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Band of Brothers: An Oral History of Hanson's 'MMMBop' and Their Debut Album

Something huge was happening at New Jersey's Paramus Park Mall. Police lights flashed, enthusiastic screams punctured the air, and a wave of anticipation swelled like a tsunami.

The day before—May 6, 1997—a band of three young brothers from Tulsa, Oklahoma, had released their debut label album, Middle of Nowhere. Isaac, Taylor, and Zac Hanson were in the middle of doing serious promotional work (they'd appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman the night before), and were set to perform a few acoustic songs at a record store in the mall. Hosted by radio station Z100, the event was expected to draw a few hundred people. But thousands of screaming pre-teen and teen fans—anywhere from 6000 to 10,000 of them—showed up. As the mall was shut down to accommodate the zealous crowd, it became clear that life for the three brothers was about to change.

Middle of Nowhere went on to sell more than 10 million copies worldwide, spawn two Billboard Hot 100 singles, and earn Hanson three Grammy nominations. Two decades after the album's release, Mental Floss spoke with middle brother Taylor Hanson, former Mercury Records executives, and Middle of Nowhere’s producers, engineer, and mixer to get a behind-the-scenes view of the band’s rise from obscurity to super stardom. They discuss how "MMMBop" evolved from a melancholy ballad to an upbeat earworm, the challenges of recording vocals as a pubescent boy, and the band’s upcoming world tour, aptly called the Middle of Everywhere tour.


Isaac, Taylor, and Zac started Hanson back in 1992, after they fell in love with classic rock and Motown from the late 1950s and early '60s. Inspired by artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Otis Redding, the brothers sang a cappella, performing tunes like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Rockin' Robin." Although Isaac was 11, Taylor was 9, and Zac was just 6 years old, the homeschooled brothers began appearing around Tulsa, singing covers as well as songs they had written together. One of their original songs was "MMMBop," a melancholy, mid-tempo song that the brothers recorded in 1995 and released independently in 1996.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" started as a background part. We made an [indie] album called Boomerang and we were working on another song and looking for a background part, and that background part later became the chorus for "MMMBop." It was sort of too hook-y to be a background part, so it just kind of sat on the back burner.

Zac Hanson (via Songfacts, 2004): If anything, "MMMBop" was inspired by The Beach Boys and vocal groups of that era—using your voice as almost a doo-wop kind of thing.

Taylor Hanson: The verses were formed after the chorus had existed. Isaac and I would be sitting in the living room—we took over the living room of our house as rehearsal space when we were kids, so we completely dominated the household—playing these very simple chord patterns.

Isaac Hanson (via Noisey, 2013): The song "MMMBop" is actually about holding on to things that really matter to you because there will be few things that last through your whole life. Hold on to the things that are precious to you because life is fleeting. And it happens to have a catchy little chorus, a little nonsensical, scatty thing.

Taylor Hanson: The process of writing the song really came out of a very challenging moment as kids—deciding to play music. It was over the course of several different afternoons in our band setup in the living room. We were reflecting on what was very much happening in our world at the time, which was seeing how even as 12 and 14 year olds, friendships and relationships would come and go. Some people really didn’t get what we were doing … We were facing down the barrel of continuing to pursue a path that was different than most everyone around us.


By performing at hundreds of local art fairs, block parties, and schools across the Midwest, Hanson built a fan base of a few thousand people. The band had a manager and attorney who pitched them to major labels, but nothing was happening—13 labels turned Hanson down, partly because their poppy, Jackson 5-esque sound was dated compared to the darker grunge music that was topping the charts in the early- and mid-'90s. But the rejections ended when Steve Greenberg, an A&R executive at Mercury Records, heard one of the band’s independent albums. Greenberg traveled to Coffeyville, Kansas, to see the brothers perform at a festival, and Mercury Records soon signed the band.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" became a mainstay that we would play in our little sets around Oklahoma and Arkansas and Kansas and wherever people would listen to us. It was definitely one of the songs that was a [crowd] favorite, but it wasn’t the favorite.

Danny Goldberg (former CEO of Mercury Records): Steve Greenberg played [the "MMMBop" demo] for me. Sounded like a hit, but more to the point, I had great faith in Steve's judgment.

Taylor Hanson: "MMMBop" was more of a campfire song in its original version—it had a little bit more of a storyteller arc to it. It’s very "Let me tell you a story, let me give you this parable," which is so interesting because it obviously was interpreted in its final version as being so pop, celebratory, pure sunshine.

