Collecting the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ — A Look at King Kong Memorabilia

The first “King Kong” item to be released was this hardcover novel, published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1932. Values for the book can range from a few hundred up to several thousand dollars.

It was 80 years ago this month that movie-going audiences were first introduced to one of filmdom’s most iconic—and arguably tragic—characters: the gargantuan-sized gorilla, King Kong. A masterpiece of fantasy cinema, “King Kong” made its premiere on March 2, 1933 at two venues: New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, and its sister cinema, the now long-demolished RKO Roxy (later known as the Center Theatre).

A tale of “beauty and the beast,” the film tells of a maverick director, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), who charters a ship to an uncharted island off the coast of Indonesia, where he intends to shoot footage of a mythical creature rumored to dwell there. Also present on the journey is Denham’s movie crew and a beautiful young actress named Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), who is appearing in the film. After making contact with the island’s native inhabitants, Denham and the crew—which includes the ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot)—discover that the blonde-haired Ann has been kidnapped by the island’s occupants and offered up as a sacrifice to the giant ape whom they call “Kong.”

In their attempt to get the young woman back, the men must not only battle the enormous gorilla, but various, giant-sized prehistoric animals that also inhabit the island. After Ann is rescued by Jack, the opportunistic Denham decides he wants to bring Kong back to New York as a sensational attraction and knocks the creature unconscious with a gas bomb for transport home. But once in New York City, the ape—which has been proclaimed by his captor as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”—breaks free of his chained confines and runs amok through the city, searching for the object of his affection, Ann, and ultimately meets his doom after climbing the Empire State Building.

Directed by intrepid filmmakers Merian C. Cooper (who conceived of the character of Kong and of whom the character of Carl Denham is reportedly modeled after) and Ernest B. Schoedsack, “King Kong” was a marvel of filmmaking in its day that employed then-groundbreaking technology in order to show its gargantuan-sized star stomp across the screen. Although a full-scale bust, leg and right hand were constructed of Kong for some sequences, much of the footage featuring the giant ape was shot using 18- and 24-inch-tall movable model figures with metal armatures covered with foam rubber, latex and rabbit fur. The scenes were painstakingly animated frame-by-frame by special effects wizard Willis H. O’Brien in a process called stop-motion animation.

Despite the economic hardships of the Great Depression, screenings of “King Kong” sold out and the film went on to become a box-office smash. The studio that produced the film, RKO, went on to re-release to it to huge profits several times throughout the years, although the downside to this was that the movie became the target of censorship by the restrictive Motion Picture Production Code (popularly known as the “Hays Code”), which resulted in several scenes being cut and not reinserted until decades later. The success of the film led to: a sequel (1933’s “Son of Kong”); other over-sized gorilla movies (1949’s “Mighty Joe Young” and 1961’s “Konga”); Japanese-produced projects in which the character battled the giant monster Godzilla, as well as a mechanized version of himself (in 1962’s “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and 1967’s “King Kong Escapes,” respectively); an animated 1966 TV series; as well as remakes released in 1976 and 2005. A sequel to the ‘76 version (1986’s “King Kong Lives”) was even produced.

Transcending films and television, the character of King Kong would go on to become a much beloved worldwide cultural icon and would be featured in various advertising, used as the basis for theme park rides and, of course be the subject of a vast array of merchandise, including books, comics, toys, clothing, food items and more.

One of the first pieces of King Kong-themed merchandise was a hardcover novelization of the film published by New York-based company Grosset & Dunlap in 1932. Written by newspaper reporter Delos Wheeler Lovelace, the novel was a “photoplay edition” and featured a beautifully illustrated dust jacket and stills from the film on the book’s endpapers. Released shortly before “King Kong” hit theaters, the book was an adaptation of an earlier version of the film’s screenplay, and as such features elements not seen in the finished film. Moreover, the novel also contained sequences that would be cut from the movie—including the infamous “spider pit” scene, in which an angry Kong shakes a log carrying several men over a deep ravine, sending them into a pit to be eaten alive by giant-sized spiders, crabs and other creatures. A highly coveted item for both Kong fans and collectors of vintage books, prices can range from a couple of hundred dollars for a well-read volume with no cover to several thousand dollars for a very fine condition copy complete with dust jacket.

This King Kong plastic model kit was released by Aurora Plastics Corp. in 1964. Loose, built up models can be found for a few dollars, while mint, boxed examples can sell for up to $400.

Author Delos Wheeler Lovelace’s novelization of “King Kong” was first printed in paperback form by Bantam Books in 1965. The cover painting was by artist James Bama. Value – $5 approx.

