In the early-to-mid 1970s — before Star Wars (1977) premiered — Amsco (A Milton Bradley company) produced four colossal cardboard playsets that are highly-prized and extremely expensive collectibles today, all from popular franchises of that era.
These giant Amsco playsets came in large, colorful rectangular boxes, were constructed from “durable” cardboard and were “fun to assemble.”
Actually, if I recall right, they were all actually time-consuming and somewhat difficult to assemble, but that hardship was part of the fun too.
My favorite set of the bunch is the one I still own, and which has a place of honor in my home office.
It comes from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s outer space epic, Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) and is a diorama of Moonbase Alpha. The playset consists of a landing pad, two Eagle transporters, two atomic charges (for detonating asteroids that are on a collision course…), and a cross-section of Moonbase Alpha’s computerized interior, including Main Mission tower. It even features an elevator that spans all three levels.
The set also includes several cardboard “heroes” to take on adventures, made in the likenesses of Martin Landau’s Commander John Koenig, Barbara Bain’s Dr. Helena Russell and Barry Morse’s Professor Victor Bergman. Alas, the set was produced pre-Maya, so there’s no Catherine Schell figure.
What’s great about the set, however, is that there is at least a nod to accuracy. For instance, three cardboard figures here are “aliens” featured in specific Year One episodes: Peter Cushing’s Raan, from “Missing Link,” The cyclops monster from “Dragon’s Domain” (arguably the most popular episode of the series), and even what could be the scorched Anton Zoref (Ian McShane) from “Force of Life.”
The second Amsco Cardboard Playset recreates the universe of the original Planet of the Apes films and TV series (from 1974). Here you get a “Cave of the Doomsday Bomb,” which is straight out of Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1971). The Alpha-Omega bomb is perched right on its altar, if you build the set correctly.
There’s also a view, from Zira and Cornelius’s house in Ape City, of the half-buried Statue of Liberty jutting out of the sand (from the original Planet of the Apes .)
But the (human) astronaut cardboard figures are clearly Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton), from the short-lived TV show, not Charlton Heston’s Taylor. The Dr. Zaius cardboard figure featured in this set is also from the TV series, not the Maurice Evans’ interpretation from the early films.
The Apes play set also comes with the astronaut’s ANSA space capsule, Ape Headquarters, a jail with a gate that opens and the underground ruins of a San Francisco Tram Station, featured in one of the early episodes of the TV series: “The Trap.”
The third set is the one that I find least interesting. It is the homestead from the apple-pie TV series The Waltons (1971 – 1981). The die-cut set features the family truck, a porch swing, and a rocking chair. From the front, the farmhouse looks show-accurate, and if you flip it around, you can move the cardboard characters around various rooms. Want to relive the Great Depression? Here’s your chance!
The last Amsco Cardboard playset is the one that is no doubt most sought-after today.
It is called the Marvel World Playset, and would fit right in with the contemporary cinematic MCU. The box for this toy promised “a complete play experience right from your favorite Marvel Comics,” and it sure as hell looks like it lived up to that description.
This toy consists of a large diorama of a modern Manhattan City block. Included on this city street are the Baxter Building (for the Fantastic Four) the Daily Bugle offices and Peter Parker’s apartment (for Spider-man).
The Marvel World set also features The Avengers’ town house, Dr. Strange’s mansion and the Fantastic Four air car.
Importantly, the cardboard representations of the beloved Marvel characters are actually double-sided. One side features the superhero, the other side their secret identity.
Among the characters featured in this set are: Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Daredevil, The Red Skull, Green Goblin, The Lizard, J. Jonah Jameson, The Silver Sutfer, Galactus, and even Aunt May.
Designed for ages “5 and up,” the Amsco Cardboard Playsets from these TV, movie and comic franchises delivered on their promise to the kids of the disco decade: hours of fun.
Or make that “years of fun.”