Introduced during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street on November 8, 1971, Aloysius Snuffleupagus proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.
No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.
Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.
So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?
The solution: get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, mental_floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.
Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.
Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.
Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-Present): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.
Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-Present): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.
Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.
Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.
Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.
Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.
(c) 2004 Sesame Workshop/Sesame Street via Facebook
II. IDENTITY CRISIS
“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the past 10 seasons, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.
Martin P. Robinson (viaStill Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.
Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.
Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."
Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.
The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.
Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.
Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.
Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?
Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.
The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.
Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.
Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.
Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.
Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"
Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.
For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.
Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."
Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.
III. THE REVEAL
The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.
Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"
Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."
Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"
In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.
Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.
Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.
After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.
Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.
Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.
Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.
Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.
Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"
Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”
Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."
Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.
In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.
Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.
Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.
Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.
Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.
Delgado: He got a little sister later on.
Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.
Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.
Delgado: Kids freaked out.
Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."
Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.
Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.
Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.
Davis:Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.
Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.
Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.
Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."
Summer 1978: Over a year after its debut, Star Wars wasn’t through smashing box office records. Ushered back into theaters for a return engagement that July, it made $10 million in just three days. George Lucas had welded mythological structure, pioneering special effects, and a spectacular production design to create a cinematic phenomenon that redefined how studios selected and marketed big-budget spectacles. Movies would never be the same again.
Neither would television. That same month, filming began on The Star Wars Holiday Special, a 97-minute musical-variety show that featured Bea Arthur serenading a giant rat and Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, being seduced by a virtual reality image of Diahann Carroll. Originally, the show was intended to keep the property viable and licensed merchandise moving off shelves until the inevitable sequel. But with Lucas’s focus on The Empire Strikes Back and producers shrinking his galaxy for a television budget, the Holiday Special suffered. So did viewers.
Mental Floss spoke with many of the principal production team members to find out exactly how Lucas’s original intentions—a sentimental look at Chewbacca’s family during a galactic holiday celebration—turned to the Dark Side.
According to onetime Lucasfilm marketing director Charles Lippincott, CBS approached Star Wars distributor 20th Century Fox in 1978 to propose a television special. Fox had seen a boost in box office returns after several aliens from the Cantina scene appeared on Donny and Marie Osmond’s variety show; CBS figured the success of the film would translate into a ratings win; Lucasfilm and Lippincott though it would be a good vehicle to push toys.
With all parties motivated to move forward, two writers—Leonard “Lenny” Ripps and Pat Proft—were brought on to write a script based on an original story by Lucas.
Leonard Ripps (Co-Writer): Pat and I spent the entire day with Lucas. He took out a legal pad and asked how many minutes were in a TV special. He wrote down numbers from one to 90. He was very methodical about it. He had at least a dozen stories he had already written, so we were just helping to fill in a world he knew everything about. His idea was basically for a Wookiee Rosh Hashanah. A furry Earth Day.
Pat Proft (Co-Writer): Wookiees played a big part of it. Stormtroopers were harassing them. I don't have the script. It sure as [hell] wasn't what it ended up being.
Ripps: Pat and I had written for mimes Shields and Yarnell, which is why we were brought on. We had written lots of non-verbal stuff. The challenge was how to get things across. Wookiees aren’t articulate. Even in silent movies, you had subtitles. Whatever we wrote, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek.
Proft and Ripps delivered their script several weeks after the meeting. It focused on a galactic holiday celebrated by all species, with the Wookiee planet of Kashyyyk selected to host the festivities that year. Chewbacca’s family—father Itchy, wife Malla, and son Lumpy—were introduced, with the writers leaving gaps for executive producers Dwight Hemion and Gary Smith to insert celebrity guest stars and musical acts. For the latter, Hemion and Smith turned to producers Ken and Mitzie Welch to arrange original songs and enlist talent.
Elle Puritz (Assistant to the Producer): I was working for the Welches at the time. I remember hearing, “OK, we’re going to do a Star Wars holiday special,” and everyone laughing about it. I thought it was a terrible idea.
Miki Herman (Lucasfilm Consultant): Lippincott requested I be involved with the special. I did a lot of ancillary projects. I knew all the props, all the actors. I hired Stan Winston to create the Wookiee family. [Sound effects artist] Ben Burtt and I were there to basically provide authenticity, to make sure everything was kept in context.
George Lucas (via Empire, 2009): Fox said, "You can promote the film by doing the TV special." So I kind of got talked into doing the special.
Ripps: Lucas told us Han Solo was married to a Wookiee but that we couldn’t mention that because it would be controversial.
Herman: I do remember Gary Smith saying they wanted to have Mikhail Baryshnikov and Ann-Margret involved, high-caliber people that were popular.
Puritz: Ken and Mitzie called Bea Arthur. They wrote a song with her in mind.
Ripps: It never occurred to us to get Bea Arthur. We spent just that one day with Lucas, then got put in touch with [director] David Acomba. Our notion was Acomba was very much Lucas’s guy, so he spoke for Lucas.
Acomba was a Canadian filmmaker who had coincidentally gone to the University of Southern California around the same time as Lucas, though the two never crossed paths at the time. Lippincott knew him, however, and hired him to direct the special in keeping with Lucas’s spirit of finding talent outside the Hollywood system.
Larry Heider (Camera Operator): David came out of a rock 'n' roll world, a documentary world. Smith and Hemion had three different projects going on at the same time, so I think they felt they wouldn’t have time to direct just this one thing.
Puritz: David wasn’t used to shooting television. Using five cameras, everything shooting at the same time. He was very indignant about his own lack of knowledge, and he did not get along with the Welches.
Ripps: I got the impression it was not what he wanted, and had turned into something he didn’t want to do. I don’t want to say he was overwhelmed, but it would’ve been overwhelming for anyone.
With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 million—The Star Wars Holiday Special began filming in Burbank, California in the summer of 1978 with a script that had been heavily revised by variety show veterans Bruce Vilanch, Rod Warren, and Mitzie Welch to reflect the Smith-Hemion style of bombastic musical numbers and kitsch. Chewbacca was now trying to race home in time for “Life Day,” with his family watching interstellar musical interludes and comedic sketches—like a four-armed Julia Child parody—on a video screen.
Ripps: Lucas wanted a show about the holiday. Vilanch and everyone, they were wonderful writers, but they were Carol Burnett writers. In the litany of George’s work, there was never kitsch. Star Wars was always very sincere about Star Wars.