Steve Greenberg (former Head of A&R for Mercury Records): I loved the juxtaposition between the extremely joyous music and the dark lyrics. The entire album has dark lyrics, actually. People just didn’t notice because the music was so upbeat. But from the start, I realized this was a band that was addressing serious subjects.

Taylor Hanson: I think the song survives in part because it was saying something real—you get a lot more out of it on the second, third listens when you really dive in.

Margery Greenspan (former VP of Creative Services for Mercury Records): The minute I heard "MMMBop," I knew it was a hit … it was so catchy and fun, and the boys enjoyed performing it. There was a real joy to it.

Taylor Hanson: ["MMMBop"] is really kind of the song that started the theme of Hanson's songwriting, which is songs that make you feel something very uplifting when the story is actually acknowledging the absolute opposite of that. Kind of happiness in spite of what life brings.

Goldberg: To me, the big thing was it sounded like a hit chorus.

Greenspan: What was so unique about this band is that they were kids. And they were the real deal—they wrote and played the music.

Allison Hamamura (former West Coast General Manager for Mercury Records): It was perfectly clear to me that Taylor was a songwriter and a burgeoning talent. I absolutely loved the family dynamic and the boys obviously loved playing together.

Taylor Hanson: You don’t have a band of three brothers playing gigs around town and all over three states without really supportive parents. But it absolutely was them following what they saw in us, and what we thought we could do. We kind of had this pure, unadulterated ambition.


Armed with a record deal, Hanson and their mother, father, and three younger siblings traveled from Tulsa to Los Angeles in the summer of 1996. The brothers first worked with producers John King and Mike Simpson—collectively known as the Dust Brothers—on "MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You." Up until then, Hanson had written, recorded, and produced their songs independently, without outside forces or opinions weighing in. At the Dust Brothers' studio in Silver Lake, Isaac, Taylor, and Zac experienced what it was like to collaborate with producers for the first time.

Greenberg suggested that the band increase the tempo of "MMMBop," and the Dust Brothers convinced the band to try making "MMMBop" a more upbeat song. They started recording, increasing the tempo and using a Jackson 5-like rhythm. Greenberg also connected Hanson with a handful of collaborators, including producers and co-writers such as Desmond Child, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Clif Magness.

Mike Simpson (of the Dust Brothers, via WaxPoetics, 2013): When I first heard the demo tape of Hanson, it took me back to my childhood. I would come home and lip-synch Jackson 5 songs every day after school as a little kid. I heard Hanson and thought, "Oh my God, this sounds like really cool music."

Clif Magness (co-writer and producer of Middle of Nowhere track "Madeline"): My manager at the time put me in touch with Steve Greenberg. He then set up a writing session with myself and the band ... Their father sat in the room with us as we wrote the song, most of the time reading a book. At one point, he stepped out to check up on his wife and three other children who were playing with my two children in the backyard.

Taylor Hanson: The strong thing we took away from walking into the room with other writers was you had to show right out of the gate to these extremely credible and gifted and experienced writers that they would be writing with you. I think it was daunting at first to sit in the room with people who wrote "On Broadway" and other completely epic and legendary songs. But very quickly we earned respect from Barry and Cynthia simply through music, sitting in the room and sharing ideas.

Cynthia Weil (co-writer, with Barry Mann and Hanson, of "I Will Come To You," the third single off the album): Hanson were our youngest and among our coolest collaborators.

Taylor Hanson: It was a huge opportunity to be able to—on our first record—sit with people who crafted songs on a level you aspire to. Always having a learner’s ear, but being gutsy enough to speak up, because ultimately this is going to be our song. Barry and Cynthia are and were brilliant and very generous. It was never intimidating—it was always in the sense that we were being invited in to collaborate.

Hamamura: The band was very involved for their respective ages and experience in the making of Middle of Nowhere.

Magness: Taylor’s voice was so strong and natural that I didn’t have to coach him much at all. They were all that way actually. We even created a high part for Zac because he is the youngest and his voice was quite cherub-like back then.


Ultimately, the Dust Brothers didn’t finish the project they started with Hanson—Greenberg hired Stephen Lironi to finish "MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You" and produce the rest of the album. Working out of Scream Studios in Los Angeles, Lironi, a few engineers, and Hanson spent almost two months recording Middle of Nowhere onto analog tape, polishing the songs and finishing arrangements in the studio.

Doug Trantow (second engineer on Middle of Nowhere): The Dust Brothers came over [to Scream Studios] and we transferred the work they had done onto our tape machines ... and then we never saw them again. I’ve heard people say "MMMBop" was recorded in the Dust Brothers’ living room, and though they did start the song there, I absolutely guarantee every single part of their work was replaced by Stephen [Lironi] at Scream, with the exception of one record scratch on "MMMBop."

