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Andy Sullivan: Against the Grain

This week, I will conclude my ‘80’s Top Ten series.  As you recall, last week I began the countdown of toys of the decade.  I will now pick up at #7.  At the start of the decade, childhood is changing.  Unlike their parents, ‘80’s moms and dads wanted their kids to voice their feelings.  Toy industry legend and Kenner president Bernie Loomis dreams big and senses the time is right for a new generation of teddy bear, one that is made to meet the needs of a new generation of children.  “We started with a blank sheet of paper.  We said bears had always been popular. How about doing tummy graphics on bears? Let’s have them represent emotions”.  The Care Bear was born.

The Care Bears had names such as “Fun-shine” and “Tender-heart”.  Loomis is so confident that the bears will be a success that he spends years and millions of dollars producing an entire product range and he releases the entire line at once.  Loomis’ Care Bear blitz is a gamble that soon pays off.  Before long, they were #1 in the United States, England and on the continent.  In five years, 40 million Care Bears marched off the shelves, generating over a billion dollars in sales.  It goes without saying that the bears that care star in their own movie, 1985’s Care Bears Movie.  Care Bears conquered the ‘80’s and lived to tell the tale.  After all these years, their mission to spread caring and sharing is still going strong.  Care Bears are still being stocked and selling out to this day.

Coming in at #6 is Trivial Pursuit.  On December 15, 1979, journalist pals Chris Haney and Scott Abbott settle in for a quiet game of Scrabble.  They can’t play, however, when they discover that some letter tiles are missing.  The two men have the same dream at the same moment.  “Chris said “Why don’t we invent a game”?  I said “what could it be about? Trivia? We sat around and did a little doodling, and the game was born”.  Timing is everything.  When Trivial Pursuit is released in 1982, it was the right game at the right moment.  It was the time of the 24-hour news cycle.  You had the rise of CNN in the 1980’s and Trivial Pursuit certainly played into the knowledge of current events.  We were coming out of a recession at the time.  The game cost $40.  It came along before the internet, so it was huge. By the end of 1984, Trivial Pursuit generates almost $800 million and turns its makers into multi-millionaires.  This success is no trivial matter.  There was an obstacle.  The author of a trivia encyclopedia named Fred Worth believes he has been ripped off.  Worth says “about 32% of the material in (the game’s) original edition can be found in my book (The Trivia Encyclopedia).  In a move worthy of Frank Colombo, Worth plants a fake fact in the book.  When the fact appears in the game, Frank pounces and sues.  He loses the suit and Trivial Pursuit dominates the market, even outselling Monopoly (which had been popular since the 1930’s).  In the age of the internet, Trivial Pursuit’s popularity declines.  Some things are just a product of their time.

#5: In the high-tech ‘80’s, Japan’s electronics leads the way.  At the 1983 Tokyo Toy Fair, Hasbro spots a toy that will revolutionize action figures.  Here come the bots! A personal favorite that’s still relevant, Transformers, was called by Hasbro the biggest thing from Japan since Godzilla.  Started in Japan with the name Transforming Robots, the robots transformed into trucks, cars and airplanes.  Hasbro loves the concept but has to figure out why kids would want them.  You know where I’m headed with this, right? The Transformers cartoon was born.  Hasbro turns to Marvel.  Marvel comes up with the idea of good and evil robots locked in an emotional civil war.  In 1984, the toys and animated series are released at the same time.  Off the back of the cartoon, toy sales go through the roof.  Remember in one of my ‘80’s installments we met adman John Moschita, Jr-the fast talker from the FedEx commercials? He was the voice of the robot Blurr in the series.  The cartoon led to movies.  As of 2023, there have been 8 Transformers movies. 

Coming in at #4 is another personal favorite: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  The story of their rise to supremacy begins in New Hampshire in 1984.  Down on their luck cartoonists Kevin Eastman and Peter Linger are just fooling around when they stumble upon an empire.  Kevin drew a turtle standing up to make his partner laugh.  They named the turtles after 15th century painters and got busy writing them their own comic strip.  They were designed to satirize action heroes.  The self-published surprise lands them a toy deal with toymaker Playmates.  He-Man creator Mark Taylor is hired to turn this 2-D creation into 3-D action heroes.  “These guys were so poor their shoes were held together with duct tape.  They said, “what do you think of it”? I said “It’s good.  These guys are a group that care about each other.  They’re like the Musketeers: all for one and one for all”.  Mark works his magic, but toy shops aren’t prepared to shell out for radioactive reptiles.  But by now there is a tried and tested model to get kids to the toy store: an animated show.  The turtles live in a sewer and are party dudes who eat pizza.  What’s not for a kid to love? Turtles was one of the first to mix in a healthy does of humor.  Turtle Mania takes hold, selling $1.1 billion of toys in 4 years.  Inevitably, the boys in green get their own movie, cementing their status as one of the decades biggest brands. I was a total turtle maniac.  I saw all the movies, had all the toys and even dressed as one of the Turtles for Halloween.

The #3 toy of the ‘80’s began with a man whose world got turned inside out when he lost his job.  He created a new world inside the human mind with no batteries required.  Dungeons & Dragons is a game in which most people’s knowledge of it comes from the movie E.T because they played it in the movie.  In the late ‘70’s, Gary Gygox loses his job and insurance.  Gary fills the hours dreaming up fantasy wargames in his basement.  Little did he imagine the game he dreams up would be the decades most controversial.  Forty years ago, the game got popular with unpopular kids. 

D&D clubs became popular in schools across America, but parents started to panic as legend grew.  There was a big scare of Satanism. In the ‘80’s, anything that appeared to dabble in magic was seen as taboo.  However, by 1986, D&D attracts around 4 million fanatical followers.  D&D no doubt inspired the tv show Stranger Things.

#2 is Cabbage Patch Kids.  The Cabbage Patch Kids are the decades toy craze no one saw coming except perhaps for their creator Xavier Roberts.  Becoming a millionaire at age 26, Roberts licenses his creation to the company Kulico.  In 1983, mass production began.  Computer manufacturing process makes sure no two dolls are the same.  The idea was that you were adopting the dolls.  They even came with a birth certificate.  In February 1983, the mass market version of the doll launched.  Demand soon grew and commercial mayhem would ensue.  By Christmas 1983, demand for the Cabbage Patch kid reaches epidemic proportions.  This was helped in no small degree by the news media reporting a shortage of dolls.  When the dust settles, 3 million Cabbage Patch kids have new homes.  Sales continued at a steady pace until kids express their collective thought that they want the next big thing. 

We have reached the top of the mountain.  At #1 we find the Rubick’s Cube.  This toy came from behind the Iron Curtain to conquer the world.  As has often been the case in this countdown, this story started with a dream.  Rubik’s Brand LTD’s Chrisi Trussell: “It was the late ‘70’s.  Tom Cramer and I, his assistant, were at the Nuremberg Toy Fair.  His eyes lit up when he saw this extraordinary cube in the hands of this representative”.  Cramer discovers the representative is a Hungarian architecture professor by the name of Erno Rubik.  Rubik had invented the cube decades before as a teaching aid.  It was designed to solve engineering problems and the idea being that there’s a moving piece while something else stays stationary.  Suddenly someone says “hey, that’s a puzzle”.

Cramer is taken with both Rubik and his cube but struggles to convince backers in the west of the toys potential.  They said you couldn’t sell a toy you couldn’t solve.  Tom persuaded them to go to Hungary to see people solving the cube.  This finally made the company agree and, in 1980, the Rubik’s Cube launches globally.  In its first year, 4.5 million Cubes are snatched up.  Kids compete in schoolyards across America.  By the mid-‘80’s, one fifth of the worlds population had played the Cube.  Competitions sprang up all over the world.  In 1982, the world record for solving the cube was 22.9 seconds.  Now its 3.47 seconds.  It’s been over 40 years since the cube defected from the east and 450 million cubes have been sold.  Even today, around 20 million cubes are sold each year.  It’s a simple cube that embodies a simple yet elusive dream: elegance, smimplicity and complexity all in the palm of your hand.  These are the qualities that earn the Rubik’s Cube its #1 rank of ‘80’s toys. (NATGEO, ‘80’s Top Ten).  I hope you’ve enjoyed this countdown as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing it to you.  Below are links to my podcast, Blendertainment


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