Herman: Personally, I was not a fan of Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, or Art Carney. That wasn’t my generation. But they had relationships with Dwight Hemion and the Welches.
Heider: Bea Arthur was known for being a little cold and demanding. When she was asked to do something a second time, she wanted someone to explain what was wrong. When the script wasn’t making sense for her to say something, she had a hard time translating all of that. She was pretty much [her television character] Maude.
Bea Arthur [via The Portland Mercury, 2005]: I didn't know what that was about at all. I was asked to be in it by the composer of that song I sang—"Goodnight, But Not Goodbye." It was a wonderful time, but I had no idea it was even a part of the whole Star Wars thing … I just remember singing to a bunch of people with funny heads.
After shooting the Cantina scene, it became apparent that Acomba was an ill fit for the constraints of a television schedule.
Heider: David was used to a single camera—run and gun, keep it moving, a real rock 'n' roll pace. This show was anything but. There were huge sets, make-up, costumes. It was slow-paced, and it got to him.
Ripps: I didn’t go down for the filming, but Pat went down. He has a story.
Proft: Took my kid for the Cantina scene. All the characters from the bar were there. However, they forgot [to pump] oxygen into the masks. Characters were fainting left and right.
Heider: Characters would walk around onstage with just their shirts on to stay cool. We were shooting in a very warm part of the year in Los Angeles, and it was difficult, especially with the Wookiees. They took a lot more breaks than they had calculated.
Ripps: I knew how frustrated David was. It wasn’t his vision. He phoned me up and said, “I’m not going to be working on this anymore.”
Acomba left after only shooting a handful of scenes. A frantic Smith phoned Steve Binder, a director with extensive experience in television—he had overseen the famous Elvis ’68 Comeback Special—and told him he needed someone to report to the set the following Monday morning.
Steve Binder (Director): I was between projects and got a call from Gary basically saying they had completely shut down in Burbank and there was talk of shutting it down for good. The first thing I realized was, they had built this phenomenal Chewbacca home on a huge film stage, but it was a 360-degree set. There was no fourth wall to remove to bring multiple cameras into the home. I would think it would be impossible for a crew to even get into the set to shoot anything.
Puritz: I think David was part of that plan.
Heider: I remember when that happened. I don’t think it was David’s idea. It was the way it was conceived by producers on how to make this look really cool, but it didn’t work. You have no lighting control. Steve got it. He’s really a pro. There’s no ego.
Binder: They FedExed me the script. The first thing I looked at was, the first 10 minutes was done with basically no dialogue from the actors. It was strictly Chewbacca sounds. The sound effects people would use bear sounds for the voicing. It concerned me, but there was no time to start changing the script.
Ripps: We had concerns about that. But George said, "This is the story I want to tell."
Binder: The Chewbacca family could only be in the costumes for 45 minutes. Then they’d have the heads taken off, and be given oxygen. It slowed everything down. The suits were so physically cumbersome and heavy. The actress playing Lumpy [Patty Maloney], when she came in, I don’t think she was more than 80 or 90 pounds and she a lost tremendous amount of weight while filming.
In addition to guest stars Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Art Carney, Lucasfilm approached most of the principals from the feature for cameo appearances. Feeling indebted to Lucas, they agreed to participate—reluctantly.
Puritz: They had made this big movie, and now they’re doing a TV special. Carrie Fisher did not want to be there.
Herman: They didn’t love doing TV. At that time, movie actors didn’t do TV. There was a stigma against it.
Heider: Harrison Ford was not happy to be there at all. Carrie Fisher, I think part of her deal was she got to sing a song, and that was her draw to it. Because Lucas was involved, and if another movie is coming out in two years, there’s pressure to keep going. So they showed up, on time. Mostly.
Binder: My recall with the whole cast was that there was a little mumbling going on with a few of the actors who felt they should’ve been compensated more for the movie. I think Lucas did do that after the special, giving them small percentages.
Heider: We were doing a scene where Ford was sitting in the Millennium Falcon and he just wanted to get his lines done and he made that very clear. “Can we just do this? How long is this going to take?”
Harrison Ford (via press tour, 2011): It was in my contract. There was no known way to get out of it.
Heider: Mark Hamill was a good guy. He just had that normal-guy-trying-to-work vibe.
Mark Hamill (via Reddit, 2014): I thought it was a mistake from the beginning. It was just unlike anything else in the Star Wars universe. And I initially said that I didn't want to do it, but George said it would help keep Star Wars in the consciousness and I wanted to be a team player, so I did it. And I also said that I didn't think Luke should sing, so they cut that number.
Herman: I worked with the actors on a lot of the ancillary stuff. Honestly, they were just all so dopey.
Before Acomba departed the production, he and Lucas reached out to a Canadian animation company, Nelvana, to prepare a nine-minute cartoon that would formally introduce one of the characters from The Empire Strikes Back: Boba Fett. The bounty hunter originated from a design for an unused Stormtrooper by production designers Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie; he was intended to make public appearances in the interim between films, initially popping up at the San Anselmo County Fair parade in September of 1978.
Michael Hirsh (Nelvana Co-Founder): David knew me personally. Lucas watched a special of ours, A Cosmic Christmas, that was just coming on air at the time. He asked people on his crew, including David, who we were. David said, "Oh, I know these guys." We were not a well-known company at time.
Clive Smith (Nelvana Co-Founder, Animation Director): Lucas supplied a script that he wrote. I think I probably had about two weeks to storyboard, then start character designs.
Hirsh: Frankly, I think the cartoon was more along the lines of what Lucas wanted to do in the first place—if he did the special, there was a possibility Fox and CBS would fund Star Wars cartoons. The variety show itself wasn’t something he was particularly interested in.
Smith: We ended up shooting slides of each storyboard frame. There must’ve been 300 to 400 frames. I loaded them up, put myself on a plane, and went down to San Francisco and did a presentation with a slide projector. I was in this room of people who were absolutely silent. Things that were funny, not a whimper or murmur. But at the end, George clapped.
Hirsh: CBS wanted him to use one of the L.A. studios, like Hanna-Barbera, who did most of the Saturday morning cartoons. But Lucas, from the beginning of his career, had a thing for independent companies, people who weren’t in L.A. The style of animation was modeled after [French artist] Jean “Moebius” Geraud, at Lucas’s request.
