SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- "If you call him a doll, you're fired."
That's how Ballston Lake, N.Y., G.I. Joe collector Tearle Ashby described the words of Merrill Hassenfeld in 1964 to employees of Hasbro Toys (known as Hassenfeld Brothers until 1968) during the rollout of one of the most iconic toys for boys.
The G.I. Joe action figure celebrates its 50th anniversary this year since February 9, 1964 is considered by most to be the birthday of G.I. Joe when he was first introduced at the New York City Toy Fair. Ashby brought his own collection for display along with those of other collectors to the New York State Military Museum here Feb. 8 to share with hundreds of visitors and G.I. Joe enthusiasts.
The display added to Ashby's program that recalled the "story of G.I. Joe." Describing the origins of the nickname in WWII, Ashby went on to describe one of the most innovative toys of the 1960s, taking small lead or plastic soldiers in fixed poses and creating a "Movable Fighting Man," as G.I. Joe was first called.
Never to be confused as a mere doll for boys, Merrill Hassenfield and the G.I. Joe development team, led by Don Levine at Hasbro, based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, created the entire category of action figures for future generations, Ashby explained.
Levine, a Korean War veteran, leveraged the support of the Rhode Island National Guard in the design phase to help create realistic equipment and uniforms. Hassenfeld called on National Guard Maj. Gen. Leonard Holland, an old friend who provided access to weapons, uniforms, and gear for Levine's team to scale down for the new 12-inch Soldier.
The rest is G.I. Joe history. A successful military toy for five years, G.I. Joe became an adventurer in the 1969 and formed the Adventure Team in the 1970s before Hasbro "furloughed" the 12-inch figures in 1976, offering an 8-inch figure called Super Joe in 1977-78. Joe would not return until 1982, as a 3¾-inch Real American Hero.
The military museum in Saratoga Springs displayed a portion of Ashby's collection as part of its "Toys and Tanks" exhibit, which opened in December 2012 to much fanfare and public interest. Celebrating the 50th Anniversary, to Ashby, was just another great reason to bring more Joes out of storage and into the public eye.
"As a collector, you get to the point where you have nearly everything, but then what?" he said. "Here I get to take them out and share them with dads, kids and G.I. Joe fans from across the region."
It comes down to a great partnership with the military museum, Ashby said.
The mission of the New York State Military Museum, supported by the New York National Guard and the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs is to preserve, interpret and disseminate the story, history and records of New York State's military forces and veterans.
The exhibit and programs for G.I. Joe was a natural fit, said Museum Director Courtney Burns, since G.I. Joe is as much a part of cultural history as military history. And the attendance draw of visitors to the museum for the "Toys and Tanks" is a good complement to the military artifacts and exhibits for New York's contributions to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, WWII and modern era.
"Our goal is to reach a larger audience and give people a reason to visit the museum again and again," Burns said, and the G.I. Joe program is another way of bringing both parents and children to the museum's exhibits.
"I could not have done this without the support of Courtney Burns, who spent hours with me in the original setup of the exhibit, and again today for this display," Ashby told an audience of more than 50 attendees for his talk, while dozens more walked through the museum eyeing and photographing the collections.
And there were many hundreds of Joes to photograph. From vintage 1964 figures and their original boxes right through the transition of G.I. to an adventurer with life-like hair and Kung Fu grip to the resurgence of G.I. Joe in the 1990s when Joe returned to his 12-inch scale, there were 1/6-scale soldiers of all nations and all eras, along with dozens of vehicles and equipment, on display.
Ashby, who also turns 50 this year with his original Joes, did note that the passing of time has shown both in the action figure and himself.
"I guess like many of the life-like hair Joes, we have a lot in common. After 30 or 40 years, my hair is starting to fall out too," Ashby joked. But all in all, "Joe looks pretty good for 50," he said.