Come the late 1950s, genre publications like “Famous Monsters of Filmland” would feature photos of the giant ape (as well as censored scenes from the film, like the aforementioned spider pit sequence) within its pages. And in the 1960s, “Monster Kids” would be able to both purchase numerous Kong-themed collectibles in stores or purchase them from ads featured in the back of monster magazines. Among the various items made available during this time wasa King Kong board game released by the Ideal Toy Corporation in 1963. A now very rare collectible, mint specimens of the game can fetch more than $300. The following year, iconic hobby company Aurora Plastics Corporation marketed an approximately 9-inch-tall plastic figural model kit of Kong—complete with a miniature Ann Darrow figure and a detailed base adorned with the giant ape’s name. The kit would be re-issued in 1969 with optional glow-in-the-dark parts. Although individual built-up examples of the kit can often be found online, original unbuilt, boxed specimens are much more difficult to locate, with 1964 kits fetching as much as $400 apiece and 1969 glow versions selling sell for $150 or more.

Other items released during the ’60s included a printing of the Delos Wheeler Lovelace novel in paperback form (featuring stunning cover artwork by Aurora model kit box artist, James Bama) by Bantam Books in 1965; and a comic book adaptation published by Whitman Publishing in 1968. Copies of the paperback novel can usually be found for $5 or less; while the comic book can often be bought for around $10.

This King Kong board game was manufactured by the Ideal Toy Corporation in 1963. Mint specimens can fetch more than $300 nowadays.

This Skull Island board game was released by Pressman in 2005. Contents include a Kong figurine, cardboard ship, New York skyscraper, biplanes and more. Value: $13-$15, approx.

 

The early 1970s saw a few King Kong-themed items from popular toy manufacturer Azrak-Hamway International (AHI), including a rubber bendable figure, a 6-inch rubber “jiggler” figure (complete with a molded Ann figure in its right hand), and a 3 ¾-inch-tall wind-up walking toy that featured a “sparking” effect when it moved. Other items released included an approximately 16 ½-inch-tall coin bank from the A.J. Renzi Company and a book, “The Making of King Kong,” by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, which was published by A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc. in 1975 and by Ballantine Books the year after.

In 1976, a much-publicized remake from famed Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis would hit cinemas. Starring Jessica Lange (in her first film role), Jeff Bridges and Charles Grodin, this version of the story differs from its predecessor in that it was set in the (then) modern day and dealt with an oil company that travels to Skull Island in search of new reserves. A stowaway environmentalist (Bridges) manages to snatch the young woman (Lange) back from the giant, misunderstood ape (which was portrayed by elaborately costumed special effects artist Rick Baker when the film’s original giant animatronic Kong failed to work properly). After being brought to New York, the creature escapes to climb the World Trade Center.

The 1976 “King Kong” remake from Dino De Laurentiis led to a making of book, “The Creation of King Kong.” Here are two editions, from Pocket Books in the U.S. and Star Books in the U.K.

A set of trading cards for the 1976’s “King Kong” was produced by the Topps Chewing Gum Company. Each pack came with cards, a sticker and a piece of bubble gum.

As for 1970s collectibles, a mind boggling array of Kong-related products would be made available to tie in with the film—most of which featured the film’s poster design (designed by artist John Berkey) of Kong straddling the Center’s twin towers while clutching Lange and striking out at helicopters and jets hovering above. One of the most popular items to be marketed was a board game released by Ideal, which required players to prevent Kong from reaching the top of the World Trade Center. Included was a huge 33-inch long illustrated game board, a cardboard Kong figure, spinner, cards, military figurines and more. Other popular items included: a lunchbox and thermos set released by Thermos; a set of trading cards produced by the Topps Chewing Gum Company; a View Master reel set from GAF; jigsaw puzzles from HG Toys; the soundtrack album of composer John Barry’s score from Warner/Reprise (which came complete with a bonus Kong poster); a making-of book, “The Creation of King Kong” from Pocket Books; and a Halloween costume from Ben Cooper.

Iconic toy company Mego Corporation (known for its numerous cloth-costumed 8-inch and 12-inch DC Comics and Marvel superheroes, “Planet of the Apes” and “Star Trek” figures) manufactured a slew of “King Kong” toys that included a model kit called Kong’s Last Stand; a target game named King Kong Against the World; various plush dolls; and a plastic drinking straw, that—by sipping on it—would allow Kong to “climb” the World Trade Center-shaped straw. After the tragic events of 9/11, many 1976 King Kong collectibles temporarily rose in value. Although many of those values have long since dropped, Mego-produced items still command fairly high amounts. The target game can sell for up to $120 if unopened in its box, while the model kit and the drinking straw have been known to fetch close to $100 apiece in mint condition.

