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Throwback Products We Love: The View-Master


A playroom staple, its 1930s technology was once used by the U.S. Army.

In this brave new hyper-marketed 3D era, with science-fiction blockbusters like Avatar trouncing box-office records, with home 3D
Blu-ray systems selling like very expensive hotcakes - -despite the lack of little more than Avatar to watch on them as yet -- with 3D
digital camcorders turning every doting father at a dance recital into a neighborhood James Cameron, it is entirely remarkable that something as profoundly dinky as the View-Master has survived.

It has had to metamorphosize a few times, and probably only exists today because of indulgently nostalgic baby boomer parents rather than any genuine kiddy demand, but nonetheless you can still walk into a toy store somewhere near you, pick up a brightly clunky Fisher-Price (MAT) View-Master and a couple of reels for a few bucks and within seconds be staring through a set of plastic eye-holes, hearing the ker-snick of the simple but iconic lever mechanism as you gaze upon a stereoscopic image of Buzz Lightyear forever about to rescue Woody from gravest peril.

The View-Master wasn't meant to be a toy back when it was invented by camera buff William Gruber and backed by post-card maker Harold Graves in the late 1930s. They launched it at the 1939 World's Fair in New York as a more sophisticated variation on the old stereoscope postcards which had been an on-and-off fad since the 1860s, a memento of or the next best thing to visiting the Carlsbad Caverns or the Grand Canyon. Those two scenic locations were the best-selling subjects of its first reels– the 14-picture discs (two for each stereo image, of course, for a grand total of seven per reel) that soon started proliferating in style and subject. But never in essential form: despite periodic redesigns, you can still use reels from any era in any modern View-master.

Scenery was View-Master's biggest seller, but their most enthusiastic fan in the early days was the U.S. military, which bought 100,000 viewers and had millions of discs made during WWII showing models of both enemy and friendly aircraft and naval vessels, used to train pilots and anti-aircraft personnel.

By the 1950s, the View-Master was big-time, with its own custom-built factory in Beaverton, Oregon (later to be investigated for grotesque levels of environmental pollution.) The company bought out its biggest rival, Tru-Vue, in the process acquiring its not-yet-insanely-lucrative licensing rights for Walt Disney. Disney (DIS) films and popular television show characters such as Captain Kangaroo and the Mouseketeers started appearing in the reels. Still, the emphasis was on scenery rather than characters, with a big splash made after the 1955 opening of Disneyland. Gruber's vision of the View-Master as an educational tool came to life when a series of studious-minded books with titles such as "Alpine Wildflowers of Western United States" and "Succulent Plants" were produced with their own set of illustrative View-Master reels included.

It wasn't really until the mid-1960s, after the company was purchased by the General Aniline & Film firm, that the focus went completely kid-wards, and the GAF View-Master firmly became part of the ever-expanding world of pop-culture, a toy and nothing but. These days, kitschy reels from the golden age of American TV, cartoons and comic book fetch increasingly larger sums on the Internet (the most expensive View-Master reel so far seems to be the recent $300 purchase of a reel from the cult-favorite Vincent Price horror film House of Wax).

By 2009, Mattel Inc. Fisher-Price, which ended up owning View-Master after a 1997 merger, announced that it would no longer be producing scenic reels for the toy, instead concentrating solely on licensed characters from various Pixar and Nickelodeon (VIA) properties. But later that year, the Seattle-based company Alpha-Cine jumped in, having formed a licensing partnership with Fisher-Price in which it would be allowed to create semi-official "custom and scenic reels" for corporations and individuals.

It's a signpost for the next transition View-Master is making. No longer able to compete with children's entertainment in all its dizzying 1,080-pixel resolution Kill-Panda glory, the View-Master is becoming, if you'll pardon the term, an adult toy. A source of art, even.

The ever-reliable Internet proliferates with how-to-make-your-own-View-Master-reels sites, and artists such as the Portland-based Vladimir (in actuality a 30-ish woman by the name of Joanna Solmon) have turned the View-Master reel into a whole new medium. Building her own sets, creating her own stories, Vladimir has produced a timed, four-disc narrative that has been viewed by up to 400 people at a time, all sitting in a Portland theater with their very own View-Master, as they clicked their way through the story of a cockroach named Stanley.

There are plenty of other signs out there that the View-Master, like many seemingly obsolescent and marginal technologies, is being given a new lease on life. The biggest – and least charming -- being the news that DreamWorks SKG (DWA) had, as of summer 2009, started negotiating for the rights to develop the View-Master into a feature film. It's a hardy little gadget, though. It'll probably survive its brush with Hollywood.
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