Like the rest of the planet, Tulsa was in the throes of Bat-mania 30 years ago.
“Batman,” starring Michael Keaton as Batman and scene-stealing Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was released June 23, 1989.
It wasn’t just a movie. It was a phenomenon. Batman merchandise was everywhere. You couldn’t go into a store without seeing Batman shirts, posters and paraphernalia. Tulsans like Levi Moore and Ricky Gilmer got the Batman logo shaved into their hair at barbershops. There was never a time when it was more cool to be batty.
For context, understand that 2019 and 1989 are not the same.
2019: When “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is released next month, it will be the sixth superhero flick to be released since March.
1989: “Batman” was the first motion picture starring the comic book character in 23 years. With a big-name director (Tim Burton) and stars attached, the pre-movie buzz was tremendous.
By the time the movie arrived, Bat-mania was a global sensation. A Tulsan contributed to it and, if you need Bill Rich to prove it, he can show you his Batman and Joker guitars. The Joker guitar laughs when you push a button on it.
Where does he get such wonderful toys? Rich designed them.
To be clear, the guitars aren’t toys. They are functional, limited-edition (only 50 of each were made) guitars created during the height of Bat-mania. They were snapped up as quickly as they were made, never mind a $2,000 price tag for the Batman guitar and a $2,500 price tag for the Joker guitar. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top owns one of each. Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen purchased a Batman guitar. Apparently, so did the artist who provided the music for the “Batman” soundtrack.
Said Rich: “I sold a pair to a vintage guitar dealer in St. Paul, Minnesota, who did a lot of dealing with Prince, and Prince only bought the Batman.”
Let’s backtrack to ’89 for the guitars’ origin story.
The word “Batman” appeared in 203 stories published by the Tulsa World or Tulsa Tribune in 1989. You really couldn’t get away from Batman then. One of those stories was about Batman’s red-hot merchandising. It caught the attention of Rich. He said the light bulb in his head came on, and he got the idea to make a Batman guitar.
Rich didn’t know anyone at Warner Bros., the company behind the film. But ZZ Top was a cash cow in the Warner Bros.’ music stable and Rich, a product developer in the guitar industry since 1980, had forged a relationship with Gibbons. Rich phoned Gibbons, who liked the idea and connected the Tulsan with folks at Warner Bros. and DC Comics who otherwise might never have taken his call.
“Everything went real fast,” Rich said during a recent interview. “I literally got verbal approval in a couple of days. And it’s all because of Gibbons.”
John Bolin, an Idaho-based guitar maker and a go-to guy for Gibbons, hand-crafted the Batman guitars. The original plan called only for Batman guitars, but the venture was so successful that Rich said he was asked by DC Comics to follow up with a Joker guitar.
“They said the Joker was as prominent in the movie as Batman and, in fact, they did not make me give them a licensing fee to do the Joker,” Rich said, adding that he did pay royalties.
Gibbons came up with the shape of the Joker guitar, according to Rich. The guitar’s push-button laugh isn’t Nicholson’s laugh from the movie because the asking price for the sound was too high.
What became of those Batman and Joker guitars? Let’s discuss it after revisiting Bat-mania.
• Not all of the pre-movie hubbub was positive. There were concerns that Keaton and Burton (both fresh off of “Beetlejuice”) would make a laughingstock of the Dark Knight.
• More than $1.5 billion worth of Batman merchandise was sold in stores, according to the book “Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.” A Tulsa World story published before the movie’s release delved into the bonanza of Batman merchandise at stores. Mary Toler of Gadzooks in Woodland Hills Mall said the store had sold nearly 500 Batman shirts in the previous two months and she ordered 1,000 more, plus Batman wallets, jewelry, beer mugs, visors and other items. Doug Goodsell of World of Comics said the movie brought customers into his store that he had never seen before. Mike McCormick of Comic Empire of Tulsa said his store sold out of Batman back issue comics.
• Charles Johnson at Kings & Queens Universal in north Tulsa offered “batcuts” to customers who desired Batman-themed haircuts. He told an interviewer he averaged 20 to 30 batcuts per week. Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune sports staffers wrote stories when Booker T. Washington football player Levi Moore showed up with a Batman haircut in preseason. Both newspapers also wrote stories that got readers up to date on Batman’s comic book history.
•Hoping to ride the bat-wave, The Family Channel added reruns of the 1960s “Batman” TV series to its lineup. In July, a Batman costume worn by Adam West in the series was stolen from a museum in Philadelphia. The costume was recovered, undamaged, in the trunk of a car.
• The movie inspired jokers. An Associated Press story said James F. Batman of West Virginia was getting so many prank calls in 1989 that calls were keeping his family awake at night. Said Batman: “A few years ago I arrived at a Holiday Inn and the sign outside said ‘Sleep safe tonight. Batman is here.’ ”
Dallas securities dealer Stephen Batman said in another AP story that he was getting so many crank calls that he was considering an unlisted number. “My administrative assistant’s name is Robin — Robin Campbell,” he said. “I make a lot of speeches and presentations around the country and no one forgets my name. I get to say, ‘I’m Batman and this is my assistant, Robin.’ ”
• The most popular Halloween costume in 1989 was the obvious one. “We have had a lot of adults, men coming in here, wanting to be Batman,” Lynn Hannah of Ehrle’s Party and Carnival Supplies told the Tulsa Tribune. “And it started in June.”
• Cesar Romero, who played the Joker in the TV series, said he didn’t like the ’89 movie because it was “dreary” and too violent. (Children younger than 12 in Britain were banned from seeing the film.) But Romero also said this: “The picture will probably make a bloody fortune.”
• “Batman” made a bloody fortune. It made a then-record $42.7 million over three days, breaking a mark that had been set the week earlier by “Ghostbusters II.” The movie needed only 10 days to make $100 million and, by mid-July, it was the highest-grossing film in Warner Bros. history. Studio research showed that teens were seeing the movie three or four times. On the 30th anniversary of the film’s release, current Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt posted this on Twitter: “Was 10 years old. Saw ‘Batman’ maybe half a dozen times in theaters. Obsessed with every aspect, from toys to the novelization to the Prince soundtrack. Seminal pop culture moment in my childhood.”
• “Batman” also flexed muscle in the home video market, setting a record with 9.8 million transactions in its first two weeks of release. It was rushed to video in November, even though the movie was still playing in 500 North American theaters. “There was an incredible consumer demand, almost from the time the movie opened, of people who were asking when it would come out on video,” Warner Home Video spokesman Mike Finnegan said. “And it soon became apparent that ‘Batman’ itself had grown beyond being just a movie; that it became a cultural phenomenon of sorts for 1989.”
Thirty years later, the Batman and Joker guitars are remnants of the phenomenon.
Rich said he continued to get calls from people who wanted guitars after the supply was gone. He put some interested parties in touch with people who flipped their Batman or Joker guitars for a healthy profit.
Rich kept one of each. He said he doesn’t think he would ever sell the guitars for any amount of money. He doesn’t want to say the guitars are his legacy, but he considers it the coolest project of his career. (He also created brisk-selling ZZ Top keychains in the ’80s and partnered with Nielsen on a book about the Cheap Trick guitarist’s guitar collection.)
There could have been one more guitar in the Bat-line. A movie sequel, “Batman Returns,” featured the Penguin and Catwoman.
“I designed a Penguin guitar that actually would smoke a cigarette,” Rich said. “It was going to blow smoke. I went back to them, and they wanted 50 grand for a licensing fee.”
That was too rich for Rich’s blood, so the Penguin guitar never left the drawing board. Rich scribbled “Not to be!” and the rejection date (6-22-92) on the conceptual design.
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