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G.I. Joe turns 50; anniversary exhibit will be held Saturday at state military museum


G.I. Joe has been a part of Tearle D. Ashby’s life since he was 2 years old and first received a figure for Christmas.

The toys provided fun for the Ballston Spa resident and his friends, who customized their troops and created their own adventures.

“It was a huge palette for the imagination, back when kids used their imaginations to play, not devices,“ Mr. Ashby said.

The iconic toys, considered the first action figure, are now 50 years old. Mr. Ashby, now a collector at age 49, and other fans will mark the anniversary and their legacy Saturday with a special display at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.

Fans of the toy say it has stood the test of time.

“Joe stood for everything that was meant to be good: fighting evil, doing what’s right for people,” said Alan Hassenfeld, the 65-year-old former CEO of Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro Inc., whose father, Merrill, oversaw G.I. Joe’s development in 1963.

But it’s Don Levine, then the company’s head of research and development, who is often referred to as the “father” of G.I. Joe for shepherding the toy through design and development. Mr. Levine and his team came up with an 11-inch articulated figure with 21 moving parts, and outfitted them in the uniforms of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, with such accessories as guns, helmets and vehicles.

Mr. Levine, who served in the Army in Korea, said he got the idea for the movable figure as a way to honor veterans.

“Most boys in the ’60s had a father or a relative who was or had been in the military,” said Patricia Hogan, curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, home of the National Toy Hall of Fame. “Once you’ve bought Joe, you need to buy all the accessories and play sets and add-ons, which was great for business.”

Though he put the toys aside as a teenager, Mr. Ashby had a blast of nostalgia in 1993 when he saw one on the shelf of a Kmart. That nostalgia turned into a passion the next year as he attended his first convention for the toy for its 30th anniversary.

“The rest is history,” he said.

In the past 20 years, Mr. Ashby has collected about 2,000 of the action figures in a range of sizes, with models from several decades. North country natives may be able to recognize at least some of the eras represented in his collection, such as his 10th Mountain Division-inspired G.I. Joes.

The exact date of G.I. Joe’s introduction remains hazy. Mr. Ashby and those at Hasbro believe it was in February 1964, but American International Toy Fair organizers say it was in March of that year. Since that time, the toy has undergone several reinventions, both in size and in style, reacting to factors such as the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and the size of “Star Wars”-inspired toys.

The action figures have spawned comic books, cartoons, two movies starring Channing Tatum and a G.I. Joe Collectors’ Club and its annual convention, GIJoeCon, held in Dallas in April. G.I. Joe was elected to Toy Hall of Fame in 2004.

Hasbro said it intends to announce details of its 50th anniversary plans during this year’s fair in New York on Feb. 16 to 19.

Mr. Ashby, a psychotherapist who works in Niskayuna, said his favorite part of doing the exhibits was seeing the excitement of small children seeing the toys for the first time, and their parents, many of whom played with them when they were younger.

The G.I. Joe Day event at the museum Saturday will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mr. Ashby is scheduled to speak about the action figure’s history at 1 p.m.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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