Smith: A lot of the designs and characters were inspired by Moebius, who did a lot of work for Heavy Metal magazine. We thought it was a good direction to point ourselves in. At the time, there was no Star Wars animation to follow.
Hirsh: There was a big deal made about the introduction of Boba Fett.
Smith: We needed to design Boba Fett, and all we had was some black and white footage of a costumed actor who had been photographed in someone’s backyard moving around. We took what was there and turned it into a graphic idea.
Hirsh: I directed the voice sessions. Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) had the most dialogue, and the other actors came in for short sessions. Harrison Ford and the other performers generally came in and nailed lines, whereas Mark Hamill was anxious to try different things. [Hamill would go on to a successful career in voiceover work.]
Herman: Michael got upset when I told him Princess Leia wore a belt. It was part of her costume, and they didn’t have it. Redoing it was going to cost them a lot of money.
Hirsh: That’s possible. Lucas was happy with how it turned out. After the special, we stayed in touch and we were developing a project with Lucasfilm and the Bee Gees. Nothing ever came of it.
Nelvana had a relatively smooth journey to the finish line compared to the live-action production team. By the time Binder was prepared to shoot the climactic “Life Day” celebration with the entire cast and a group of robed Wookiees, there was virtually no money in the budget left for a large-scale spectacle.
Binder: No one ever mentioned there was no set for the closing. I was told by the art director we had no money for it in the budget. So I said, "No problem, just go out and buy every candle you can find in the store." We filled an empty stage with candles. I had experimented with this on another special, maybe a Victor Borge ice skating show. Candles in a dark environment give off an incredibly creative effect.
Herman: The sad truth is, everyone was so overwhelmed. Ken and Mitzie knew that last scene was a disaster. They came to me saying, "Help us." But George was out of the picture. It was a runaway production.
Ripps: Acomba and Lucas had walked away from it. They weren’t there to fight for anything.
Lucas: It just kept getting reworked and reworked, moving away into this bizarre land. They were trying to make one kind of thing and I was trying to make another, and it ended up being a weird hybrid between the two.
Heider: They were spending a lot of money for stage rental, lighting, a TV truck, and everyone was putting in really long hours. It translated into a big below-line budget problem.
Herman: Honestly, a set wasn’t going to save that scene. All the Wookiees were wearing [consumer licensee] Don Post masks.
Premiering November 17, 1978, The Star Wars Holiday Special was seen by 13 million viewers, a significant but not overly impressive audience for the three-network television landscape of the era. It came in second to The Love Boat on ABC for its first hour, with a marked drop-off following the conclusion of the cartoon at the halfway point. Gurgling, apron-clad Wookiees, low-budget Imperial threats—they do nothing more sinister than trash Lumpy’s room—and an appearance by Jefferson Starship proved too bizarre for viewers.
Binder: I felt you have to open with a bang, really grab the audience, make it worth their time to sit and watch. The opening scene going on as long as it did was a killer for the TV audience.
Ripps: I had no idea what had happened to it. When it was broadcast, I had a party at my house and ordered catering. After the first commercial, I turned it off and said, "Let’s eat."
Binder: The day I finished shooting, I was on to other projects. It’s the only show I never edited or supervised the editing of. The Welches had the whole weight of the unedited special in their hands, and I questioned how much experience they had at that given they were songwriters.
Heider: Somebody made choices in terms of how long each scene would be on TV, and it's really painful.
Herman: I remember I was moving to Marin County the next day. I was staying at a friend’s house, and their son was a Star Wars fan. I had given him all the toys. Watching him watch it, he was really bored.
Binder: What I realized was, the public was not told this wasn’t going to be Star Wars. It was not the second movie. It was going to be a TV show to sell toys to kids. That was the real purpose of the show. It had nowhere near the budget of a feature film. [Lucasfilm and Kenner produced prototype action figures of Chewbacca’s family; they were never released.]
Heider: I didn’t watch it when it was on, but I do have a copy I bought several years ago on eBay. It’s not a great copy, but it’s enough to show how it was cut together. I haven’t been able to sit through whole thing at one time.
Herman: George hated it, but he knew there was nothing he could do about it.
Binder: I never met Lucas, never got a phone call, anything. Which was disappointing to me. It was his show, he developed it. To totally walk away from it and critique it negatively was, I felt, not cool.
Ripps: One of the reasons I took the job was I thought it would be an annuity. Every year, I’d get a check for Star Wars.
Hirsh: I did watch it. I was happy with our contribution. It was a phenomenal opportunity for our little company. We got to work on the Droids and Ewoks animated shows later on.
Ripps: I still go out to dinners on the stories. Once, at a dinner party, one of the waiters had Star Wars tattoos up and down both of his arms. When he found out I wrote the special, we got better service than anyone in the restaurant.
Lucas: I’m sort of amused by it, because it is so bizarre. It's definitely avant garde television. It's definitely bad enough to be a classic.
Herman: The interesting thing is, the day after the special aired was the day of the Jonestown Massacre. It was just a bad time for everyone.
Dwight Hemion (via NPR, 2002): It was the worst piece of crap I’ve ever done.
Location: Walmart Supercenter, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Date: December 14, 1996. Victim: Stock room employee Robert Waller. Injuries: A broken rib, pulled hamstring, and concussion.
Cause of emergency room admission: Tickle Me Elmo.
The 27-year-old stock clerk had been working the overnight shift during the holiday rush when he was spotted holding the giggling, vibrating toy by a crowd of frantic shoppers. The ensuing melee left him looking like he had just been in a minor car accident. Someone had even torn the crotch from his jeans. The last thing he saw was a white Adidas sneaker kicking him in the face before he lost consciousness.
All across North America, shoppers and retail workers alike were reduced to their primal instincts in an effort to obtain Tyco’s must-have toy of the holiday season. Tickle Me Elmo combined the appeal of Sesame Street’s breakout character—a three-and-a-half year old monster with charmingly clipped speech—with a novel design that allowed him to be “tickled” until he was practically out of breath.
