As far as pop culture icons go, Barney the Dinosaur has arrived on the scene rather quietly, with great big hugs and kisses for all who open their hearts to his simple, unconditional love. In fact, if there are no small children in your life, there's a good chance you don't know much about the plush tyrannosaur with soft fabric teeth.
But toddlers do. And their parents do--only too well. And in the next year or so, a worldwide audience may be singing the catchy, cloying tunes of the 6-foot purple dinosaur who makes his Hollywood debut today for a limited engagement at the Universal Studios theme park.
Two TV networks are bidding for rights to a prime-time special next winter starring the oafish Barney, who already has his own PBS series--seen by an estimated 5 million children a week--and a sizzling home-video line. His handlers are meeting with several major studios next month to hatch a feature film. And plans are under way to co-produce the gentle giant's PBS show in other countries and languages.
The goal is to build Barney into a multi-generational, international children's star, a classic character in the mold of Mickey Mouse or Big Bird, said Sheryl Leach. The Dallas mother and former teacher created Barney with her friend, Kathy Parker, as a homespun home-video series starring Sandy Duncan five years ago when the mommies couldn't find any suitable entertainment for their 2-year-olds.
After a rocky early start, during which Leach and Parker sent free videotapes to local preschools and day-care centers to encourage slumping sales, there's been no holding back the dearly beloved dino, who has become a sort of preschool Elvis wherever he goes:
* In suburban Maryland, an expressway was nearly shut down when 40,000 people showed up for a Barney shopping-mall appearance and cars spilled out into exit ramps in search of parking. Barney abruptly stopped his tour of J.C. Penney stores last year because the crowds were unsafe.
* Billboard magazine reports that nine of the top 25-selling home videos across the country last week were "Barney & Gang" titles. Another video hits the market this weekend, and two more are due out before year's end.
* After one season on PBS, ratings for the early morning TV series "Barney & Friends" are just below "Sesame Street" and double any other PBS children's series, including "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Production is under way for 18 fresh episodes for September, when a new character will be introduced.
* Barney reportedly received a $100-million deal from Hasbro. Toy lines in five different Hasbro divisions will be released in waves beginning this month with Milton Bradley games and Playskool baby items. In July, a talking Barney doll that says 572 phrases will hit the shelves.
* Next month, Barney is expected to land a major audio contract that will include book and tape sets and music albums. Self-published Barney books are already on the market, with a total of 14 expected by the end of next year.
* KCET-TV Channel 28 in Los Angeles expected a hearty $40,000 in contributions last month when Barney programming was aired during the public-TV station's March pledge drive; instead, $123,000 worth of donations poured in.
* When Barney "arrived" at Universal Hollywood earlier this week--he's concurrently visiting the Universal theme park in Florida--in a convertible limousine with a police escort, hundreds of small children cheered. When he left after performing a few numbers, many of them broke into dinosaur tears.
"They're kind of emotional about the big purple guy," one Universal executive commented. "In the jaded studio world, it was actually a little bit touching."
"We're on a very ambitious quest," explained Leach, who formed the privately held Lyons Group in 1988 to market Barney. Lyons Group is a division of the educational and religious publisher DLM Inc., run by Richard Leach, Sheryl Leach's father-in-law and a father of nine.
"We want Barney to be around for 50 years, teaching our children's children the same simple values we had when we grew up," Sheryl Leach said.
In the fourth quarter of last year, Barney toys generated more than $25 million in retail sales, backed by a national toll-free hotline to order Barney merchandise. At a licensing convention in February, Leach put a moratorium on the licensing of new Barney products until summer to avoid overexposure.
Still, "You pretty much have to be blind not to notice Barney," noted Michele Reese, executive vice president of marketing for Universal Studios Hollywood, who expects park attendance to increase by 20% over Barney's three-week visit.
Reese said that Barney and his series pal Baby Bop will be featured in a parade at the park six times a day. There will also be a back-lot tram game where kids try to spot Barney to solve a puzzle. But parents be warned: Barney will not be walking around the park for children to hug. Instead, there will be cardboard cutouts of Barney that kids can pose beside for pictures.
"It's really a shame, because there's nothing we love more than for little kids to hug Barney," said Barney spokeswoman Beth Ryan, who returned from a several day visit to Los Angeles this week to find 220 voice-mail messages inquiring about Barney. "But it's not safe when you get 100 little kids trying to hug Barney at the same time. They don't want to let go is the problem."
On his TV series and videos, the giggling Barney sings and dances and spouts simple life-affirming phrases ("The best gift you can give is yourself, being a good friend and helping others") with a regular group of children called the Backyard Gang. Because he's too banal for adults--by design, his creators say, to avoid information overload--Barney is pretty much an exclusive club for preschoolers.
Barney has come under some attack recently in the press by parents who were upset by Barney's fund-raising efforts for PBS. Other folks are just growing tired of what they perceive as Barney's grating personality and tot-idol status.
But for the most part, Barney has been embraced by parents and critics. On Wednesday, "Barney & Friends" received a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for outstanding children's series.
"Our first goal really is 'edu-tainment'--that's what we call it," Leach said. "We feel if kids are not entertained, they're going to get up and walk away. So our primary focus is really not to educate, but to do something supportive that celebrates childhood through entertainment."
Opinions vary about what makes Barney work. Judy Price, vice president of children's programs for CBS, said: "There's something very calming and reassuring about Barney. If one were to make a comparison, he's like Mister Rogers in a dinosaur suit. Is he pro-social? Yes. Educational? Probably not. But one would be hard-pressed not to count him as a positive influence."
"I think one of their conscious goals was to create something reminiscent of the original Mousketeers, something kids could identify with," said "Entertainment Tonight" reviewer Leonard Maltin. "I saw that work, because I know (my daughter) Jessy would talk about how she liked Tina, or one of the other kids. She connected with them on the screen. She liked that fantasy element."
There appears to be a consensus in the children's programming community that Barney won't become extinct anytime soon if he's properly managed, as today's toddlers grow up and pass Barney along to their children.
"I doubt this is a fad," said John Fuller, director of research for PBS in Virginia. "I think Barney probably has substantial legs, dinosaur-sized legs. Because there's nothing in the production of the series that strikes me as timely--it could have been run in 1955 or 2005. It's just the kind of show that fits certain needs of small children."
Of course, children might be the best ones to explain the Barney mystique. After singing Barney's theme song "I Love You" by heart, 2-year-old Hannah Bender from Beverlywood was asked why she loves Barney.
"Because he's purple!" she exclaimed with a beaming smile.