Children of the Corn Flakes, Part III

(This is the third of a 5-part series on cereal box mascots and the kids—and adults—who love them. Part I can be found here.)

The New Nostalgia
Mel Nash rotates the piece of orange and black molded plastic in his hands. He rubs a spot where the paint has come off and frowns.

“You got this when you were a kid,” Mel says.

It’s a statement of fact, not a question.

“Yeah,” I say. “Beat my sister to the bottom of the box for that one.”

It’s true, I always got there first (hard not to when one opens the box on the ride home from the grocery store). In this particular case, the prize was a 2-inch tall Tony the Tiger preparing to throw a football. I had them all— Tony with a baseball bat, Tony with a basketball, Tony with a tennis racket—but I only brought Quarterback Tony to show Mel.

“It’d be worth more without the scuffs. And if it was still in the plastic wrapper,” he says.

I knew this. “Mint in package” is the phrase preferred by dealers and collectors, be it for a cheap cereal box prize in a plastic baggie or a Star Wars Jawa action figure with a vinyl cape in the original packaging. A “mint” Quarterback Tony might fetch $25 on eBay. A similarly pristine Jawa is a bargain at $3000. I’ve got both, neither mint, nor in package. I liked to play with my toys as a kid. I know better, now.

“Guess I should have kept the whole box,” I say, trying to sound less informed than I am.
Mel looks at me. “Yes, that would have been best.” He’s serious.

Mel owns “Legend of Sports and Fantasy,” a comic book and collectibles shop in Cupertino, California. Besides comics, cards, and the latest superhero action figures, Mel buys and sells vintage character-based toys from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. His collection includes disco era “Mego” Star Trek and Planet of the Apes dolls, Regan era He-Man and TMNT action figures, and every 3 ¾ inch Star Wars figure released between 1978 and 1985 (except for the vinyl cape Jawa). A little poking around the crowded shelves also produces numerous cereal box toys, including a Toucan Sam clock, a slightly loved Trix Rabbit fabric doll, a set of six Cap’n Crunch cereal bowls, and several familiar feline figurines—but no quarterback cat.

“Eight bucks is the best I can do,” Mel says. He’ll sell it for at least twice that, more if he can get someone to buy all of the Tonys as a set. I’ve seen him do it. But I didn’t come here to sell.

I suggest the market for cereal box characters is soft. Mel disagrees.

“Retro Tony is hot, the original look, not this newer stuff.” [1] Mel claims to have sold a classic Tony the Tiger plush, offered in 1967 for a few box tops (plus shipping and handling), for “around $150.”

A quick check of the latest promotional offerings from Kellogg’s and it competitors confirms the trend. New T-shirts bearing Tony’s likeness feature the original, football-shaped head. Vinyl figures of Toucan Sam, Cornelius the Rooster, and the Rice Krispie clan all match their early character designs, not the more recent computer-generated makeovers. There are also Count Chocula drag racers, Booberry bobble heads, and Frankenberry Halloween costumes (adult sizes only).

“Frankenberry is very popular,” Mel says. “I can’t keep him in stock. And he’s pink. You believe that?”

I do. And it’s not kids that are buying Frankenberry bobble head dolls, but grown-ups between the ages of cubicle and corner office looking for a small, plastic reminder of their cereal chomping youth. The fact that these commercial mascots are as appealing today as they were three decades ago, owes as much to fond memories as it does to good character design. We fell in love with a collection of advertising icons while sitting in front of the television waiting for the next cartoon to start. We were supposed to love the ’toons—and some we did—but our breakfast buddies were there year after year. Tony the Tiger never got cancelled or rolled into the Godzilla/Strawberry Shortcake Power Hour. The Cap’n continued to battle French pirates even though pirates wouldn’t be cool for another quarter century. Cocoa puffs? Still drives that bird crazy. We grew up, but the cereal stayed the same.

Mel is more than happy to remind me of my adolescent infatuation with the big talking kitty. His store is one of many that wheels and deals in pop culture history. There are also premium price guides, toy collector magazines, and websites devoted to even the most obscure commercial character. For the truly obsessed, city block-sized conventions selling cereal memorabilia and advertising antiques offer the best places to complete a collection. Of the cereal originals, vintage reproductions, and modern reinterpretations, the old toys (real or reproduced) are by far the best sellers. Whether replacing a toy long since lost or making up for one never won, cereal box collectibles fit neatly into the new nostalgia—cherished memories that stay crunchy in milk.

Mel hands me back my quarterback; he knows I’m not going to part with it, which is fine. He’d rather be the one doing the selling.

“I got something to show you,” he says, and disappears into the back room of his store.
I feel a little bad about teasing Mel with the missing link to his collection. Not bad enough to break up my own set, but I start looking for something to purchase, just the same.

I pick up a Count Chocula bobble head bank. I wasn’t a connoisseur of the Count’s cereal, but I like cartoon monsters. (I was born on Halloween; it’s a thing.) While I don’t really need a place to put my pennies, it’s a nice sculpt and with a Frankenberry bookend…

A young kid leans in to look at my potential purchase.

“Count Chocula was in Pulp Fiction,” he says.

The film geek in me wants to correct him, but I let it slide. [2] I’m more concerned with the fact that a 13-year-old (could be 10, might be 17; my radar is bad) thinks he’s up on his Tarantino trivia.

“You’re a fan of the Count,” I ask.

“I like Cocoa Puffs better,” says the kid.

“Me, too,” I say, but I don’t think he believes me. I inform him that Cocoa Puffs debuted on grocery store shelves in 1963 and that Sonny wasn’t the first cuckoo bird, but rather his grandson. My devotion to the brand will not be denied.

The kid eyes me, but says nothing. Instead, he pretends to see something more interesting two aisles away and bolts. I am scary and old.

Thankfully, Mel (older and scarier) reappears with a small white box. He pops it open to reveal a 2 inch Tony the Tiger figure kicking a soccer ball.

“Only sold in Europe and South America,” Mel says. His suspicion is that the company (Kellogg’s) didn’t think American kids gave a crap about soccer, so they only released Fútbol Tony overseas. He’s right. A generation later, however, Tony the Tiger can be found kicking a soccer ball all over Saturday morning television. Eat Frosted Flakes and you can bend it like Beckham, kids!

Mel sets Euro Tony on the counter next to his All-American counterpart.

“Make a nice pair,” he says.

That they do.

[1] My “newer” Tony the Tiger sports figurines were originally released in 1979.
[2] The Count didn’t make the cut, but Fruit Brute, fruit-loving werewolf, and fourth of General Mills “Monster” Cereals, did appear in two of Quentin Tarantino’s movies (Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs). Fruit Brute, the cereal, never caught on and was discontinued in 1983. The cereal that appears in the opening sequence of Kill Bill: Volume 1 is actually another long since cancelled brand called Kaboom. A box of Lucky Charms appears near the end of Kill Bill: Volume 2. Quentin loves him some cereal.