It was impossibly adorable, and impossible to get: Tyco, which was anticipating a modest success, found themselves chartering private jets in order to get inventory from China more quickly; John Gotti Jr. made headlines for a top-secret Elmo pick-up at a Queens Toys "R" Us; bomb threats were called in to Tyco; one Elmo disappeared from a New York City police station; a toy designer carrying parts through airports was suspected of being the Unabomber.
With Hasbro re-releasing the toy for a new generation of kids this winter, we assembled the inventors, designers, marketers, and industry insiders who helped make Tickle Me Elmo one of the biggest success stories in the history of playthings to talk about how the furry red monster became a pop culture phenomenon—one that parents would literally step all over someone to get.
Tickles the Chimp. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY
With an interest in art and a degree in clinical psychology, Ron Dubren had been making board games and toys for 15 years. A mutual friend had introduced him to the late Stan Clutton, who held inventor liaison positions with a number of companies. Clutton was always willing to listen to Dubren’s ideas, but had rarely said anything other than "no." That’s not unusual in the toy business, but it was still gratifying when Dubren—who had only had modest success with games like Babble On—finally heard Clutton say “yes” to a prototype he made: a chuckling primate named Tickles the Chimp.
Ron Dubren (Co-inventor): I had been in the park one day watching a bunch of kids tickling each other. It brought back childhood memories—how much I loved tickling or being tickled. There was usually a kind of build-up of this laughing jag until you just finally lose it. I thought that would make a great toy.
Patricia Hogan (Curator, The Strong National Museum of Play): There was some precedent for putting electronics into a plush-type toy. There was Teddy Ruxpin, who had a cassette recorder in his torso. He read the story to kids like a sort of surrogate librarian.
Dubren: I can’t tell you why I used a chimp. I somehow associated chimps with laughter, or maybe I saw J. Fred Muggs on the Today show when I was a kid. I don’t know.
Mark Johnson-Williams (Electronics Designer): I had been doing design for Tyco for years. There had been talking dolls since you could pull a string. What made this different was the right sound and right personality.
Dubren: Sound was becoming inexpensive for toys at that point. We were getting into sound chips. It was too expensive to make one, so the prototype had a cable connected to a computer.
Johnson-Williams: Later on, I basically wrote the program for the circuit board that tells the motor what to do. I had done a talking Cabbage Patch Kid.
Dubren: I called up [co-inventor] Greg Hyman, who was a sound engineer and had recently lost his business partner. The original idea was a chimp that tickled you, but it wasn’t feasible. Greg and I worked on developing a prototype to show around. We were turned down by 12 different companies.
Dubren, who refers to the toy business as “the failure business,” wasn’t dissuaded. He finally came around to Clutton, who was working as vice president of marketing at Tyco’s Preschool division, in 1994.
Dubren: We showed it to Stan, and his immediate reaction was, “This would be great as an Elmo, but we don’t have the rights.”
Janice Yates (former Associate Vice President of Marketing and Development, Tyco Preschool): We had the plastic rights. Hasbro had the plush rights.
Dubren: The meeting lasted about 15 minutes before Stan referred me to another guy at Tyco, Gene Murtha. He knew that side of the company had the rights to Looney Tunes. I met Gene that day.
Gene Murtha (former Vice President of Marketing, Tyco): I instantly liked what he had. It was kind of reminiscent of Curious George.
Dubren: He looks at it and says, “This would be a great Tickle Me Taz.”
What remains of Tickle Me Taz. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY
Murtha: I don’t think I said it to Ron, but I thought it would be a great feature product for our Looney Tunes license, which we had at the time.
Yates: The concept was when it came in that you’d tickle it once and it would laugh. Tickle it a second time and it laughed harder. Tickle it a third time and it went hysterical.
Dubren: That escalation was important. It just keeps laughing harder and harder. There was a beginning, middle, and end.
Murtha: We might have looked at doing Tickle Me Tweety. But at the time, Warner Bros. was pushing the Tasmanian Devil and had all kinds of research indicating how popular he was. Boys loved the gruffness of him. The market was reaching a saturation point with Tweety. There had been a lot of Tweety.
Johnson-Williams: No one wants to take care of a Tasmanian Devil. You don’t want to be his friend.
Murtha: We did do a Taz prototype. It was functioning, with the electronics and everything. We had someone do a voice to simulate his grunting sort of laugh. I remember taking it to Warner Bros. and they were like, “Yeah, fine.” It wasn’t memorable on their part. They could have had the Tickle Me license under their property.
Despite Murtha's enthusiasm, Taz would not get the opportunity to become the must-have toy of the year.
Hogan: When you think of that character, tickling doesn’t seem the least bit compatible.
Yates: It was good for Taz, he had a crazy personality, but during the evaluation, Tyco decided not to renew the Warner Bros. license.
Murtha: In those days, Tyco had no email system. We all communicated via fax. I remember being at the offices in New York after hours—it was me, Stan, and a few others. I walked past the fax machine and it was spitting out a notice that Tyco had dissolved their agreement with Warner Bros. I walked to Stan and said, “Why don’t you take this and make Tickle Me Big Bird?” And he said, “No, it would be Tickle Me Elmo.” And by this point, they had gotten the Sesame Street license.
Dubren: The guy Stan worked for, [former Tyco president] Martin Scheman, had the idea to pursue the license to SesameStreet and create feature items they’d promote on TV. Marty went to Stan and said, “I need a feature item.” And Stan said, “I’ve got an idea.”
Yates: We had a long-term relationship for plastic toys for the Sesame license. The relationship had grown and they gave us the opportunity to bid on the plush portion and to become the master toy licensee.
Ann Kearns (former Vice President, Licensing, Sesame Workshop): StoryMagic Big Bird was really our first big item. It was pretty low-tech, but it was a huge success. Before Elmo came along, Big Bird was the star of the show. He was the quintessential 6-year-old and Elmo was the quintessential 3-year-old.
Dubren: I got a call from Stan saying, “Guess what?” That’s when I came up with Elmo’s Law: Anything that can go right will go right.
Yates: From the time it got kicked back to us, we all felt the best use for the concept would be with Elmo.
Murtha: I was delighted for Stan to take it over. It was 70 percent done. I was able to take the internal development costs, which were between $50,000 and $100,000, and move them over to Stan’s profit and loss margin.
