutinized, analyzed, criticized and idolized. Child psychologists, college students, market analysts, fundamentalists and parents have all taken their best shots.
It took a design group two years and 17 research studies to come up with Masters of the Universe; the cartoons quickly followed.
The show has drawn heavy criticism from groups such as the Massachusetts-based Action for Children’s Television, which complains that it is nothing but a “program-length commercial.”
“If we were to do Macbeth on TV and it stimulated the buying of books, would this issue be raised?” asks Gordon Berry, a UCLA psychologist who served as an early consultant for the He-Man cartoon.
The underlying theme of Masters of the Universe is one of positive thinking. He-Man is Dale Carnegie in a leather loincloth. There is always a moral at the end of his adventure. “You can be whatever you want to be,” children are told. “You have the power.”
Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski recalled the time that the writers received a letter from the parents of a 6-year-old boy who had recently been blinded. The child would perk up only while listening to He-Man.
The scriptwriters sent a personalized episode to the boy, with He-Man telling him never to give up hope.
Lydia Rogers, a Staten Island, N. Y., fan, brought her son and nephews to the live show.
“It’s like Superman,” she said. “Everybody likes it. It’s Good versus Evil.”
Sometimes the good is calculated. As the first act ends, Skeletor is threatening to wipe out the Masters of Good and the whole audience as well.
Oath Requires Sword
The good guys exhort the youngsters to help save the world by taking the Oath of Grayskull, which requires holding up a replica of He-Man’s trusty sword.
“Good thinking,” She-Ra exclaims. “With their powerswords, they’ll be able to help us keep Skeletor’s army from ruining the show.”
Those without a sword are invited to raise their hands.
The audience rises for the Eternian national anthem. At Radio City, a grown man was seen placing a hand reverently over his heart, mouthing the words.
They take the oath, shamelessly cribbed from the Boy Scouts, swearing to be loyal, brave and honest. And, of course, “protect my country from Skeletor’s wrath.”
En masse, the children scream, “I have the power!”