Mary Brady was in the aisle of a Toys "R" Us near Miramar, Florida when she felt a sharp, stabbing pain in her leg. She was one of dozens of adults crammed into the store in late 1986, all of them searching for signs of an animatronic plush doll named Teddy Ruxpin. The shelves were empty.
Brady spun to face her attacker, a small child armed with a shopping cart who was veering in the other direction. She collected her 1-year-old son, who had been knocked over in the melee, and headed for another toy store. Then another. It would take her 12 trips before she finally found the $69 talking bear, the top item on her 4-year-old daughter’s holiday wish list.
Between 1985 and 1988, this scene and others like it played out in stores around the country. Teddy, who could yawn, giggle, and provide expressions while “reading” a story aloud to children, was the must-have toy sensation of the era, ringing up $93 million in sales in its first year; his inventor, former Disney employee Ken Forsse, had spent decades dreaming up a Tolkien-esque mythology for Teddy that played out in books and an animated series. It was a narrative he hoped would continue indefinitely.
But Teddy’s meteoric rise would prove to be short-lived. There would be no talking his way out of bankruptcy proceedings.
Born in 1936, Forsse grew up in Burbank, California, using his free time to build furniture and toys or take lessons in painting from his sister. Fresh out of high school, he snagged a job in the mail room of Walt Disney Studios before making his way to their animation department. In 1959, he was drafted into the Army. When he returned, there was an opening in the company’s theme park development division. He took it.
For much of the 1960s and '70s, Forsse worked on rides like It’s a Small World and the Jungle Cruise, designing the animatronic creatures that would sing, wave, and interact with park visitors. In the back of his mind, Forsse thought a stuffed animal that could move in a similar way, yet be small enough to fit on a child’s shelf, had the potential to be a tremendous success. Although talking toys had been around as early as Thomas Edison’s hand-cranked, phonograph-equipped dolls, Forsse wanted to emulate Disney’s furry appeal.
Originally, he thought it should be a monkey in honor of NASA’s experiments with primates in the early days of the space race. By the time he formed his own company, Alchemy II, in 1982, he had settled on the more familiar teddy bear. But in Forsse’s mind, Teddy wasn’t an actual bear—he was an Illiop, a species native to his fantasy world of Grundo, that just happened to look remarkably like a carnivore.
Explaining this to the dozens of companies he approached, Forsse's idea was usually met with confusion. If they wrapped their heads around Teddy's origin story, they usually failed to appreciate the technology. As late as 1982, the puppets Forsse constructed for Disney had radio-controlled heads, and his early Teddy prototype was similar: It had two parts, with one piece controlling the face via FM radio signals. It was complicated, bulky, and absent of any charm. Fisher-Price passed; so did HBO, which Forsse had hoped would consider a live-action series based on the premise.
Finally, Forsse and his Alchemy II partners stumbled upon a more practical effect: By using a standard two-track stereo audio cassette tape, they could encode audio on one track and signals that sent commands to a receiver in the bear’s head on the other. The result would be movement synchronized to the speech.
While Teddy’s internal electronics didn’t make for maximum hug potential—embracing him was like squeezing a lightly padded lunchbox—it was still revolutionary. When Worlds of Wonder president Don Kingsborough had a prototype Teddy placed in his lap, he agreed to manufacture the doll under a royalty agreement. At the same time, Forsse sold ABC on two live-action Teddy specials that would premiere in November and December of 1985.
The specials were essentially prolonged Saturday morning commercials, with ABC splitting the $1.5 million cost of production with Forsse. The Christmas season would reveal whether it was a smart investment or if Alchemy should have stuck with the monkey.
As it turned out, Forsse didn’t need the TV specials to motivate buyers. When Teddy Ruxpin went on sale in September 1985, Worlds of Wonder sold through a staggering 41,000 units in 30 days. The accompanying storybooks and cassettes—which would eventually grow to include 60 titles—sold for an additional $12.95 each.
Teddy was the toy version of disposable razor cartridges, except the bear itself was no loss leader: priced at $59 to $79, it was expensive enough to cause parents to groan. Like all toy fads, however, they were largely powerless against the pleas of their children. By early 1986, more than a million Teddys had been sold, all of them cheerfully babbling away.
Most of them, anyway. After the 1985 holiday, some 35,000 bears were returned to Worlds of Wonder owing to defective operation. The company argued it was operator error in some cases. (The manual urged users not to poke Teddy with scissors or other sharp objects, nor was he to be submerged in a bath.) Worlds of Wonder informed the media that the defective Ruxpins would be sent to “Grundo Hospital” to convalesce.
Teddy’s questionable constitution did nothing to diminish his popularity. In 1987, Forsse got his wish for a series exploring Teddy’s mythology when DIC Entertainment produced 65 episodes of The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin; he was used as a spokes-bear for area fire departments, lecturing children on the stop, drop, and roll technique; and one terminally ill child asked that Teddy read a special lullaby at her funeral.
Worlds of Wonder chartered jumbo jets from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong stuffed with Teddys in an attempt to meet demand. It was never enough. By 1987, more than 1.4 million bears had been sold, with parents returning to stores for an untold number of cassettes.
There was one story Teddy didn’t like telling. According to the Los Angeles Times, it involved allegations that Worlds of Wonder was slow to ship inventory and failed to throttle back before the market was saturated in talking animals. The company made animatronic Mickey Mouse and Snoopy toys; other companies congested shelves with Rappin’ Rabbit and Blabber Bear.
Just before the 1987 holiday season, Worlds of Wonder filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, hoping to reorganize itself in the wake of discounted Teddys ($30) failing to find new homes. By 1989, Teddy was in hibernation.
In 1991, Alchemy II entered into a new licensing agreement, this time with Hasbro, to reissue Teddy; over the next two decades, the license bumped around to different manufacturers. In 2005, a 20th anniversary edition was released, and in February 2016, Wicked Cool Toys announced plans to reinvigorate Teddy with a brand new global line of toys and other merchandise beginning in fall 2017. Their sales will cap the 8 million Ruxpins that have been sold since 1985.
Whether tech-savvy kids will be as captivated by Teddy as they were in the mid-1980s remains to be seen. If they are, that amusement might be short-lived. When a bruised Mary Brady presented her daughter, Valerie, with a Teddy Ruxpin in 1985, it happened to be one of the defective models that needed to be returned to Grundo. When a functional doll arrived, Valerie abandoned it after only two days, complaining his stories were “too long.”
Her mother was not surprised. “It's all she talked about for 18 months,” Brady told a Florida newspaper. “Teddy this and Teddy that. I didn't buy it the previous Christmas because I thought it was dumb and that she'd forget all about it. But she didn't. She was going to drive me crazy until she got that stupid bear.”