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Oral History: 30 Years Ago, Geraldo Rivera Opened Al Capone's Vault

For gangland aficionados, it was almost as good as the Super Bowl. On April 21, 1986, nearly 30 million viewers tuned in to The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults, a live primetime excavation hosted by Geraldo Rivera that promised to dig deep into the catacombs of the criminal’s hotel hideout on Chicago’s South Side. For two hours, Rivera shouted over power tools, ignited dynamite, took target practice with a submachine gun, and teased the possibility of finding money, weapons, or the decayed corpses of Capone’s rivals.

For Rivera, it represented an opportunity to rekindle a career that had stalled following a highly-publicized departure from ABC after 15 years with the network. “I knew everyone in the news business would be watching,” he tells mental_floss. “And as the evening wore on, I had more and more of a sinking feeling.”

To celebrate (or bemoan) the program’s 30th anniversary, Rivera and producers recall the dangers, obstacles, and insanity of broadcasting an urban archeological dig on live television. If Capone’s alleged bunker held any secrets, they wouldn’t come easily. 

I. TELEVISION, CHICAGO-STYLE

MyAlCaponeMuseum via YouTube

In the late 1970s, producers John Joslyn and Doug Llewelyn (The People’s Court) formed The Westgate Group, a production company based out of Los Angeles. At the same time the two were actively searching for programming ideas, Joslyn got wind of a discovery by mafia historians Harold Rubin and Thomas Bangs: Capone’s old haunt, the Lexington Hotel on Michigan Avenue, had a concrete wall in the basement that might contain some of the late mob kingpin’s possessions.  

John Joslyn (Producer): I happened to read an article in the newspaper about the Lexington Hotel and how the owner believed there was a vault in the basement. I sat down with Doug, my partner, and said, “Doug, what do you think about this?” He thought it was a big concept. We ran it by a pal of ours in New York who was in ad sales, and he goes, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.” He fell on the floor. He told us we had to do it.

Allan Grafman (Then-Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): It landed on the desk of the president of Tribune, Sheldon Cooper. We were only a few years old at the time and had syndicated shows, but doing something live was unheard of. I met with Westgate and thought this could really be something.

Sheldon Cooper (Then-President, Tribune Entertainment): We were generating content for our stations, and to sell across the country. It was really for stations that couldn’t afford original content on their own.

Joslyn: ABC said, “You don’t know what’s inside?” No. NBC said, “We gotta know what’s inside.” I told them no. They would not go on the air without it, but we weren’t going to do that.

Grafman: It was way too out there for the big networks.

Peter Marino (Then-Vice President, Program Development, Tribune Entertainment): John went on to tell me about the rumored tunnels that went under Michigan Avenue from the Lexington Hotel to the Metropole Hotel, directly across Michigan Avenue. John mentioned not only the tunnels but a hidden staircase and three cement vaults. The center vault … had electrical cables protruding from the top of the vault. Why would there be electrical cables? Were they to light up a wine cellar? Were bodies buried in the vault?

Joslyn: Tribune stepped up. It was a big commitment, to do a live show and not know what’s in the vault.

Cooper: Al Capone was known internationally. You go to Europe and say “Al Capone,” and they make a pistol with their finger.

Grafman: I sold it worldwide, to 20 different countries.

Clark Morehouse (Then-Executive Vice President, Sales, Tribune Entertainment): The year before, a company called TPE did a live special and tried to raise a vault out of the Andrea Doria from World War II. They didn’t find a whole lot, but they did a 22 rating, which was very nice, so we were coming on the heels of that.

Donald Hacker (Then-Executive Vice President, Tribune Entertainment): Peter and Allan had this crazy idea of doing this as a live event, which was interesting. The hotel itself was being renovated for a female job training school by the Sunbow Foundation.

Joslyn: It was a nonprofit women’s group that trained women in low-income neighborhoods.  