Bruce Maguire (CEO, Freeman PR): Elmo hadn’t really been translated into toys yet.
Yates: Elmo was starting to come to the forefront on Sesame Street. This was around 1995. He was becoming more and more popular with parents and children.
Kearns: We didn’t do a lot of Elmo products at first, but in the early 1990s, we started getting calls from parents. “My kid loves Elmo, my kid wants to go to sleep with Elmo.”
Dubren: At the time, Sesame Street was sort of a sleepy license for toys. They were perceived as educational, and that’s a death knell for toys.
Johnson-Williams: The character had to be on long enough for people to go looking for him.
Murtha: The whole character changed with Elmo’s skin. It gave it a gentle, loving ambiance.
Yates: His character lent itself to the laughing and giggling element. It was perfect.
II: GOOD VIBRATIONS
Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY
Work began on turning Tickle Me Taz into Tickle Me Elmo in early 1995, with the expectation that it would be ready for a February 1996 debut at New York’s Toy Fair. Dubren and Hyman had licensed their concept and would be paid a royalty, although the end result would be markedly different from Tickles the Chimp.
Dubren: I don’t have a proprietary feeling about it. A lot got changed, developed, and improved.
Johnson-Williams: I have a lab near a main street and there are windows. At one point, there were Elmo skins all over without any of the electronics. It looked like a toy factory exploded. People would walk by and go, “What happened?”
Murtha: The next pieces they put in were friggin’ awesome.
Yates: We brought in our ad agency to take a look at the concept. Bob Moehl came to the meeting. He looked at the toy and there was just dead silence.
Maguire: It was a line review. I remember being there. They said, “This is going to be our lead item.”
Bob Moehl (Advertising): I, as the ad man, said it was a waste of money to advertise a sound toy. Television is about motion. The thing ought to move.
Yates: He said, “It’s adorable, it’s great, but television is a visual medium.” And off he went.
Maguire: Bob said, “It’s great, but can you make it shake, like a Santa Claus belly?” That one little change had such a payoff.
Dubren: I think what happened was, someone had remembered seeing a shaking monkey that had been on the market.
Neil Friedman (former President, Tyco Preschool): The line review was just about the time I had come on board the company. That mechanism became the third component.
Jerry Cleary (former Vice President, Sales, Tyco Preschool): With the laughing and shaking together, I thought we had something compelling.
The secret to Elmo's success: a vibrating sound box.
Johnson-Williams: They showed me this shaking, shrieking monkey, showed me Elmo, and asked me to build one with all of those elements.
Yates: I remember at the time people had those old-style flip phones on the table. They were vibrating and shaking as they were ringing. And a light bulb went off.
Dubren: My wife actually saw Tickles the Chimp and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it shook?” I said, “Yeah, but no one is going to put that kind of money into it.”
As with most licensors, Children’s Television Workshop—which later changed its name to Sesame Workshop—was fiercely protective of its intellectual property.
Yates: There were serious concerns from Sesame. They weren’t sure if they wanted Elmo to shake in case parents thought he was having a seizure. It was a conversation over the course of several meetings, winning them over.
Kearns: I don’t recall that. She may have spoken to someone else about it. What I recall is that we wanted to make sure the shaking was confined to the giggle, so he was only shaking when he was giggling, and then it stopped. There’s no reason for the body to move without that.
Johnson-Williams: It was a conversation with Janice on how to get the motor to run a little, then a little more, then run full blast.
Dubren: They tested it with moms, and no one seemed to care it was going to be $30 instead of $20 because of the motor.
Yates: We did some informal research, and no parent thought Elmo was having a seizure.
Johnson-Williams: Every licensor does this. Every one. I remember one company had to stop production on a Minnie Mouse because her bow had nine polka dots. Disney said, “No, she has 11. Start over.”
Dubren: It was a big payoff, or surprise ending. The vibration is what makes people start laughing along with it.
Johnson-Williams: At one point, we had him saying, “Stop, stop tickling me.” And there was something sinister about that. Elmo is a child and you can’t have a child saying, “Stop, stop.”
Hogan: Almost all of us have memories of being tickled or tickling. It’s fun, but it’s also a little uncomfortable. There’s a tension there that’s part of the appeal. Elmo recalled that.
Johnson-Williams: I flew the prototype back to show them. They’re professional toy people. It’s not like they clapped.
While a lot had to go right in order for Tickle Me Elmo to succeed, one key component would be the notion that parents and their children would be able to see Elmo in action before spending $29.95.
Yates: Martin Scheman originated the concept of “Try Me” at retail, which means presenting a product to a consumer in packaging with batteries included so you can press it and get a demonstration. That was a critical piece of Tickle Me Elmo.
Murtha: I wouldn’t say originated, but there was a mastery of it. We had to do a lot of Try Me because Tyco Preschool wasn’t advertising on television.
Friedman: I forced the factory to put batteries in because I wanted it to be a Try Me.
Maguire: You’d be walking down the aisle, squeeze his hand, and he’d laugh right on the shelf.
Johnson-Williams: That was a relatively new idea. One of my theories when I wrote the program was, most people have an attention span of less than eight seconds. The Tickle Me Elmo would have to get to the punch line in less time than that. Any longer and people walk away.
Dubren: Try Me showed off everything about the toy. It laughs, it escalates, it starts to shake, and you get it right away.
Yates: You could experience it at the retail level but it would not wear out the batteries. Engineering had flagged us about using battery life for a toy with sound and a motor. They were concerned about dead batteries at retail if the toy played in its full mode.
Johnson-Williams: Once you took it home and pulled the cord out, it would play in the full mode.
While Johnson-Williams worked on getting Elmo to laugh and shake in the right ratio, he would sometimes be interrupted by calls or visits to his office in Half Moon Bay, California from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was suspected of being the Unabomber.
Yates: I was on a plane to San Francisco with a bucket of parts on my way to meet with Mark. I was interrogated at the airport because I had all these wires, batteries, and tapes. They asked me who I was going to see. That’s how they got Mark’s name.
Johnson-Williams: The FBI basically had 10,000 people on a list, and one of the ways to get on was to order a bunch of electronic parts. They were trying to find this guy and casting as wide a net as possible.
Dubren: The media picked up on that and turned it into him being the creator of Tickle Me Elmo. It got to be a little uncomfortable.