Greenberg: The Dust Brothers were very in demand at the time and frankly it wasn’t a great temperamental fit between the band and the Dust Brothers. So the Dust Brothers started working on other things and the two tracks ["MMMBop" and "Thinking Of You"] were unfinished.

Trantow: Things were definitely tense when the Dust Brothers showed up. It was kind of like we were transferring what they already recorded. It wasn’t like they were going out of their way to be helpful or cool about it, so I could tell there was some tension, like maybe they weren’t happy about not being able to finish the songs.

During the recording process, Greenberg hired several vocal coaches to help Taylor hit the higher notes he had sung before his voice began deepening. They were unsuccessful until vocal coach Roger Love began working with the brothers. To speed up the recording, Hanson moved to a nearby studio, LAFX, to finish the vocals with Love and producer Mark Hudson, while Lironi and his engineers worked concurrently at Scream.

Trantow: On the second day in the studio, an impromptu jam session happened between Taylor, Isaac, and Stephen [Lironi] while they were listening to a drum loop and working out the parts for "Where's the Love" [the album's second single]. At that moment I absolutely knew something special was happening.

Roger Love (vocal coach on Middle of Nowhere): I was brought in initially by Steve Greenberg and the record label to finish the lead vocal on "MMMBop." After the first day in the studio, when they heard the song done, Steve and the band asked me to vocal coach most of the remaining songs for the album.

Trantow: The vocals took a long time to record—young boys and long hours in dark studios don’t mix too well—so we started to fall behind schedule. The label knew what they had, and they were desperate to get it out.

Greenberg: I knew the world needed to hear Taylor sing the song in its original key on the record, even if he would have to drop the key for subsequent live performances. So I made sure we got it in that key before it was too late.

Love: Taylor had recorded about half of "MMMBop" before his voice had changed due to puberty. The band and the record company both loved the way the music and vocal sounded, and they didn't want to re-record the tracks in a lower key and potentially lose any of the magic … I worked with Taylor to build a lot more power and freedom in his new high "head voice." Then I used that voice to finish "MMMBop" and whenever I needed higher notes for the other songs we recorded.

Trantow: The kids at that point were much better singers and writers than anyone of that age had any right to be, but their instrumental playing was understandably not up to studio standards. While Isaac did play most of the main guitar parts for the songs, Stephen replayed many of them later. The same goes for Taylor's piano and organ parts. This was done only because of their very young age and lack of studio experience … when possible we used their playing, but mostly it had to be replayed by Stephen or a studio musician afterwards.

Love: The boys were such great kids, and both parents were very loving, involved and present … But there were certainly some challenges other than puberty. Zac was only 10, and a heck of a drummer, but he wasn't always thrilled with stepping up to the mic and singing. And he wasn't used to having anyone, even me, saying things like, "That was good, but now let's try it again, and again, and again to make it perfect." That's a lot of pressure on a little kid, no matter how nicely I said "please."

Trantow: We even recorded Zac playing drums for a couple songs, but in spite of being surprisingly good for a boy who just turned 10 years old, it just wasn’t good enough to be on the record. I should say that now they are so well accomplished that I wouldn’t hesitate to hire them to replace the playing of other less-talented musicians! But in this case we had to bring in studio cats.


After Hanson recorded Middle of Nowhere, the band and their family returned to Tulsa. To replicate the sound of the album on stage, the brothers began searching for a bass player and a secondary person to play guitar and keys. While the album was mixed and mastered, the band did advance press and photo shoots, and executives at Mercury Records prepared marketing and radio campaigns to gear up for the April 15, 1997 release of the "MMMBop" single.

Tom Lord-Alge (mixer on Middle of Nowhere): The two Steves [Greenberg and Lironi] would join me each day while I was mixing in Miami Beach. They allowed me the creative freedom I needed to deliver great mixes but also were key in keeping the album sounding natural and focusing on the vocal performances.

Christopher Sabec (former manager of Hanson): The time between the recording [and the release] was an exciting time. We all knew that the album was special.

Taylor Hanson: That period [before the release] is interesting because you’ve created something but nobody knows it. You're sort of anticipating the big moment—will anyone care when this record is released? It's like you have a secret. You feel like you've got this thing that has all this potential, but you're just sort of waiting and hoping.

Lord-Alge: Middle of Nowhere is a very strong record and all involved were certain it would do well, but I remember that none of us would utter anything about how successful we thought it would be as not to jinx it! We stayed focused on helping the boys make a great record.