Hacker: They had found secret passages. So I thought, yeah, this could be intriguing. This was long before the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, but it was in that vein.

In 1985, Tribune agreed to finance a $900,000 production by Westgate that would consist of a live breaching of the vault peppered with documentary-style footage that would tell the story of Capone’s rise and fall in the criminal underworld. Initially, the choice of a host seemed obvious.

Cooper: Joslyn was telling me they were planning on talking to Robert Stack. [Stack had portrayed Capone’s nemesis, Eliot Ness, on the 1959-1963 television series The Untouchables.] I said, that’s not a bad idea, but I really think we need someone who can walk and talk at the same time.  

Hacker: We felt we had to have someone who could handle a live event, someone who came from news.

Marino: Having seen Robert Stack attempt to host a morning TV talk show, I felt we needed someone who could do it without cue cards, a real reporter. Sheldon suggested Mike Wallace. A terrific idea, but I doubted CBS would allow their 60 Minutes star to appear on our syndicated special.    

Cooper: I said, “Well, there’s this guy who just got fired from ABC, but he won them a whole bunch of awards.”

Morehouse: Bringing in Geraldo was a real outside of the box thing, but it turned out to be genius.

Joslyn: Shelly was adamant about it.

Morehouse: Geraldo had done a story about Willowbrook, about mentally challenged kids being abused on Staten Island, that catapulted him into the ABC thing. [The piece won Rivera a Peabody Award in 1972.]

Cooper: Then there was some kind of quarrel over something that would be on the air in 10 seconds today. [Rivera stood up for a colleague, Sylvia Chase, who had a 20/20 story about Marilyn Monroe’s alleged affairs with John and Robert Kennedy withheld from broadcast.]

Morehouse: It was a hard fall from grace.

Cooper: He was so down over losing his job at ABC that he just wanted to get away from everybody. 

Hacker: I vividly remember calling his agent and describing what we were going to do and having him say, “Hell, no.”

Cooper: I told him to forget them. He’s out of work and somewhere in the world. Go talk to him directly.

Hacker: He had taken his sailboat out and was somewhere in the Panama Canal. I think we met in Marina del Rey.

Geraldo Rivera (Host): My agent got in touch and said he had an offer but that he didn’t think I’d be interested. I asked how much. He said $25,000. I told him, “Get $50,000 and I’ll do it.”  

Joslyn: We overnighted him all of the research we had done. He called the next day and said, “OK, deal.”

Rivera: It’s a two-hour show, so we’ll do an hour documentary, and whatever happens with the vault, happens.

II. A DIRTY JOB

Westgate had roughly four months to complete pre-production on the special before it aired. In addition to getting proper permits from Chicago and permission from Sunbow, there was a concentrated effort to get some idea of the origins of the “vault”—a 125-foot long concrete wall that began in the Lexington’s basement and stretched out underneath Michigan Avenue's sidewalk.

Joslyn: It wasn’t a safe with a tumbler. It was a large concrete mass.

Tim Samuelson (Cultural Historian, City of Chicago): What started this whole thing was the fact someone had found a sidewalk vault under the Lexington. It was common practice in the late 19th century to build out underneath a sidewalk and have doorways leading to the space. Businesses could have storage, load packages, that kind of thing. They’d start to leak and get sealed up with brick, concrete, then filled up with gravel and sealed over. I have a feeling someone heard “vault” and it took on a whole new definition.

Cooper: I remember getting a call from the business manager at Tribune Tower saying people were worried the street might fall in and people would be hurt or killed. Then it was concern over fires. We took it very seriously.

Grafman: It was a boarded-up mess of a building. I think [Sunbow] was around to make sure we didn’t blow it up.

Morehouse: I remember we took a bus trip down there on the coldest day of the year in Chicago. There was this whole story about an underground railroad running whiskey and other contraband.

Samuelson: The lore comes up all the time. The gangs of the time were really low-tech people. They weren’t digging tunnels.

