A Bear Necessity: The Story of Teddy Ruxpin

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.”

Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pop Culture
Glove Story: The Freezy Freakies Phenomenon of the 1980s
Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Pete Jelliffe, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Kids who grew up in the northeast in the 1980s were pretty invested in a fad that might have gone unnoticed in warmer parts of the country. Cajoling their parents at department stores during shopping trips, hundreds of thousands of them came home sporting a pair of Freezy Freakies—thick winter gloves that came with a built-in parlor trick. When the temperature dipped below 40°F, an image would suddenly appear on the back part of the material.

Swany America Corporation, which made, marketed, and distributed the gloves, released more than 30 original designs beginning in 1980. There was a robot, a unicorn, rocket ships, ballerinas, rainbows, snowflakes, and various sports themes, though the “I Love Snow” image (below) may have been the most popular overall. At the height of Freezy mania, Swany was moving 300,000 pairs of gloves per year, which accounted for about 20 percent of their overall sales.

A Freezy Freakies glove before and after the temperature change
Freezy Freakies

“Boys loved the robot design,” Bruce Weinberg, Swany’s vice president and a former sales director for Freezy Freakies, tells Mental Floss. “Above 40 degrees, the image would disappear.”

The secret to the $13 Freakies was thermochromic ink, a temperature-sensitive dye that's been used in mood rings and heat-sensitive food labels and can appear translucent until it's exposed to warmer temperatures. Swany licensed the ink from Pilot, the Japanese-based pen company, after Swany CEO Etsuo Miyoshi saw the technology and thought it would be a good fit for his glove-focused operation. (Though they experimented with making luggage in the 1990s, Swany has predominantly been a manufacturer of higher-end ski gloves.)

Weinberg isn’t sure how Miyoshi settled on the “Freezy Freakies” name—the president is now retired—but says Miyoshi knew they had a hit early on. “After a few seasons, they could tell they had a winner product,” he says. Swany even put advertising dollars into TV commercials, a rare strategy for glove-makers not named Isotoner.

Pilot was able to adjust the temperature at which the ink would become transparent, or vice versa. If kids were impatient, or if it happened to be during the summer, Weinberg says it wasn’t uncommon to find Freezy Freakies stuck in the freezer so they could materialize their art design. “At trade shows, we’d do something similar with some ice or a cold soda,” he says. “All of a sudden, some ice cubes would make it change, and buyers would think that was really cool.”

The Freakies were such a hit that Swany licensed jackets and considered changing the name of the company to the same name as the glove. It’s probably just as well they didn’t: While Freakies lasted well over a decade, by the 1990s, things had cooled. In the new millennium, Swany was down to selling just a few hundred pairs a year. Color-changing ink for coffee mugs or beer cans was more pervasive, wearing down the novelty; knock-offs had also grabbed licensed cartoon characters, which Swany was never interested in pursuing.

The brand was dormant when a company named Buffoonery approached Swany in 2013 to license Freezy Freakies for a crowdfunded revival. This time, the gloves came in adult sizes for $34. The partnership has been successful, and Weinberg says Buffoonery has just signed an extension to start producing kids’ gloves.

“Parents will probably want matching ones for their kids,” Weinberg says. And both might still wind up in the freezer.

Tony Duffy, Allsport/Getty Images
Where Are They Now? The Original 6 American Gladiators
Tony Duffy, Allsport/Getty Images
Tony Duffy, Allsport/Getty Images

Have you ever noticed that the best originals always seem to come in groups of six? Hockey teams. Nike Air Force Ones. United States frigates. But the title of best original six-pack quite literally belongs to the muscle-bound men and women who made up the first cast of American Gladiators.

But what did these Gladiators do once they hung up their patriotic spandex and returned to the real world? Well, here's what we know:


Fans of B-movies might remember McBee's appearance in 1997's Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, where he played the half-equine warlord Motaro (he was joined by fellow Gladiator "Sabre," who played Jax). McBee, who trained at the Billy Blanks World Karate Studio, has also appeared in more than 30 other movies, including such blockbusters as The Killing Zone and Enter the Blood Ring. Curb Your Enthusiasm fans might remember McBee's guest appearance during the second season as former pro wrestler Thor Olson, who Larry becomes convinced slashed his tires after the two men got into an argument.


After appearing in 59 episodes from 1989-1993, the ironically Canadian-born Pare, or Lace #1 to American Gladiator fans, made one appearance on the TV show Renegade with fellow former Gladiator Michael Horton. According to IMDb, she resurfaced in 1997 on an episode of Clueless, again playing Lace. Pare, whose birth name is Roebuck, married actor Michael Pare in 1986. In 1987, she appeared as a fashion show coordinator in The Women's Club, a movie in which her then-husband starred, before the two were divorced in 1988. Pare was one of two Gladiators to pose nude in Playboy.


Creatively named for his split personality "calm one minute, violent the next," Horton served as team captain of the American Gladiators during his 80-episode stint on the show, which spanned four years. His greatest claim to fame since hanging up his spandex, besides his aforementioned appearance in Renegade, of course, was his role as the security guard in Night at the Roxbury. What is love? Pounding the living daylights out of a contestant with a foam jousting stick.


The Wilkes-Barre native played a reporter in 1997's Letters From a Killer, starring Patrick Swayze. She has scored several other small roles in movies and television shows, which, coupled with her 1996 appearance in Playboy, make Hollitt one of the more ubiquitous American Gladiators. She also has a (slightly NSFW) website where she details her new projects, such as screenwriting and photography, though it doesn't seem to have been updated in a while.


Danny Clark's been one of the busier Gladiators since the show went off the air. He's appeared in TV shows and movies like Walker, Texas Ranger; Ellen; Saved by the Bell; and Equilibrium, and in 2008, he served as a consulting producer on the American Gladiators relaunch. He even wrote a book about his glory days in 2009 titled Gladiator: A True Story of 'Roids, Rage, and Redemption. After surviving a heart attack in 2013, Clark wrote another book called F Dying, which was released in 2017. He also put together a competitive mud run called The Gladiator Rock’n Run, which currently raises money for the military charity Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.


Barldinger is like the Chicago Blackhawks of this original six in that she kind of disappeared after suffering an injury during her first and only season, as seen in the video above. 


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