|PRINT |||SHARE: |||
Ah, the holidays. Evergreen boughs filling the air with their fragrance. Mitch Miller leading a chorus of “Holly Jolly Christmas” over the loudspeakers in the Superfresh. Greeting cards temporarily outnumbering bills in the mail. And, of course, sleep- and money-deprived parents stumbling through the mall— and occasionally brawling with each other— in an effort to secure the must-have toy of the season.
As long as there have been children to play with them, there have been toys. Artifacts from the ancient worlds of Babylon, Persia, Egypt and elsewhere include animals made of clay, sleds, balls and playthings on wheels. Kites flew in 1,000 B.C. Stone Age musicians played instruments around the campfire.
And there have always been popular toys, too. The 20th century saw Lincoln Logs (introduced in 1916), Monopoly (1935), Mr. Potato Head (1952) and Easy Bake Oven (1963)— toys whose popularity, at this late date, seems quaint and manageable, even heartwarming. Think of all the boys and girls lucky enough to discover that smiling potato— or Monopoly, that most American of board games, fun for the whole family— under the tree on Christmas morning. And how about that nice, educational Rubik’s Cube (1978)?
But in 1983, everything changed. That was the year Cabbage Patch Kids became the first mega-selling toy, changing forever the way toy companies viewed Christmas, their tiny customers and those customers’ parents.
According to the “Cabbage Patch” legend as told on the official Web site (cabbagepatchkids.com), Xavier Roberts discovered babies peeking through heads of cabbage while “wandering into a magical Cabbage Patch hidden behind a waterfall.” There is no mention of what Mr. Roberts may have been smoking on this magical journey, but it may as well have been rolled-up dollar bills. Roberts began making soft-sculpture babies he called Little People and sold them in the late 1970s at craft shows for $30 to $40 apiece. Toy company Coleco bought the rights and mass-produced the doughy-faced babes beginning in 1983, supplying each doll with a unique name, birth certificate and formal adoption papers. The company even sent the doll a card to mark its first birthday.
Why did the popularity of Cabbage Patch Kids (aka CPK) so eclipse that of previous popular toys? “They were very appealing in their concept because you adopted them. There [had never] been another doll like that before,” says Ann Wilhite, who edits the monthly Cabbage Connection newsletter from her home in Fremont, Neb. “Some parents were tired of all the dolls that wet and talked and walked. Here was a doll that just asked you to love it.”
Oh, and there was the fact that, two weeks before Christmas, Newsweek put a CPK on its cover, marking the first such appearance for a doll. Not long afterword, Johnny Carson featured them on his show. “All of that worked together,” says Wilhite. “So much publicity just absolutely guaranteed success.”
There you have it: publicity equals success. That year, the news was filled with reports of parents playing tug of war in store aisles, or paying hundreds of dollars for a Cabbage Patch Kid in the resale market (this, in the pre-eBay era). More than 3 million were sold in 1983, and Coleco posted record sales of $600 million by 1985.
Cathy Litofsky of Owings Mills recalls playing a part in the madness— though, as a Jew, she wasn’t buying them for Christmas. “Having two girls and needing to be equal and buy one for each girl was a much more difficult task than childbirth!” recalls Litofsky. “It took six months, but we did get the dolls— both coming from cousins of mine in Atlanta and New York. ... I wanted to shellac the boxes and never let the girls play with them. This, of course, was out of the question. We still have the dolls with added outfits and everything. They are currently in that ‘what should I do with these?’ pile, now that my girls are 20 and 22 years old.”
Perhaps Litofsky’s dolls can find a home with Pat and Joe Prosey in Leonardtown, Md., who have built two 3,000-square-foot buildings (and are contemplating a third) to house their collection of 5,000-some Kids and every imaginable accessory made. The Proseys welcome visitors to their “Magic Crystal Valley,” the world’s first CPK museum, by appointment and also host a Summer Adventure for other fans. (Visit magiccrystalvalley.com for a look at their mind-boggling collection.)
Like all fads, however, CPK sales peaked and then crashed. Coleco went bankrupt in 1988. Hasbro bought the rights to the Cabbage Patch franchise and tried to revive them by adding gimmicks such as kazoo-playing Kids, to no avail. Mattel, which bought the rights in 1994, enjoyed a brief revival of sales with the 15th-anniversary edition in 1998, but gave up on them five years later. (If you need a CPK fix these days, no worries: the dolls are now produced by Play Along Toys and 4Kids Entertainment, and are easy to find in stores.)
By 2003, the Kids had plenty of competition, primarily in the form of everyone’s favorite furry red monster: Elmo— the undisputed Cal Ripken of “must-haves.” And just as the Kids’ popularity skyrocketed after their appearance in Newsweek, Forbes reports that sales of the original Tickle-Me Elmo, introduced in 1996, took off after it showed up in July on the “Rosie O’Donnell Show” (whose core viewing audience was at-home moms of preschoolers). In a nod to Groucho Marx, O’Donnell lobbed 200 of them, one at a time, into the studio audience of her talk show whenever a guest mentioned the word “wall.” Sales got a second boost when Bryant Gumbel held an Elmo doll on his lap throughout a broadcast of “Today.”
What followed was the now-predictable transformation of otherwise rational parents into certifiable crazies. They camped out at stores, chased delivery trucks and did things Elmo himself would not have found amusing. Among the first reported victims of Elmomania were a pregnant woman, a 78-year-old grandmother and a Wal-Mart clerk who suffered a host of injuries— including a broken rib and a concussion— when a crowd of 300 stampeded after they spotted him with the last Elmo in the store.