Joslyn: Construction came to me one day and said, “We’re going to have to lower a baby bulldozer down there.” They took the tires off to make it fit. People do not realize the work involved.

Morehouse: They had done X-rays from the street level and on all sides, and the results were inconclusive.

Joslyn: We had ground-penetrating radar not to see what was in it, but to find parameters, to see which direction to go in.

Rivera: We had sonar, we had vibrations, we had the sort of technology available for pregnant women back in those days.

Hacker: [Westgate] had sonar and all this stuff to look at the area, which was quite big. We were reasonably sure something was in there, but we didn’t know what it was.

Joslyn: We got calls from Capone’s family wanting to see what was inside. We told them no. We weren’t going to do it that way.  

Samuelson: They asked me to come down and what I did from the very start was say, “Look, I hate to tell you this, but this is a Chicago sidewalk vault. I don’t think there’s anything in there at all.”

Joslyn: I don’t remember exactly what Tim said, but there was marble tile in the basement area. You don’t fill in holes with one-inch marble. I saw it first-hand.

Rivera: We discerned there was a hollow chamber, but we couldn’t see what might be in it.

Cooper: They were doing interviews with relatives, or people that had been alive at the time, and the thinking was that it might be hiding money, cars, bodies, whatever. It got more exciting the more they talked to people.

Samuelson: They were the ultimate optimists.

Rivera: I was reasonably sure we would find either guns or money or dead bodies. I was pretty confident something was in there.

Cooper: Geraldo was a believer. I was never a believer or a non-believer. I just believed we had a good television show.

Samuelson: They called me once and said, “We found a torture chamber!” I go over there and it was a fuse box.

While construction crews worked to prepare the site for a television broadcast, producers kept busy fleshing out the taped portions of the show; Tribune's ad sales department tried to convince independent stations they had a winner.

Samuelson: They actually brought in Irene Hughes, who was at the time the biggest psychic in America next to Jeane Dixon. She was going to try to pick up the spirit of Capone in the building. We go to the basement, she walks toward the middle of the wall, and says, “Capone is behind it in a garden under glass, laughing, laughing, laughing.” Now, I had researched the hell out of that building. I told her there had been nothing there but a yard. Fifteen years later, the city found some old real estate atlases. What was in the middle of the Lexington? A greenhouse. Honest to god.  

Grafman: Tribune was one of the most honored, most respected media companies in America, and there were times we couldn’t believe they were letting us do this.

Morehouse: Some of the advertisers were nervous about content. About 40 percent of it was pre-taped, which allowed advertisers to pre-screen it. We had General Mills, Budweiser; 24 spots at $100,000 per spot. That’s $2.4 million, less the ad agency commission. We took it to the television convention that January and everyone got into it. We sold all the commercial time.

Hacker: We had to go to each TV station in each market to clear out a primetime spot.

Morehouse: It was like nothing you had ever seen. We had a Model T, models dressed as flappers, and a couple of guys with submachine guns. We played it to the hilt.

Samuelson: I remember sitting with Doug Llewelyn, and he said, “You know, Tim, I know you think otherwise, but I really think we’re going to find something.”

Grafman: Half of it was the excitement of what we were doing, and half of it was dread.

III. LIVE

At 7 p.m. central time on April 21, 1986, Tribune syndicated The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults to more than 180 domestic stations. An enthusiastic Rivera stood in front of the Lexington promising an adventure akin to excavating Tut’s tomb.

Rivera: I recall a producer giving me a pep talk. “Get out there and nail this on-camera open.” Live programming is controllable in a studio. This was like stepping off the ledge of a building.

Morehouse: We had forensic examiners in case there were bodies.

Cooper: Everyone had come to see this. Not just here, but from overseas, press from all over the world.

Samuelson: There was a guy there who was selling homemade T-shirts, “I was at Capone’s vault.” But they were used and had sweat stains on them.