Johnson-Williams: There were some funny coincidences. He was seen in Utah, supposedly, at the same time I was shooting a toy commercial in Utah. One day he said he was going to blow up San Francisco and then I flew into San Francisco. Every few weeks, they’d make a call and ask a question.
After an 18-year search, the FBI caught Unabomber Ted Kaczynski on April 3, 1996. While that was a relief for Johnson-Williams, the pressure was building for Tyco Preschool’s core team, which had never before been charged with delivering such a high-profile item.
Murtha: That division of Tyco was considered to be kind of a stepchild. There was a critical meeting where four or five of us sat with Dick Grey, the CEO, at Gramercy Park. And he basically scolded and berated us.
Cleary: I think he was challenging us, which was his job. The discussion was about who was going to be promoting it.
Murtha: We showed him Elmo and thought we had something special and wanted to handle the advertising. He wouldn’t allow it. I thought we’d be fired.
Cleary: In so many words, he told us we didn’t know what we were doing. And then they finally reconsidered.
Murtha: This is around the time Neil Friedman came in [as president of Tyco Preschool]. He had a very keen marketing eye for what the consumer will respond to.
Cleary: Elmo was done by the time Neil came to the company, but he did a remarkable job selling it.
Friedman: It was not done. The packaging still needed to be designed and there was more work to do.
Maguire: She wasn’t his wife at the time, but Amanda Friedman designed the original Tickle Me. A lot of people became lifetime friends from working on it.
Tickle Me Elmo’s push began during the February 1996 Toy Fair in New York, the annual event for companies and buyers to get an idea of what the coming year will bring.
Yates: I remember waddling into Toy Fair very pregnant at the time. I was presenting it to buyers and having meetings. The reaction was positive, but it wasn’t, “Oh, my God, we have a phenomenon.” It was, "Okay, it’s cute, great."
Johnson-Williams: They stuck a bunch of them on a wall.
Maguire: The primary line at Toy Fair was Tyco’s line of RC Cars. So the media would go through this tour and wind up at Tyco Preschool, where Elmo was. It was probably one of the first animated plush licenses next to Big Bird. They may have thought, “Oh, okay, they’re just doing what they did before.”
Johnson-Williams: My wife at the time had a friend who didn’t like anything I did. She was kind of a curmudgeon. When she touched Tickle Me Elmo, she smiled, and I knew it was going to be a big deal.
Maguire: Al Roker from the Today show was there, and he loved it. This was pre-[gastric] surgery, so he was a little chunky then. He laughed and his belly laughed and Elmo laughed.
Ellie Bagli (Senior Vice President, Freeman PR): Al was being Al and Elmo was being Elmo. It was a great visual.
Maguire: It brought Elmo to life in a way that had never been done before.
Yates: Neil was at a baseball game when he ran into a buyer from Toys "R" Us. And the guy said, “Oh, my God, Neil. We just got an initial point of sale report and this thing is flying off the shelves. You guys better ramp up.” It had been out three or four weeks.
Friedman: We were monitoring it from the moment it hit shelves. It wasn't because of running into anyone. We were getting calls from buyers right away. It was selling far better than any $30 plush would have sold in those days.
III: THE TICKLE MONSTER
Thanks to Elmo’s popularity and the novel Try Me packaging, Tickle Me Elmo was off to a solid start when it hit store shelves in July 1996. But without the viral marketing of today, a toy’s best shot at hitting the stratosphere was exposure to children—and their parents—on television.
Yates: The Today show had aired a segment about the new hot toys. Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric were sitting there playing with the doll and getting a kick out of it. It was great exposure.
Maguire: Bryant was not considered a warm guy, so for us, it was great. He was not the type you’d expect to have Elmo on his lap. It seemed to humanize him.
Bagli: He held it the entire time. I don’t think it’s ever been done before or since.
Yates: Freeman PR was responsible for getting Rosie [O'Donnell].
Maguire: Ellie was taping her show almost from the start. Rosie would create a kind of game show atmosphere and give her audience products.
Murtha: It was perfect. This was September, and the kids were going back to school.
Dubren: It helped her show as well. She was just starting out.
Yates: You couldn’t just send Rosie items. It was all about whether she liked it or not. If she didn’t, it wasn’t going on her show.
Bagli: It was early October. We had sent her son one and then she talked on-air about how he had flushed it down the toilet. So I jumped on the phone with Tyco and said, “Get every Elmo we have. Get some red tissue paper.” I got a call from her show an hour later saying, “This is great. Can we have enough for the whole audience?”
Murtha: She eventually brought Neil Friedman out and he did a great job pitching. Elmo did a great job pitching.
The packaging, the character, and O’Donnell’s endorsement put Tickle Me Elmo on the map in a very prominent way. As the holiday season began, the media took note of shoppers waiting anxiously outside toy stores in groups resembling "Depression-era bread lines.” Unlike most dolls and many plush items, Elmo was a “gender-free” gift that boys and girls were demanding in equal quantity.
Hogan: If it were a plastic doll, chances are most boys wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with it.
Murtha: Going into September, we were forecasting 100,000 pieces. Within a week of Rosie, we were forecasting a million.
Bagli: It was virtually sold out from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas.
Maguire: All of a sudden, demand got really strong, and Tyco was in a position of, “How many more can we make before the end of the year?”
Murtha: You line up factories for 100,000. A week later, it’s a million. There’s just no way to get them into the marketplace.
Cleary: I was on the phone with Hong Kong three nights a week. The tools could burn out on high manufacturing runs, so we were figuring out how to build new tools.
Friedman: The plush was not the limiting factor. The problem is producing the mechanism. We were building new tools every week.
Yates: We ended up not running the full TV campaign, pulling some of the back-half media because we didn’t feel it was right to continue to advertise the item to gain awareness and sales when we could barely support all of the pent-up demand.
Maguire: That’s the irony of the motor. It was made for television and they never needed television.
Following Black Friday, Tickle Me Elmo turned into the most coveted holiday item on wish lists. The scarcity led to a tsunami of media about toy aisle mayhem. John Gotti Jr., son of late mafia boss John Gotti, was seen entering a Toys "R" Us after hours and walking away with several Elmos; Cartier Jewelers offered Elmo free with the purchase of a $1 million necklace. One Toys "R" Us district manager pushed a pallet of Elmos out and watched in horror as parents tore into them without regard for anyone’s safety. He started to cry.