Greenspan: It was my job to figure out how to image them … Through the photos, I wanted to showcase that they were fun, great looking, and talented. And I wanted to make sure there was a level of sophistication in the images because their music had this quality, too.

Mmmbop album art

Lord-Alge: I was very impressed with the vocals on Middle of Nowhere and love the way the guys harmonized with each other. Obviously "MMMBop" stuck out as being a very strong song and I can remember doing a couple mixes of it until everyone involved was happy. The main difference was on the last version of "MMMBop" where we created the breakdown chorus. It just felt great.

Greenspan: After meeting with them a few times I thought they needed to be more urban-edgy, style-wise. They were from Oklahoma and they did have their own style, but it was a little suburban. I think we moved the style needle slightly from Gap to Urban Outfitters. Of course there was a little resistance at first but then I think they enjoyed feeling a bit more edgy.

Love: I loved "MMMBop" in particular, but honestly had no clue that the band or album would skyrocket to the levels of success they achieved. When I work on a project, I always hope for the best. But there are so many intertwined factors that lead to super-success or failure. From timing to luck, to management and promotion, to making sure that all of the stars align, it's never a sure thing. When it happens it's like magic.

Ravi Hutheesing (Hanson’s backup guitarist from February '97 to February '98): I realized quickly that this project was different from anything I had previously been a part of. The young age of the Hansons and level of commitment from Mercury Records made it evident that there was going to be a major effort to push this to the top. I also felt from the moment I first met Ike, Tay, and Zac that they were three of the most talented kids I have ever met.

In the spring of '97, Isaac was 16, Taylor was 14, and Zac was 11. To promote "MMMBop" and Middle of Nowhere, the band’s schedule was jam-packed with promo appearances, radio station visits, and short 20-minute acoustic concerts. The strength of the song and the band’s hard work paid off. "MMMBop" reached No. 1 in 27 countries, and Hanson appeared on MTV, performed everywhere from the Grammy Awards to the White House, and became teen heartthrobs in the pages of Tiger Beat and Bop magazines.

Hutheesing: Things were pretty crazy … There were a lot of very early mornings and late nights, but because Ike, Tay, and Zac were all minors, child labor laws gave us every third day off. Sometimes we appeared in multiple cities on the same day.

Taylor Hanson: Steve was very conscious of our age, as our A&R guy, but I didn’t feel any pressure from the label at all [about my changing voice]. I felt pressure from myself.

Hamamura: [His changing voice] was a conversation [at Mercury] but never an issue. I actually felt very strongly that Taylor was such a superstar and that their family values were so strong, there was no doubt in my mind that they would continue making music.

Taylor Hanson: Once we were really touring in late '97 and '98, [my changing voice] was a challenge. Essentially we changed keys and the way you invert things and the keys you pick to make it sound as close to the original recording.

Isaac Hanson (via Vulture, 2016): "MMMBop" was originally in the key of A, and we currently play it in F sharp. Sometimes in F.

Hutheesing: Tay's voice was changing almost weekly, and we had to constantly change the key of the songs to accommodate it. The bigger issue was that Zac was young and his energy would burn out quickly ... but he hit those drums so hard for 20 minutes!

Taylor Hanson: Part of it is the psychological effect of deciding "this has definitely got to change; you can’t sing that note anymore." But it happened so fast—most of the performances people saw of us, it was already underway. I was 13 when we recorded the album and 14 and 15 when we were out pushing it. There weren’t a lot of Peter Brady moments.

Sabec: One of my life’s honors was touring with the band and their family, along with my business partner Stirling McIlwaine. I loved the Hershey, Pennsylvania, show because it was sheer madness in the size of the crowd. The big shows in New York (at Jones Beach) and L.A. (at the Hollywood Bowl) had an energy you only find in those respective cities.

MMM Bop by Hanson lyrics

Capitalizing on Middle of Nowhere's success, Mercury Records also released, in '97 and '98, a Hanson Christmas album, a collection of the band’s independent recordings, and a live album. Despite Hanson’s massive commercial appeal, there were critics who disparaged the band's success at their young age, mocked their long blond hair, and even doubted their ability to play instruments and write songs.

Sabec: My advice to the band, which they actually understood intuitively, was that the crowds and their fans were why they were in this business in the first place. Welcoming your fans and making them feel appreciated is your number one goal and Isaac, Taylor, and Zac always accomplished this effortlessly.

Hutheesing: The most aggressive haters were actually the paparazzi. They often hurled insulting remarks at us in airports as we would try to hide from them. While the Internet and online posting were just beginning to surface, the true fans were much more vocal than the naysayers.