Joslyn: We were going to blow up one part of it on live television with dynamite. To get a permit to light dynamite in Chicago? We didn’t get permission until 4 p.m. that day.

Samuelson: I remember early before the show, Geraldo had split the back of his pants. I don’t think they had an extra pair, so they were going around looking for safety pins.

Grafman: We got lucky with the time slot. The week before, Reagan had bombed Libya.

Joslyn: We had concerns about security. Once Geraldo came off the street and went into the building, we padlocked the doors. No one was getting in or out.

Samuelson: There were three of us lined up side-by-side upstairs. Me, because I knew the building and could identify stuff, the coroner, and somebody from the IRS in case they found money.

Joslyn: The IRS had a lien if there was money inside. [After his death in 1947, Capone still owed over $800,000 in unpaid taxes.]

Joslyn: We pulled down the first concrete wall and went, “Oh, god. More dirt.”

Samuelson: I looked at the layers, the broken-up sidewalk on the bottom and the slag from the steel mills on top and said, “Sorry, it’s all over.” I see Doug go over to Geraldo, point to me, shrug his shoulders, and then Geraldo sits on a milk crate and puts his hands over his face.

Joslyn: We found some bottles.

Rivera: We were finding nothing but trivial things.

Samuelson: He pulls out some old bottles and says, “Samuelson, you know old bottles, right? Come identify these.” They were two little cheap liquor bottles with an Illinois tax stamp of 1948. Probably from workmen who drank their lunch.

Morehouse: It was just a bunch of s***.

Samuelson: They were going to break down a retaining wall with a huge water main on the other side. If they had broken the pipe, it would’ve flooded the basement instantly. Everybody would have died.  

Joslyn: No. That was before the show. It flooded about 4 feet.

With time running out on the two-hour broadcast and nothing but dirt remaining, Rivera blew an air horn and called off the workers. “We didn’t find the hollow spaces we were led to believe were in there,” he told viewers. “Sorry.”

Joslyn: He called it. “OK, guys, we tried.”

Morehouse: Geraldo played it like a Stradivarius.

Rivera: It was an old building. I do not recall fearing it would collapse on my head. I was much more engaged emotionally with finding something. Later, I maybe would’ve liked for it to fall on my head.

Joslyn: There was a little confusion when the show ended. We had an extra 90 seconds, so Geraldo sang. He padded it. It was total improv.

Grafman: I think he felt his career was over.

Cooper: He was destroyed when the show ended.

Rivera: All of the construction guys went and got drunk with me.

Hacker: Geraldo was very depressed he didn’t find anything. My take on it was, it was a great adventure. People had fun. It was a great two-hour movie with a bad ending.

Grafman: Twenty of us went to a place on the South Side, some honky-tonk, and had a drink or two. Some had three or five. I don’t even know if we went to bed.

Cooper: It was one of the saddest evenings you ever saw. Everybody was downtrodden.

Grafman: We thought, "Oh, well, that’s quite a way to go out." I don’t want to say we were fearing for our jobs, but we were fearing for our jobs. Until the ratings came in.

IV. MADE MEN

Following the anticlimactic conclusion, Rivera and the producers of Capone’s Vaults went their separate, inebriated ways. While the press had a field day—“the Windy City was never windier,” according to the company’s own Chicago Tribune—the public held a different view.   

Morehouse: The next morning the teletype machine is cranking out the overnight ratings. It did a 35 share in New York, a 70 share in Chicago.

Cooper: In those days, ratings came over these big machines rattling off the ticker tape in a glass booth.

Grafman: We thought it would do a 20. It did a 35 [share, the percentage of all televisions tuned into the show]. It was an enormous, colossal success. Nationally, we out-performed the network—The Cosby Show, Family Ties. I got the ratings and slid them under Geraldo's hotel room door.

Cooper: To this day, no entertainment program in syndication has ever gotten a higher rating in Chicago, ever.

Grafman: We set a record for a live syndicated special. We did a home video deal.

