Ideal's Robot Commando: Collectible 1960s Toy
The year 1961 was a banner year in American history: John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president; Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space; West Side Story, the eventual Oscar winner for Best Picture, was all the rage at movie theaters; the New York Yankees (surprise) won another World Series; the Apollo program of U.S. manned space flight was launched…
On the all-important toy front (important to kids, that is), the Ideal Toy Corporation, founded in 1907, continued its tradition in grand style, bringing to the marketplace a number of memorable playthings for the younger set. Leading the way was Ideal’s Robot Commando, one of the decade’s truly magnificent toys and a real favorite among vintage toy robot collectors today.
Ideal Toy Corporation's original Robot Commando with box (1961) - William J. Felchner
Ideal Toy Robot Commando Origins
Robot Commando was not Ideal’s first foray into the toy robot field. In 1954, Ideal had launched its now-famous Robert the Robot, America’s first plastic toy mechanical man. Robert, who was constructed of red and silver plastic and stood 13-inches tall, was quite a marvel for its time. A gun-like remote controller linked by a wire to the toy’s back directed the action, making the robot walk forward, back up, and turn right or left – with arms swinging and eyes lighted up. Robert was also equipped with a special talking device which, when cranked, spoke the now-classic words in robotese: “I am Robert Robot, mechanical man. Ride me and steer me, wherever you can.” Robert the Robot became a pop culture icon in the 1950s, as much a part of the American landscape as Howdy Doody comic books and Davy Crockett coonskin caps.
Robot Commando, a direct descendant of Robert the Robot in the Ideal toy line, was designed by the late, legendary toy inventor Marvin Glass (1914-1974). Headquartered in Chicago at LaSalle Street and Chicago Avenue, Marvin Glass and Associates would create a number of other well-known toys and games, including Ideal’s Mr. Machine (1960) and Odd Ogg (1962), Marx’s Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots (1964), Milton Bradley’s Mouse Trap (1963) and Operation (1965), Schaper’s Ants in the Pants (1969), Kenner’s Smash Up Derby (1971), and Parker Brothers’ Masterpiece (1971) and Tug Boat (1974).
Larger than Robert the Robot at 19-inches high, Robot Commando was constructed of red, blue, yellow, black and white plastic. Like Robert, Robot Commando’s action was directed by a remote control device tethered by a wire to the robot’s back. A faux “mike” on the controller, in which a child could bark commands to the robot, was an added feature, along with bulging, hypnotic eyes that rolled when the automaton was on the march.
Robot Commando, as its name implies, was a “fighting robot,” equipped with orange plastic balls which could be launched from the toy’s swinging arms and soft rubber, red-tipped white rockets which could be fired from the head. Regarding the latter, the robot’s head dome would rise on command, out of which a single rocket could be blasted from a spring-loaded launcher. The robot’s power source was three “D” cell batteries which could be installed at the bottom of the toy.
Robot Commando Packaging
Robot Commando came packaged in a patriotic red, white and blue box constructed by the Atlantic Container Corp. of Long Island, New York. Billed as “Robot Commando - The Amazing Mike Controlled Robot!” (A little creative advertising there as it had no functioning microphone), the toy rested inside a protective cardboard collar surrounded by thin storage paper. Adorning the box was a rendition of the robot in action along with a blond-headed boy directing the toy’s movements. Come-on slogans on the box included “Mike Controlled Robot Obeys Your Command,” “Turns Right…Turns Left, Moves Forward,” “Searching Eyes,” “Robot Arms Whip Missiles Into Space,” “Emits Beeper Signal,” and the pies de resistance, “Head Dome Rises…Fires Rockets Into Air.”
Robot Commando Marketing
Robot Commando was promoted by Ideal – the company’s motto at the time: “It’s A Wonderful Toy…It’s Ideal” – in both print and the electronic media. The latter, of course, meant the all-important small screen, with Robot Commando appearing as the star of its own television commercial. And then, of course, there were catalog listings, store displays and word-of-mouth advertising, with the burning news that there was a new robot in town spreading from one household to the next among the small fry crowd.
In subsequent years, Robot Commando also garnered some free publicity. In a November 17, 1964, episode of NBC-TV’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. titled “The Double Affair” (Act I: “One For The Money”), Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) emerges from Del Floria’s tailor shop where he is met by a pair of wild-eyed assassins in the form of two Robot Commandos. The whirring toy robots then take deadly aim at Illya, launching from their opening domes three exploding missiles in his direction. Grabbing a garbage can lid as an improvised shield, Illya is able to deflect the missiles and snuff out his smoldering, would-be robotic assassins with his suit coat. Deadpan Illya to Del (Mario Siletti): “I think someone is sending their Christmas presents a little early this year.”
Robot Commando also reportedly put in an appearance on another NBC series, Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63). A look through a detailed guide for all 60 episodes of that classic sitcom, however, has failed to yield any definitive data.
Upon its release in 1961, Robot Commando’s list price ranged from $10 to $12. An original, handwritten retail store notation in the designated white circle at the top of one box reads $10.66. Yes, “double figures” back then for a toy usually meant “big money” for many households.
Robot Commando Collector Toy Value
Ideal’s Robot Commando is one of the big kahunas in the world of collectible robots. Just looking at various websites on the Internet, Robot Commando still generates a lot of excitement from collectors, dealers and just plain nostalgic baby boomers.
“After months of begging, I got a Robot Commando for Christmas in 1963,” posted David Wharton, now a professor of classics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “His eyes spun, he shot rockets from his head, he threw ping-pong balls from his mighty fists. With him at my command, I terrorized my 3-year-old cousin, our dog Topper, and our cat Snowflake.” But alas, David’s Robot Commando did not last the rigors of childhood, as he later told the author: “Mine was inoperable within a year, and I think was in the trash by 1964.”
Book values for Robot Commando in near mint condition with the original box are generally in the $800-1,000 range, making it one of the most valuable American robots of the 1960s. An excellent to near mint example sans the box is valued at around $350-500. One dealer has offered the box only – in good condition – at $249.99.
Robot Commando, which is also the name of a computer game designed by Steve Jackson, was "reanimated" in 1970. This time around the big robot was purple in color and sported a clear dome out of which its missiles could be launched. “Ideal’s Robot Commando is here to help you,” crowed the 60-second TV commercial. “He’s your one-man army!”