This is the first in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of pieces where we discuss the story behind acquiring a "grail" action figure.
So I'm one of those action figure collectors who never left the hobby. I've heard lots of collectors say they had toys as a kid (like most kids) and then "outgrew" them, only to come back around and fall in love with them again. Not me. I never left. I tell you this because this tale involves a figure I never got from my childhood, and harkens back to a time before information about toy availability was readily available on any number of websites.
Disney's The Lion King graced theater screens in 1994, and I was 11 years old and absolutely enthralled. One could argue I was too old to still be in love with Disney cartoons, but I would argue that those people could use a punch in the face. I didn't know then that it was basically Hamlet with lions, or that much of the plot and characters were allegedly lifted from the anime Kimba: The White Lion... and I didn't care. It was a phenomenon. It was a powerhouse.
When it came out on VHS (remember VHS?) I used to watch it literally every day after school. I memorized every word of "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas because it was featured as a preview video on the tape, and skipping it would have involved precision fast forwarding (this was the days before Scene Selection, folks).
It was the last great Disney animated feature, and marked the end of an era for many a child who'd grown up on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Sure, the cartoon films that followed were good and all, but something about that era, from 1989 to 1994, was just magical. Maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but I would venture to guess I'm far from the only individual who feels the same.
Mattel was granted the license to create toys from the film, and they released a mix of traditional "action figures" (with "action features") and inarticulate PVC figurines in a smaller scale. I amassed a decent-sized collection of the former, including most of the main characters, but my favorites were the Hyenas. Shenzi (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg), Banzai (Cheech Marin) and Ed (Jim Cummings) stole the show in my opinion, becoming by far the most memorable characters in the film, with the possible exception of Rafiki.
Banzai was my first Lion King figure. He was packaged more or less singly, with an inarticulate (but in scale) figurine of Zazu the hornbill as a pack-in. Shenzi came next, as part of an "Action Figure Gift Set" that also included Scar, (another) Zazu, young Simba, and a cheap-looking plant accessory. Two out of three down. The only one left was Ed. But where was he?
The figure never materialized as part of the main line available at retail stores. As I mentioned, this was before entire toy lines were teased for months on the internet before being released. This was before checklists and completists; the only real way for your average collector to know which toys were available in any given line was to check the back of the package.
I did manage to get a Burger King toy of Ed. It was in a smaller scale than my other figures, and it made a laughing sound when you pinched it together. It was permanently doubled over in a fit of laughter, forever on its back. A poor substitute for a true, official Mattel Ed.
The line slowly fizzled out, disappearing from store shelves. Many years pass. I grow older. My tastes change and evolve. My Lion King figures get sold at garage sales, hopefully bringing joy to other children... well, most of them. The hyenas remained. They were always there, lurking at the bottom of this storage bin or that cardboard box, a constant reminder of my failure to complete the set. But I refused to get rid of them.
At some point my parents (avid garage sale fanatics) presented to me a hyena figure they had recently purchased. I identified it as Shenzi, but it was slightly different than my own. It had the same sculpt, but the action figure had been removed. On the original Shenzi, pushing the neck forward made the front legs kick back and forth. This mysterious new Shenzi had no kicking action, and its neck was frozen in place. The seam for the joint was still there, but immobile.
I didn't know it at the time, but that was a clue toward finding Ed. But it was soon forgotten, joining my other two hyena figures deep in the Raiders of the Lost Ark-style warehouse that is my parents' garage. At some point later I become vaguely aware that a Mattel Ed figure does exist, but am too distracted by other properties to give it much thought.
Until, years later, I'm going through old bins to clear some space for my poor parents, when I find my old hyenas. A spark lights within me. The spark of an obsession. There's an Ed, I remember. I NEED ED. An itch that must be scratched begins to grow inside my brain. I must have him. But where is he? How do I find him?
"To the internet!" I think to myself (and probably say out loud, thank God no one was around). And yes, it turns out Ed figures did exist, as I found by searching eBay, but they were unfortunately quite rare. I only found a few examples, all "completed auctions" that hadn't sold with starting bids of a whopping $100. And none were currently available. This was worse than a figure being out of my price range (side note: Curse you, Fantastic Four Classics Dragon Man!!!), this was a figure that simply wasn't for sale.