One of the most popular toys from 1976’s “King Kong” was this board game from Ideal. Contents included a 33-inch long game board illustrated to resemble the World Trade Center.

Composer John Barry’s memorable score for the 1976 “King Kong” remake was released as a soundtrack album (complete with bonus poster) from Warner/Reprise.

Now defunct restaurant Burger Chef issued a set of four drinking glasses for 1976’s “King Kong.” The glasses can be bought nowadays for around $6 apiece.

Finally, numerous promotional items were produced to tie-in with the film, including a set of four drinking glasses from Burger Chef; a plastic tumbler from 7-Eleven (given out free with the purchase of a soft drink); and a fantastic Kong-shaped Jim Bean liquor decanter. The glasses can be bought for around $6 or so apiece, while the plastic tumbler can be found for under $10. The Jim Bean decanter (which features a head that screws off) can fetch between $15 to $25 in loose condition and $40 to $50 with its cardboard box.

In the mid-1980s, Imperial Toys produced an 8-inch tall non-articulated King Kong figure that was based upon the character’s appearance in the 1933 version. Fairly easy to find, the toy can usually be found for between $12 and $20 with its accompanying tag. In 1991, Multi Toys Corporation put out a King Kong hand puppet featuring a vinyl head and faux fur body. During the 1980s and ’90s, the giant ape (in both his American and Japanese incarnations) was rendered in model kit form by numerous hobby companies like Geometric, Tsukuda Hobby, Billiken and Dark Horse. In 1998, Aurora/Polar Lights put out an unusual-looking plastic model kit of Kong driving a hot rod-styled dragster called the King Kong Thronester. In 2000, Playing Mantis reissued the 1964 Aurora figural model kit and in 2003, McFarlane Toys released a deluxe boxed “King Kong” action figure diorama as part of its “Movie Maniacs” line. The set recreates a scene from the 1933 film where Kong is chained up and on display for audiences inside a New York theater.

This children’s book, published by Crestwood House in 1977, explored both the 1933 film and its 1976 remake, as well as other ape-themed productions. Value: $10-$15, approx.

This nearly 3-inch-tall King Kong figurine was released by X one X Archive Inc., in 2005. The company also released a Kong finger puppet the following year. Value: $5 each.

In December, 2005, director Peter Jackson’s big-budget epic remake of “King Kong” was released to enthusiastic reviews and strong box office receipts. Starring Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black and Andy Serkis, the film was a faithful adaptation of the 1933 classic. A plethora of merchandise was produced in conjunction with the release of the film including numerous action figures (including various prehistoric creatures for Kong to battle) and a Skull Island playset from toy company Playmates; a 15-inch “roaring” figure from Mezco; a highly detailed bobble-head figure from NECA; various plush toys from Kellytoy; a Skull Island board game from Pressman (which came complete with a plastic Kong figurine, cardboard ship, New York skyscraper, biplanes and more); and a King Kong vs. Tyrannosaurus Rex Christmas ornament, complete with sound effects, from Carlton Cards.

More recently, a comic book mini-series, “Kong: King of Skull Island” was released by publisher AAM/Markosia in 2007-08; and in 2010, Hallmark released a “King Kong” Christmas ornament that featured the great ape perched on the top of the Empire State Building.

This approximately 14-inch-tall King Kong plush doll was released by Mego Corporation in 1976 to coincide with that year’s remake film.

This 24-inch-tall King Kong plush doll was released by X one X Archive Inc./Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Co. in 2005. Value: $30, approx.

Eighty years after it first astounded Depression-era moviegoers, King King still has the power to amaze audiences. The film has inspired generations of filmmakers and special effects artists. And though its effects and acting may now seem quaint to some viewers, the film’s mixture of action, adventure and romance still manages to entertain and thrill. Of course, there is Kong himself—a special-effects figure that is somehow so much more than metal, latex and fur. Endowed with both emotions and a personality of his own, he is as compelling a character—if perhaps not more so—as his human co-stars. And which is why, after all these years, audiences continue to shed a tear when he falls to his doom at the end of the film.

James Burrell writes about film, pop culture and collectibles for a variety of publications and online sites, including Rue Morgue and Canuxploitation! A life-long collector of vintage science-fiction, fantasy and monster-themed toys and movie memorabilia, he resides in Toronto, Canada.

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth