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5 Dangerously Popular Holiday Toys

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It's not really the holiday season until you've waited in an interminable line in adverse weather conditions to spend money on a toy that has been hyped within an inch of its life. To get your festive fix of fisticuffs, we present to you the Top Five Most Dangerously Popular Holiday Toys of the last two decades.

1. The Toy: Cabbage Patch Kids

The Year: 1983
The Chaos: My very own parents can attest to the fact that these (admit it) sorta-ugly dolls were THE must have Christmas item for much of the early 80s, thanks, in part, to a few big celebrities who were apparent fans of the little dimpled tykes, including Burt Reynolds (His wife, Loni Anderson, was a toy collector. We assume he bought them for her. That has to be it, right?) I had two. My first adopted daughter's name was Jemima. I don't remember the name of the second, but I do recall that her new special feature was that you could "curl" her hair by winding it around your finger. Basically this meant that instead of normal yarn-like hair, she had strands that felt like oily, waxy Twizzlers and were probably made from something we'd rather not think about. As for the frenzy surrounding these dolls, we'll let the You Tube footage speak for itself:

2. The Toy: Tickle Me Elmo

elmo.jpgThe Year: 1996
The Chaos: Nearly 300 people had amassed outside a Wal-Mart in Frederickton, New Brunswick in the five hours before it opened. The moment the doors were unlocked, the Muppet-seeking mob pushed their way through the entrance, evidently not caring who they had to step over on their way to the shelves of creepy, giggling, red rascals. One defenseless employee had to be hospitalized. (This was eerily similar to the tragic death of a Long Island Wal-Mart employee last month.) Down in Texas, two Wal-Mart employees were lucky enough to escape the Elmo rush unharmed, but they weren't able to escape The Man: they got fired for hiding Elmo dolls from customers so they could claim them for themselves.

The new Elmo on the block, "Elmo Live," doesn't just giggle; he sits, stands, dances, sings, tells jokes and crosses one leg over the other. It's terrifying and just a little bit awesome. See for yourself:

3. The Toy: Furby

furby.jpgThe Year: 1998
The Chaos: Despite the fact that nobody was really sure what a "Furby" really was, the floppy-eared, big-eyed gremlin-esque toy with a capacity to remember a vocabulary of over 100 English words (along with some words spoken in "furbish") was so coveted in 1998 that people waited in line for hours just to buy Furbies that they could scalp to shoppers who were still waiting in line. The eternal law of supply and demand was put to the test as the media featured stories about this innovative "intuitive" tech-y toy months before it was actually scheduled to hit the shelves. By the time it did, the demand was already out of control stores were forced to turn away customers away with vague projections about when they'd get a few more Furbies in stock. Several customers at a Wal-Mart in Tewksbury, MA, wouldn't take "No Furbies" for an answer and threatened violence against the store management if their desire for Furby wasn't quenched. They still left empty handed, but at least they weren't in handcuffs. The Furbster is still around today, and there is actually a Bejeweled Furby that has been appraised at a worth of $100k. There are only five in existence, but somehow we suspect (or hope) the supply might be more than the demand this time around. Ready to lose several nights of sleep? Here's a You Tube video highlighting Furby's more"¦ uh"¦ demonic characteristics:

4. The Toy: Beanie Babies

beanie.jpgThe Year: 1997
The Chaos: The words "Beanie Baby Black Market" might conjure more than a few chuckles, but such markets were a reality in 1997 when Beanie mania was at the height of its frenzy. Oak Brook, IL-based toy maker Ty, Inc. introduced the original Beanie Babies in 1993. Four years later, they were still introducing new beanie designs that became instant must-haves for the kiddie set, while serious collectors paid thousands to get their hands on the "vintage classic" beanies with '93 and '94 birthdays. One Nebraskan toy storeowner reported that grown men were fighting in line waiting to get into her store to buy these $5 trinkets. Stores had to vastly limit the number of Beanies that customers could buy because while they only cost a fiver at the retailer, the underground trading market was being flooded with beanies costing ten times their intended value. In 1999, a St. Louis couple was sentenced to one and half years in prison and a $150,000 fine for smuggling in counterfeit Beanie Babies from Europe with the intent to sell them in the United States. Creator Ty Warner intended to get out of the beanie business altogether after he saw how his simple creation was getting blowing vastly out of proportion with asking amounts in the thousands, but he's back at it with Beanie Babies 2.0, an updated version of the same old stuffed animal with the added feature of being able to log on to the internet with a special code that allows you to play games and interact with your beanie virtually. (Much like the now hugely popular Webkinz, the first collectible plush to take up the original beanie baby mantle). For more beanie news, we will now direct you to this You Tube clip that actually features Beanie Babies delivering fake news. It's too precious to be believed.

5. The Toy: Nintendo Wii/Sony PS3

wii-ps3.jpgThe Year: 2006
The Chaos: It's unlikely that you've forgotten the intensity surrounding Sony and Nintendo's holiday console system debuts in 2006. The lines. The websites devoted to tracking the latest shipments to your local stores. The urge to rationalize paying three times the retail price just so you would know what it felt like to be one of the proud few who would hold one on Christmas morning. This writer still doesn't own either, as she somehow believes that it is beyond her reach, like if I was to go right now to the store and try to get a Wii, two years later, they would still tell me to get in line. Nevertheless, some people did manage to score these two state of the art systems in '06, but in one reported instance, getting one was actually the easy part. One CNN staffer posted a personal account of her brush with violence as she struggled to escape with her newly purchased Wii, stating that as she made her way for the exit, disgruntled line-waiters who just been told there were no more Wii's to be had started grabbing for her bag and shouting at her. A lone female in a sea of angry gamers, she was escorted to a police car by the store's security guard and was given safe exit by her armed escort. For a 19-year old in West Bend, WI, just getting in line for a PS3 was a struggle: he injured himself running into a pole as he sprinted to claim one of 10 coveted spots in line outside a Wal-Mart to lay claim to the small shipment of PS3's that was available. Believe it or not, that was just the tip of the extremely violent iceberg surrounding these super-hyped systems:

We don't know yet which toy will claim the top spot under the tree this year, but here's a gallery of the contenders. Our money is on Kota, the dinosaur who munches leaves and whom that small children can sit on and ride. What we wouldn't give to be six again.

What's your best (or worst) must-have toy memory?

Jenn Thompson is a freelance writer for publications including Charlotte Magazine, Variety, and Time Out.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.


If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).


Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.


Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother


When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."


A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:


In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:


Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.


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