Even parents who never planned to purchase the toy (or even knew what it looked like) were swept up by the frenzy. “My sister-in-law was in a toy store checkout line when she heard weird sounds coming from the back of the store,” recalls Andrea Koller of Towson. “Turns out they had just unloaded the latest shipment of Tickle-Me Elmos. She watched other people race out of line and return with them. When someone asked her, ‘Aren’t you going to buy one? There are two left!’ she picked up the last two. And that’s how my daughter, Meredith, and her cousin ended up with Tickle-Me Elmos.”
Not every parent, of course, thought the search— or the ultimate price tag— was worth it. “We didn’t get Elmo, we just smashed it,” says Steve Kovens, who shelled out $800 for the privilege of steamrolling the toy into a furry red pancake in late December 1996. CNN covered the incident, which was part of a fund-raiser sponsored by radio station WHFS-FM as a “reaffirmation of the holiday spirit” and to benefit the Children’s HIV/AIDS Model Program at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Kovens’ sons, who were 2, 5 and 10 at the time, helped finish off the furball. (Ten years later, Kovens and his three sons all have fond memories of the event, which can be viewed at cnn.com/US/9612/23/ fringe/squash.me.elmo/index.html.)
Despite his anti-Elmo behavior, Kovens, executive vice president of A&A Global Industries in Hunt Valley, which makes gumball machines and all the toys and candy that go in them, says he wishes it were one of his company’s items that the whole country wanted.
Let us not forget Furby, a battery-operated, noxious noisemaker that resembled a hybrid clone of a cat and an owl. Furbys were available in 1,000 possible combinations of voices, fur patterns and eye colors. Even more irritating than the way they looked, however, was how they sounded: Once activated, they started talking and almost never stopped, first in their own language, dubbed “Furbish,” then changing gradually to mostly English as they “grew.”
Parents quickly tired of hearing the toy— which lacked an “off” switch— demand its owner to “ah-may koh koh” (pet me more) or to feed it when it was “mee mee a-tay” (very hungry). “I thought they were stupid,” says Christina Hobbie, assistant manager of K-B Toys in White Marsh. “My mom got me one anyway. I had to take it out of my room because it would go off in the middle of the night.”
Despite slurs against its intelligence, Furbys were smart enough to threaten national security; for a time, the National Security Agency banned them from its buildings because they could supposedly “learn.”
The message underlying all these bizarre stories is simple: toys may be child’s play, but the industry itself is big business. Traditional toys (including such items as building sets, dolls, youth electronics, plush and board games) account for nearly $22 billion in sales in the United States, with video games ringing up another $10 billion. With toy sellers realizing as much as 50 percent of their annual profits and sales during the fourth quarter, it’s understandable why the push is on, starting at Halloween.
“Marketers are trying to hold onto a bit of nostalgia,” says Rick Klink, chair of the marketing department at Loyola College. “There is a belief that kids are growing up faster. While TV viewing by kids is up, the percentage watching children’s programs is going down.” Marketers, he says, are developing brand loyalty in very young children through other forms of media, including interactive web sites and streaming video.
Although it culminates in December, the must-have toy machine first stirs from its cave each February, at the American International Toy Fair, the largest toy trade show in the Western Hemisphere. Sponsored by the Toy Industry Association, the event brings more than 1,500 manufacturers, distributors, importers and sales agents from 30 countries to New York to showcase their toy and entertainment products for industry buyers, store owners and other trade professionals.
Toy Wishes, a trade publication, cranks things up in October with its annual “hot dozen” list, which the magazine says is based on the publication’s review of thousands of toys and interviews with parents, children and retailers. And high on this year’s list is— you guessed it— T.M.X. Elmo.
This year, to mark the 10th anniversary of Tickle-Me Elmo and to celebrate his other iterations (did you miss Potty Elmo?), Fisher-Price introduced T.M.X. Elmo (shorthand for “Tickle Me extreme” or “Tickle Me 10”), keeping the product’s details a carefully guarded secret until mid-September. The hype worked: This year’s model, which rolls around on the floor, clutches his belly and thumps the floor while emitting his signature hysterical laugh, is nowhere to be found— unless you’re willing to spend as much as $250 on eBay (list price is $40).
Once again, a well-placed media spot triggered the hysteria. “We were doing pre-orders and people absolutely didn’t care,” says Kay Bee’s Hobbie. “And then Regis and Kelly showed it on TV the day it was introduced, and everybody had to have one.” The store’s original shipment of 18 disappeared two hours later that September day and it hasn’t been able to keep them in stock since. Hobbie, 26, says every other customer who calls or stops in the store is looking for T.M.X. Elmo.
David Stelzer, one of the owners of Shananigans Toy Shop in Roland Park, gets plenty of calls for T.M.X. Elmo, too, but he doesn’t carry it— or other “fad” toys. “I’m not a huge fan of those,” he says. “Most of them fizzle out. Honestly, it’s marketing. A lot of parents see things [on TV] and think their kids are going to like it. And it’s not a great thing.”
Instead, Stelzer recommends parents opt for such mainstays as LEGO and “Star Wars” items, Brio trains and Playmobil. He also endorses trendier entries to the specialty toy market such as UglyDolls, pillow-like monsters that appeal to boys as well as girls; PlasmaCar, a ride-on toy that could be described as a Segway for kids; Webkinz, small plush animals with a special access code that allows users to go online and earn Webkinz accessories; Moon Sand, a moldable substance that feels like wet sand but never dries out; the radio-controlled Storm Launcher vehicle; and Blokus, a colorful tile board game.
Perhaps best of all, you can fill your sack with all of these for less than what one T.M.X. Elmo will cost you on eBay.
Ann Eichler Kolakowski is the editor of Goucher Quarterly.