Sabec: As for the haters, life is too short to really worry about them, right?

Goldberg: [Middle Of Nowhere] was a very important record and album for Mercury that year. It was a global hit and was the biggest album by a new signing in commercial terms we had while I was president.

Taylor Hanson: Music gave us a platform to channel that larger-than-life time when you’re seeing the world, you’re feeling what’s going on, and you’re seeing relationships come and go and ebb and flow. And a song gives you a way to crystallize that. I think there was a little bit of magic in the timing [of "MMMBop"]—the right three chords with the right message.

Hamamura: I look back on [that period of time] with gratitude for having been some part of what was a global musical phenomenon. And though some may disagree, the kids bent the culture, even if it was short-lived in the scheme of things.

Greenberg: The period of time was magical because we were—along with the Spice Girls—ushering in a revival of pop after the grunge era. So it was really exciting being at the vanguard of the next era and seeing it develop. And seeing teen audiences respond to music that was uplifting.


Middle of Nowhere is still Hanson’s most commercially successful album to date, but the band never stopped making music. After releasing their second album in 2000, the band founded their own record label, 3CG Records (standing for 3 Car Garage, the name of their 1998 compilation album), and has steadily toured and released new studio albums for the past two decades: Underneath (2004), The Walk (2007), Shout It Out (2010), and Anthem (2013), all of which charted well on the Billboard Top 200 albums. Despite achieving fame and making millions before they were old enough to drive, the brothers didn’t go down the dark path that plagues many who become famous as children.

Lord-Alge: I’ve watched the guys over the years mature musically and they have really become one of the last great rhythm & blues bands. Their sound is very organic.

Weil: Very proud of these talented boys—excuse me, talented men.

Hutheesing: They were very grounded and kind people, so I would never have expected them to drop off the deep end and wind up with addictions and scandals. Certainly that happens to many, and they would have been vulnerable based on their fame and age. However, their parents did a great job of striking a balance between the responsibility and vulnerability of fame and fortune.

Taylor Hanson: The main thing is [our parents] never treated us like we didn’t have to hold our own, and treat people the same as we always had from the very beginning, regardless of success. They were always there saying, "Don’t be afraid to work for it, to try, to strive and push through when things are hard." That work ethic is the mindset we grew up with. That sense that character is more important than whether you’re super successful at this.

Goldberg: The fact that they were such a close family precluded a lot of the problems that sudden fame often engenders.

Taylor Hanson: I remember the feeling that almost to a fault, we wanted to make sure it was about the music. And having discussions with people, to them, it was just a "You guys are young, you have fans, we should merchandise and sell these [items], people will buy them." And thinking to ourselves we're not going to be taken seriously [if we do that]. We really fought for it at every stage. We didn’t do lunch boxes, we didn’t do a lot of things. I remember thinking, "We’re not in it for that, we plan to be here 20 years from now, making music."

Today, the brothers are in their thirties and are all married with children: Isaac has three kids, Taylor has five, and Zac has four. The brothers are also entrepreneurs, running their record label, a beer company (MMMHops, anyone?), and the annual Hop Jam, Oklahoma’s largest craft beer and music festival. Besides gearing up to release new music and a Greatest Hits compilation album, Hanson is also preparing to embark on a world tour to celebrate 25 years as a band. From June to October 2017, the band will play shows throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and Canada.

Taylor Hanson: The message for us this year has always been about the music, and about how music facilitates the connection with people. It's about the timelessness of hopefully great songs and songs that stand up. We want people to remember the songs.

Sabec: I am very proud of the guys. I think their music continues to resonate and their ability to take their brand into other ventures has been exciting to watch.

Taylor Hanson: We’re still going forward and we’re still hungry and desiring that spirit that got us started … You're proud of where you've been, you have that history, but you build a history based on where you're headed. It's exciting to look back because you were always driving, always pushing, always hungry for the next thing.

Greenberg: Regarding Hanson's music today, I think they've matured into a great rock band, and of course they remain great songwriters. The songs were, and always will be, the key.


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Oral History
The Dark Side: An Oral History of The Star Wars Holiday Special
Larry Heider
Larry Heider

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.

I. A VERY WOOKIEE CHRISTMAS


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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.

II. FORCING IT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

With a budget of roughly $1 million—the 1977 film cost $11 millionThe 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.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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.

III. BUILDING BOBA FETT


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

 

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.


TheSWHolidaySpecial via YouTube

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.

IV. SPACING OUT


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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.


Thomas Searle via YouTube

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.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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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.

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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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