Yates: People would call the Tyco offices threatening to do something if we didn’t release more Elmos. Bomb scares. “I’m going to blow the place up.” It was overwhelming.
Dubren: There were people acting primitive, but that happens every Christmas. A kid laughing with his parents doesn’t get to be a news story.
Kearns: Did it make us cringe? A little. It was nothing we promoted, but there was nothing we could do about it. It was just demand.
Yates: The media kept saying that we planned it, and it was just great marketing. It wasn’t.
Dubren: Nothing of the kind ever happens. They’re in business to sell stuff. The problem is, they don’t want to be stuck with inventory.
Maguire: The media was doing negative stories, saying it was artificial. Sometimes they want to build up a thing to knock it down. Everyone thought there was a bunch in storage somewhere. Tyco was a public company. You couldn’t mess around like that.
Friedman: Plan a shortage? No one plans a shortage. You can't just say, okay, we want a million. You need to buy chips and other materials, and that can take 60 days.
Cleary: You have a responsibility to the shareholder. That’s the last thing we’d do.
Moehl: [We just] underestimated how the thing would take off. Nothing succeeds in the toy business like shortages.
Yates: Neil was so influential in getting us more goods, as much as we could possibly produce. We went from 400,000 to shipping a million units.
Dubren: Stan thought Neil was crazy to do that, that it was way over the line.
Maguire: He wanted to put the pedal to the metal, where Tyco as a whole wanted to be more cautious. Big toys have put companies under. Teddy Ruxpin killed Coleco. You can’t flood the market. Neil convinced them.
Friedman: It was completely my decision.
Dubren: They were shipping them by boat, but then they started to fly them in.
Friedman: We air-freighted them in on a regular basis, over and above the goods arriving on water.
As Christmas neared, it was clear not everyone who wanted a Tickle Me Elmo was going to get one. A toy phenomenon had become a cultural symbol of how determined shoppers were to land the coveted monster. To prevent thefts or fights, Toys "R" Us would call raincheck holders and leave vague messages that their “item” was in. In the store, they would be handed a pre-wrapped package so they could slip out of the store without being obstructed.
Dubren: For me, it hit home when I was on a plane to Chicago in early December and TheNew York Times had the front page of their business section talking about Tickle Me Elmo. It was a pinch-me moment.
Maguire: Harvey Weinstein at Miramax contacted us and sent us a bunch of Oscar-nominated movies on VHS. The Letterman people called and traded us sweatshirts. Brett Favre called Neil.
Cleary: Al Gore called. I told my secretary to tell him I’m Republican.
Murtha: Jill Barad, the [former] CEO of Mattel, walked past my office one day and saw him. “Oh, my God, you have an Elmo!” I gave her mine.
Maguire: Some people at Nintendo traded us N64s, which were the other hot toy, for Elmos.
Dubren: The internet was pretty fresh back then. Most people had dial-up. But there were a few on eBay already.
Yates: I was riding the train home from New York one night and Stan asked me to go do a radio interview. I get on the phone and did the interview. I look up, and everyone on the train is looking at me. “You work for that place? Can you get me an Elmo?” I really felt like my life was in danger.
Maguire: You had to say no sometimes to needy people who would benefit, like charities. You became the gatekeeper for this toy.
Cleary: We tried to distribute it evenly. But we were able to use it and say to retailers who were slow to pay invoices, “Look, we gotta clean this up or we can’t allocate any product to you.” And everyone paid their bills.
Murtha: We took Tyco Preschool from being the losers in New York to, “Oh, those are our guys.”
Maguire: When Tickle Me Elmo sold out, you couldn’t come home empty-handed, so you bought some kind of Elmo toy.
Kearns: It was a halo effect across the entire Sesame line. There was always another Elmo on the shelf to buy. We had T-shirts, books.
Maguire: They could have sold 10 times as many if they had them.
Murtha: Mattel was in the process of buying Tyco and merging Tyco Preschool and Fisher-Price together when Elmo was coming out. I would say the entire purchase price of Tyco [$737 million] was recovered over the next two to three years by Elmo.
IV: ELMO GETS EXTREME
Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY
By the end of 1996, Tickle Me Elmo had taken his place among the most popular toys of the 20th century. Over 1.2 million of the dolls had reportedly been sold, making Tyco a name that could stand among the Hasbro and Mattel brands as a leading supplier of hot holiday items. But unlike past fads, Elmo wasn’t going to be forgotten quickly.
Dubren: I think it took until the following June for Toys "R" Us to honor all of their rainchecks for 1996.
Friedman: I'm not going to tell you the number. We sold well over a million in 1996. And we sold many, many more Elmos in 1997. In fact, we sold more Elmos in the first quarter than we did for the entire year before.
Cleary: We sold one million Elmos in 1996 and four million Elmos in 1997.
Kearns: It may have been the first time a toy did better in year two than year one.
Yates: It was an exciting time, but Stan gave me a reality check. He wanted to know what we were going to do the next year.
Maguire: It became a franchise out of nowhere.
Yates: We did Sing and Snore Ernie, which did almost as well as Tickle Me Elmo.
Friedman: The biggest thing I found following the craze was walking into a toy department and seeing people pick up a plush toy and squeezing it to see if it would do anything. We needed to keep bringing soft toys to life, and that's what we spent a lot of time doing.
Kearns: Ernie was very popular in Europe. Elmo actually wasn’t on Sesame Street in Europe at the time.
Yates: We also did a line extension with Baby Tickle Mes—Cookie Monster, Ernie, Zoe.
Kearns: There was no Tickle Me Oscar. The toys always had to be true to the character.
Cleary: We sold 4 million Baby Tickle Mes. There was just so much demand we couldn’t fill.
Gina Sirard (former Vice President of Marketing, Fisher-Price): One of my main strategies when I got to Fisher-Price was to have people asking, “What is Elmo going to do next?”
Bagli: You’ve got to give them credit. Every year, they did a new Elmo. Chicken Dance Elmo won a Toy of the Year award.
Yates: There was a Toss and Tickle Me Elmo.
