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Garbage Pail Kids: Trash Collection or Good Humor?

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Times Staff Writer

They have the same pudgy, cherubic proportions as Cabbage Patch Kids--the dolls and characters famous for their homespun sweetness. But these are Garbage Pail Kids. They’re bloody, mean-spirited and repulsive. They drink beer, play with shrunken heads and attract flies.

And they attract a phenomenal number of schoolchildren who have been collecting stickers of the Garbage Pail Kids on bubble-gum trading cards since they appeared last summer. Even with increased production shifts and new equipment, Topps Chewing Gum, the Brooklyn company that produced baseball trading cards for 35 years and now makes the Garbage Pail Kids cards, still can’t keep up with the demand, a spokesman said.

“I get 45 calls every day to see if they’re in,” said Joan Fernbacher, owner of Candy Alley, a Los Angeles ice cream parlor in Brentwood. “The minute I get them in, they’re gone within a half hour.”

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“It hasn’t peaked yet,” said Kenneth Kendall, a clerk at a 7-Eleven store just a block away from Costa Mesa’s California Elementary School, which has banned the cards from its campus. “Parents buy cases of them for their kids. They buy them to shut ‘em up.”

But the Garbage Pail Kids’ supersonic success has plenty of other adults annoyed, appalled or angered. Parents and teachers worry that children are wasting their allowance when they buy the cards and are being distracted from their studies when they trade or resell them, that they are developing unhealthy attitudes from the raunchy images and ruining furniture and appliances with the stickers.

“I put them all over my mom’s car and got grounded for a week,” admitted Darrin Leonard, 14, of Costa Mesa.

Many elementary schools nationwide have banned the Garbage Pail Kids stickers from their campuses.

Like Cabbage Patch Kids, the Garbage Pail Kids have double names. But instead of down-home names like Otis Lee or Rebecca Ruby, the Garbage Pail Kids include Bustin’ Dustin, a stitched and bruised baby boxer whose bloody nose runs like a faucet; Dinah Saur, a grinning skeleton, and Pinned Lynn, a Voodoo doll stuck with nails. On the backs of some cards are “permits” to cheat or be stupid or “wanted posters” for adult relatives guilty of child abuse or meanness.

Copyright Infringement?

Xavier Roberts, the artist creator of Cabbage Patch Kids, is said to be furious. He is suing Topps for copyright infringement, according to Roger Schlaifer, president of Schlaifer Nance and Co., an Atlanta firm that negotiates licenses for Original Appalachian Artworks, makers of Cabbage Patch Kids.

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Garbage Pail Kids cards “debase” the whole Cabbage Patch Kid image, carefully built up over the past four years to promote “wholesome, family, quality fun,” which is “at the heart of the most positive aspects of American life,” Schlaifer said.

Two years ago, Schlaifer said his firm rejected Topps’ bid to reproduce Cabbage Patch Kids on its stickers because “their quality wasn’t up to our standards.” Garbage Pail Kids cards, he said, have all the marks of a “vindictive act.”

Norman Liss, a spokesman for Topps, would say only that the lawsuit “has no merit.” He did say, however, that the cards are so popular, Topps is now printing its fourth series of characters and still “can’t produce enough” cards, although he declined to give any production figures. Some store owners suspect Topps of deliberately limiting the supply as a marketing technique.

Meanwhile, the relentless demand and an unpredictable supply have frustrated store managers, who say they could sell five times as many cards as they receive from distributors. “We order 12 boxes, and we’re lucky if we get three,” said Allison Stukkie, assistant manager of another Costa Mesa 7-Eleven store. “First, we limited sales to four per person, then we had to go to two.” The cards are sold in packages of five, along with the gum, usually for 25 cents.

Mark Boyd of Back Bay Liquor in Costa Mesa said he sells the packs for 45 cents, mostly because they are so hard to obtain. He said he has obtained Garbage Pail Kids packages from independent distributors, and “they jacked the price up, too.” There’s no problem selling them at the higher price. Parents, he said, buy them by the case.

Loretta Rivera of Costa Mesa said she makes a few phone calls a day to help her 10-year-old son, Andy, track down available cards. “Seven-Elevens (receive shipments) on Tuesdays and Thursdays, a couple of liquor stores on Wednesdays. We try to get there, but we’re usually too early or too late.”

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‘They’re Very Creative’

Rivera knows she is nearly alone as a parent who actually likes the cards. “I think they’re very creative . . . Cracked Jack, he’s my favorite. He looks like an eggshell cracking, and a little chicken is coming out of his head. I don’t know, I have a weird sense of humor I guess. I like the Marx Brothers too.”

Her son washes floors and empties the dishwasher to earn money for the cards, she said.

“It works great as a reward,” said Pat Throp of Costa Mesa, who said he gives his 8-year-old son, Adam, Garbage Pail Kids cards for taking out the garbage.

On the other hand, Ann Stirber of Costa Mesa complained her children are squandering their allowances on the cards. “It’s a total waste of money,” said Stirber, the mother of three Garbage Pail Kids’ collectors, ages 6, 11 and 13.

“I like them because it teaches me to be an adult,” said Loc Huynh, 11, of Costa Mesa. He said he resells the cards to fellow students at a profit and then buys more cards. “I want to be rich when I grow up. I want to get a head start as a kid,” he said. Besides, he added, “Everybody else is doing it. I want to be like everybody else.”

“We had a lot of kids using their lunch money to buy them from other kids. Some kids brought toys and traded them off. It was a little black market so we had to squelch it,” said Doug Kramer, assistant principal at Richard Henry Dana Elementary School in Dana Point, which has banned the cards.

Professionals Concerned

The gory content of the cards concerns most professionals who work with children, said Paula Eastman, chief clinical social worker at the Child Guidance Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.

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Professionals, however, are split over whether the depiction of violence and aggression causes aggressive behavior in children or if, in fact, it allows impulses to be expressed in a socially acceptable way, she said.

In any case, such product parodies are not new, according to some adults who remember Ghoulaide, Crust Toothpaste or Grave Train Dog Food. And Topps’ Norman Liss said the Garbage Pail Kids cards basically make use of previous satirical, ugly products made by Topps, including Garbage Can-dy, a plastic garbage can with edible garbage, and Dirty Laundry, a miniature washing machine with edible socks and underwear.

The Candy Alley’s Fernbacher, who remembers kids also lined up outside her store to buy jelly bellies (small jelly beans), believes Garbage Pail Kids cards will go the way of other fads. Depending on the cards’ availability, she predicts the craze will taper off before fall.

“There’s always something new,” she said. “Now three-dimensional baseball cards are taking over. . . .”

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