Morehouse: Some executives accused me of under-selling it. We guaranteed a 25 share and got more, so there was money left on the table.

Joslyn: Now you do a 2.9 share in New York and it’s great. The world’s changed.

Cooper: The show played later on the West Coast and that was amazing. Even though the news was out, it still got phenomenal ratings.

Rivera: I knew if we found anything, I’d be the toast of the town. I also knew if we didn’t, I’d be widely ridiculed.

Joslyn: We actually kept digging for three or four days after, just to finish the job.

Grafman: We did keep digging, but it was like after you bury a body, just throwing dirt on it.

The Lexington never did get renovated: It was demolished in 1995. Despite Rivera’s fear the special would prove problematic for his career, the opposite happened. In fall 1986, Tribune announced a deal for a daily talk show featuring the broadcaster.

Grafman: We developed a lot of other live specials with Geraldo.  

Morehouse: I think we did five. We did one on missing and exploited children that got an 18 share in 1987 or 1988, and another one on the mafia.

Hacker: We did do other things, but we didn’t open anything.

Grafman: We joked there was nothing in the vault, but inside we found Geraldo’s talk show. We had an 11-year run with that.

Marino: I still hear people say it was a great show with a bad ending. They always say, “It’s too bad that there was nothing in the vault.” My reply is that there was a 50 share in that vault and the special led to a dozen other Geraldo primetime specials, a daytime Geraldo talk show that ran for years, and it certainly led to the reality television craze which continues to this day.

Morehouse: About four weeks into the show, some skinheads got into a fight and broke his nose.

Cooper: That was typical Geraldo. But his ratings were very good.

Joslyn: I remember one morning before the show, we were down in that basement, and it was sub-zero. There was a three-legged cat, a little tiny thing all of three months old. A researcher adopted him. She named him Capone.

All images courtesy of Geraldo.com unless otherwise credited.

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Oral History: Tickle Me Elmo Turns 21
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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.

I: TICKLISH

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 Sesame Street 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.

Sesame Workshop

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.

grac_rahi via eBay

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

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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.

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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.

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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 The New 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.

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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.

Sirard: We did ads with Elmo in silhouette.

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.

Fisher-Price

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.

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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.

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#TBT
When Nancy Reagan Told Kids to ‘Just Say No’

It was an unusual display from a sitting president. On September 14, 1986, Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, positioned themselves on a White House sofa and looked into a television camera to make a rare joint address to the nation. The topic? The government’s war on drugs—a scourge so destructive that the First Lady had made it her chief concern since her husband had arrived in office almost six years earlier.

Nancy declared that there was no “moral middle ground” on the issue, and implored viewers to be “unyielding” and “inflexible” when it came to confronting drug use. The president spoke about new regulations on mandatory drug testing for federal employees and increased budgetary spending on drug education. One in 12 people smoked marijuana, he said, and the crack cocaine epidemic was growing out of control.

“Just say no,” Nancy said, repeating a phrase that had grown into a rallying cry for her campaign against illegal substances.

More than a pet project, Nancy’s efforts to reduce drug use took her across the country throughout the 1980s. She dropped in on TV shows and led rallies. She teamed up with Clint Eastwood and Pee-wee Herman for public service announcements in movie theaters. She urged her husband to get tougher with drug offenders, leading to sharp increases in the prison population.

Several years into her husband’s administration, it didn’t seem like much was changing. But for Nancy, “Just Say No” wasn’t an obligation of office—it bordered on an obsession. The only thing missing from her impassioned address that night was a measure both she and her husband had endorsed: the introduction of the death penalty for violent dealers.

Following the acid trips of the 1960s and the marijuana escapism of the 1970s, Americans had developed new and worrisome tastes in recreational drugs. In the 1980s, cocaine had become a party favor on par with punch bowls, with an estimated 10.4 million users snorting the stimulant in 1982 alone.