Dubren: You threw him up in the air, he’d laugh, you’d catch him, and a motion sensor switch would get him to stop laughing.
Cleary: Elmo as Elvis.
Yates: Rock and Roll Elmo was also Greg Hyman. I was there until 2008 and there weren’t any real dogs.
Girard: Pogo Elmo got a lukewarm reception. It was the only one that wasn’t really a huge success.
Dubren: To some degree, I’ve been told it saved Children’s Television Workshop at the time. The success spread to the entire license.
Maguire: As funding for public television deteriorated from the government, the private sector was coming into place through royalties. Now you were seeing the characters on applesauce and snacks.
Kearns: What I would say is that any non-profit is constantly challenged with ways to drive income. Any success story is a big plus. [Workshop founder] Joan Ganz Cooney gave a speech where she said Tickle Me was such a big success it allowed them to expand internationally.
Under Mattel’s Fisher-Price banner, Elmo made annual appearances right on through 2006. For his 10th anniversary, the company launched TMX Elmo, or Tickle Me Elmo Extreme, a doll that had to be seen to be believed.
Dubren: TMX was fabulous. I wish I could say I developed the mechanism, but I didn’t.
Bruce Lund: (Owner, Lund and Company): We had actually shown them the mechanism for Elmo’s fifth anniversary. Later, one of us came to the other and wanted to take the concept further into extreme laughter.
Sirard: It didn’t work out for the fifth anniversary. When he bought it back, we added the slapping on the ground and the rolling over.
Lund: It was something we used in a toy called Baby Go Boom—not the same, but an earlier version. Baby Go Boom could basically fall from a standing to seated position, then lay down, then sit back up. And then we realized we could get her to stand back up, and that became Somersault Sara.
Gabriela Arenas (Vice President of Licensing, North America, Sesame Workshop): TMX was really an attempt to recreate how a 3-year-old would laugh when being tickled—rolling on the floor, giggling, having fun. The mechanism was able to translate that.
Kearns: I remember Fisher-Price did a mock-up to show us and we just fell over laughing. It was a no-brainer.
Lund: Getting the Elmo skin on was an issue. The mechanism can work fine on its own, but the fur adds friction.
Maguire: We were able to recreate the hysteria, which was pretty huge.
Kearns: Gina Sirard was the genius behind the marketing of keeping the whole thing under wraps. Retailers would buy it without having seen it.
Maguire: I had been working with Tyco for 25 years and it was the first time they made me sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Lund: There is satisfaction in seeing people mystified. It was a simple mechanism, but people thought it was a mechanical marvel.
Sirard: The whole goal was to make Elmo seem as real and alive as possible.
Lund: One time we had temporarily lost a sample and Fisher-Price was a little upset. We did find it. They wanted everything kept top secret.
Maguire: We stole a little from Steve Jobs and didn’t let anyone see the product until it was at retail.
Bagli: There were maybe 20 people in the world who saw it before then. We kept the product a secret until the day we revealed it on Good Morning America.
Lund: It was really marketing genius.
Bagli: The package looked like a metal briefcase with a warning, “May Contain Uncontrollable Laughter.”
Lund: We had shipped samples in a diamond-plate pattern metal with foam inside, sort of an attaché case that fit the model properly, because they were so valuable. That was ultimately the inspiration for the packaging.
Kearns: They made a package where you just saw the eyes through a tiny little flap.
Lund: It was also good because there was no on-shelf demo, and so the batteries wouldn’t wear out.
Maguire: Diane Sawyer had it in a little vault.
Bagli: Most holiday sales started on Black Friday, but this pushed it ahead two months. We called it the Elmo Effect.
Maguire: People were lined up outside of Toys "R" Us and put 10 in a cart to sell on eBay.
Bagli: It was like getting election results. You get the East Coast, and then West coast numbers pop up.
Arenas: It created that must-have expectation with consumers.
Maguire: The toy industry was in the doldrums that year. All of a sudden people got excited to go to big box stores in September and it turned out to be a good year. Everyone benefited from TMX Elmo.
Hogan: I suspect the appeal was more for adults who had grown up with Tickle Me Elmo and now had kids of their own. It was very exaggerated and very funny.
Lund: According to Mattel, it sold more toys on its first day than any other toy in history to that point. That doesn’t include video games.
Sirard: I remember getting calls every hour from Walmart. It was incredible. I think the number was 250,000 sold that day. I don’t know if there’s been a product since that’s done that.
After countless variations—including backpacks, foreign releases, and more—Elmo and the rest of the Sesame Street license returned to Hasbro in 2011. Their Love2Learn Elmo offers children guidance on potty-training; a slightly smaller version of the original is also in stores. Sesame Street, which is now premiering new episodes on HBO, still considers Elmo its biggest licensing success among preschoolers.
Dubren: Ironically, there had been a tickle-me baby on the market the same year Tickle Me Elmo came out. But there was no TV promotion and no character.
Bagli: People still use Tickle Me Elmo as the standard. “What’s the next Tickle Me Elmo?”
Lund: When I did TMX, I had people come to me and go, “Oh, man, why didn’t you bring it to us?” What would you do with it? Make a teddy bear? Who cares? When it’s Elmo, that’s when it matters to people.
Dubren: There had been big toys, but this transcended the typical toy phenomenon. It was more human than something like Furby or Tamagochi. It became something adults were aware of.
Kearns: It became what the industry came to call “feature plush.” There had been talking toys, but this was wiggling, giggling, and vibrating.
Murtha: I’ve worked on a lot of these. Strawberry Shortcake, Trivial Pursuit, Cabbage Patch—it’s what you work for. When it comes together, all you can say is wow.
Dubren: Tickle Me Taz probably would have vanished overnight.
Kearns: It was a perfect storm, the right character with the right mechanism. No one wants to hug Taz.
Dubren: It’s simple. It gave people joy. It may have only lasted a couple of moments, but that’s one of the precious things about life.
Kearns: At the time, my sister-in-law was going through some very serious radiation and chemotherapy for cancer. I would visit her and talk about what we were working on. I once brought a Tickle Me to show her and she got the biggest smile on her face. Even with all these tubes and chemicals, she smiled. All the doctors and nurses played with it. It showed me Elmo’s appeal went beyond preschoolers.
She passed away. I still have her doll. Everyone loves Elmo.