Well, I figured, if I wasn't going to be able to immediately sate my obsession, let me at least figure out what the hell the deal was with Ed. Why was he so rare? When did they actually release him? Tracking down info was quite difficult, as no one seemed to have comprehensively compiled the history of Mattel's Lion King line. I eventually discovered that Ed had only been available in a set that had been quietly released exclusively to Disney theme parks. So if you weren't in Anaheim, CA or Orlando, FL at the right time, you were out of luck. No wonder he was so hard to come by.
The set was called "Roaring Kings" and featured new, larger sculpts of Simba and Scar with electronic sound effects, along with Ed and... the mystery Shenzi my parents had found at the garage sale! The clue had been dangling in front of me all along and I'd missed it!
I went back to eBay to search for the playset, and found it to be just as difficult to come across as singular loose Ed figures. I found one that had sold for north of $100, which was a lot, but certainly more palatable considering it was a full playset, rather than a singular figure. Alas, none were currently listed for sale.
I didn't give up. I was onto something. I'd come this far. I wasn't about to let it end. I kept searching for different combinations of "Lion King Ed Mattel" on eBay. Not everyone selling LK merchandise is thorough in their descriptions, so I figured they wouldn't necessarily include the brand name in the auction, meaning I had to parse through page after page of Ed paraphernalia.
Ed pins, Ed plush toys, Ed vinyl toys, Ed drinking straws, Ed statues... even that old Burger King Ed I had used as a second-rate stand-in. There was also a McDonald's Happy Meal Ed toy, I discovered, which seemed to be some kind of finger puppet. Then there were the auctions that clearly mis-labeled one of the other hyenas as Ed, whether by accident or to intentionally get people like myself excited only to crush their hopes and dreams.
But I didn't give up. And eventually, at long last, an unassuming auction showed up during a search for "Lion King Ed." The listing was for "Lion King Toy,Ed"; Mattel wasn't mentioned anywhere, but I knew exactly what I was looking at. The pics were blurry, so it was hard to tell what condition the figure was in, but there was no mistaking it... I had found Ed, in all his glory.
The description was short: "About 3x3, has few Mark's [sic] and some paint wear." That was it. So he wasn't in perfect condition, but I was willing to risk it. Especially because the starting price was only... $1.25. I was shocked. This has to be some kind of trick, I thought. This was an insanely rare figure, one that sellers had been asking upwards of $100 for on the rare occasions one could even find one for sale. Surely something was amiss.
I tentatively bid on it. My maximum price was a number I won't share here, but suffice to say it was well south of three digits. But I didn't need to worry. Despite another bidder showing up, the auction ended at $3.25 (plus $3.00 shipping). I had done it. Ed was on his way. But was it too good to be true? The rarest of the rare Lion King figures, on its way to me for less than $10? I was in disbelief.
A couple of days passed. No shipping notification came. Oh no, I thought. He's not going to send it. He's mad because it sold so low. He's going to refund my six bucks and keep his Ed until he can get more for it. I tried not to panic. I resisted the urge to message the seller and scream in all caps "I WILL GIVE YOU MORE MONEY JUST PLEASE SEND ED!"
My dismay, as it turned out, was pre-emptive and unnecessary. I got a message that he'd been shipped, and a few days later received a padded envelope. Inside, wrapped tightly in bubble wrap, was Ed. I didn't weep, but the child buried not so deep inside me probably did. Metaphorically anyway. It was over. A journey that had begun 21 years earlier had finally come to its end. The three hyenas were united on my shelf. And it had only cost me $6.
He wasn't mint by any means. The seller hadn't been lying about the wear. There were some scuffs on the black paint of his nose, ears and paws, and some dirt marks on his face and underside, and (somehow) yellow paint on his chin. But after a quick once over with a black Sharpie (a tactic I'd previously used to fix up my Banzai), and some wiping with WD40, I had myself a perfectly adequate Ed. No more yellow paint, no more scuffs, no more paint rubs.
I placed Ed next to his companions on the top of a display cabinet. What was there left to do? Where did I go from here? I was Frodo, closing the Red Book of the Westmarch. I was Ripley, leaving a final cryptic message from on board my escape shuttle, ready to bed down into hypersleep. I was Daniel Plainview, just after bludgeoning my enemy to death with a bowling pin... you get the idea. I was finished.
I glanced at my other shelves, at the various figures scattered throughout my room. Figures from dozens of different companies, covering dozens of different licenses. My eyes roved and scrutinized endlessly. Somewhere there was a hole. A gap. And it needed filling.