“Crack” cocaine, a variation made with baking soda and water so that it could be sold as a solid rock to smoke, was a cheaper alternative that came into prominence in the middle part of the decade. Public service announcements (“This is your brain on drugs”) helped fuel awareness of the issue, which fed fears of juveniles exploring their curiosity with dangerous street drugs.

When Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, he quickly swore to re-prioritize the fight against substances society had deemed both physically and morally corrosive. He campaigned with vows to stamp out marijuana. Harsher prison sentences awaited dealers; increased federal spending to slow the flow of the drugs into the country was promised.

For Nancy, the issue came down to intervention: She was determined to reach kids and stigmatize drug use before they were compelled to try it, a goal that may have been fueled in some part by her daughter Patti’s struggles with substance abuse in the 1970s.

The message needed to be clear, concise, and damning. Nancy told the media that it originated during a classroom visit when a student raised her hand and asked the First Lady what to do if anyone offered drugs. “Just say no,” Nancy replied.

It would be more accurate to say that Nancy was influenced by Needham, Harper & Steers, an advertising agency that was enlisted by the Advertising Council of media volunteers to come up with an anti-drug campaign. In 1983, the firm invited Nancy in to present their “Just Say No” theme, which cautioned kids to avoid drugs and for parents to educate themselves about their dangers. Nancy told them that the themes were "exactly right" for her crusade.

As a buzz term, “Just Say No” had its intended effect. The phrase became ubiquitous both in Nancy’s numerous speaking engagements and in a series of commercials. Later that year, she appeared on the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, where Arnold (Gary Coleman) was investigating drug use for his school newspaper. “Just say no” was her advice to Coleman and anyone thinking of snorting, smoking, or injecting any illicit substances.

“Just Say No” had taken on the energy of a revival meeting. Nancy spoke at the United Nations, where she vowed to clean up America’s streets; more than 12,000 clubs sprang up around the country with kids pledging to avoid drugs; she addressed assemblies with thousands of attendees, sometimes accompanied by child stars like Soleil Moon Frye, a.k.a. Punky Brewster.

Other times, Nancy would use a celebrity to prove her point, not endorse it. When Madonna appeared smoking marijuana in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, Nancy criticized the film for glorifying drug use.

It all boiled down to an admonition—simply refuse to use—and that’s where critics found Nancy’s strategy lacking.

Despite her hundreds of personal appearances and the ad placements worth millions of dollars, the Reagans didn’t appear to be gaining any ground. Prison populations went up as a result of increased penalties for possession and distribution, but drugs were still entering American streets. “Just Say No” was an authoritative voice without much substance behind it. Why, kids wondered, should they just say no? Weren't there differences between drugs? Hadn't their parents experimented? What, exactly, was the danger?

By the time the Reagans exited the White House in 1989, some critics were summarizing Nancy’s efforts as misguided. The message was simplistic and condescending, and no data appeared to show the campaign had actually had its intended effect. Instead of educating would-be users or addicts, “Just Say No” relied on parroting—a technique kids easily spot and tend to avoid. D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), a classroom spinoff of her efforts, was found to not make any difference over whether an adolescent tried drugs. Instead, the scare tactics that communicated that drugs were everywhere might have helped normalize them to some degree.

But not everyone agreed that “Just Say No” was ineffectual. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1.3 million people tried cocaine for the first time in 1981. By 1991, that number was down to 500,000. While Nancy may not have dissuaded young people from experimentation, the campaign may have contributed to awareness and motivation for at-risk youth to do their own research.

In the end, the Reagans did not see their expected results come to fruition. Nancy continued her anti-drug efforts after the couple left office, at one time under the shadow of her daughter Patti’s 1992 biography that claimed Nancy was once dependent on tranquilizers and sleeping aids.

Today, "Just Say No" exists mostly as a time capsule of very un-hip ads and questionable rhetoric. However the next stage of drug intervention materializes, it's likely that three syllables won't be nearly enough.

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