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In the World of Pretend, the Pressure to Invent the Next Cabbage Patch Kid Is All Too Real

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SPECIALO TO THE TIMES

Plastic dinosaurs that “bleed” in green, red or purple when pierced. “Barfnoids”--moving, mutant, half exploded latex junk-food globs with multiple eye stalks. Retro-fit teeth for your favorite doll or teddy bear.

Such is the stuff that lurks in the subterranean minds of toy inventors. The name of the game may be “fun,” but dreaming up the next intergalactic smash hit is anything but child’s play.

Inventors must be whimsical yet precise, childlike yet calculating, playful yet fiercely disciplined.

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And that’s hard work, made more difficult by industry pressures: a toy’s brief life span, dominance of movie- or TV-spinoff toys, a wave of consolidations shrinking the number of toy companies and a tendency by the biggest toy retailers and parents--often against their better instincts--to buy familiar brands or retreads over more creative, market-risky toys.

Then there are the really tough customers: children, who dictate a plaything’s popularity like little Napoleons.

“The ultimate determiner is the will of the child to play with a toy constructively,” says David Miller, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, a trade association. “And will they play with it more than once? Hours of playtime are the ultimate measure.”

As moms and dads trek to the malls for perfect playthings, industry consultants predict there will be no single blockbuster this season, but a variety of familiar brands, variations on old themes and movie tie-ins such as figurines and plush toys.

Such consumer habits give a Super-Soaker blast to potential new creative toys, industry consultants and inventors say, shrinking the market for novel ideas. Still, the trendy nature of toys and the market’s promise of continued growth demands a steady stream of innovative ideas, even if most never make it into the hands of a child.

“We just pray to the toy gods that our inventions will make it,” says inventor Richard C. Levy, whose “aha!” moment struck while he was exploring scratch-and-sniff applications in a chemistry lab. (His idea, no weirder than many already popular with kids, is hemophiliac toys. The girl version: Boo Boo Bettie with bloodied knees.)

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“It is just persistence,” Levy says. “The people who survive are those who keep at it. Rejection is just what happens before the big event. So far, no toy company has gone for the [bleeder toys] but, hey, timing is everything.”

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Each February, some 6,000 toys debut for retail buyers at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Only half survive through Christmas; fewer than five are likely to become mega-hits (defined as selling more than $100 million in one year), following in the reptilian footsteps of that irritating purple dinosaur who loved too much or those sewer-dwelling, pizza-eating teenage turtles.

Of the 20 best-selling toys, Toy Manufacturers of America spokeswoman Diane Cardinale expects barely three to be from independent inventors. The rest are created in the research labs of major toy companies, saving royalty costs.

But such bleak odds don’t daunt inventors, who know that while their shot is a long one, the rewards are rich. Retail toy sales racked up $18.7 billion last year, compared to $17.5 billion in 1993. Add $4 billion more for video and computer games. The average American family forks over about $350 a year on playthings per child, two-thirds between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And if U.S. Census Bureau figures are any indication, demands will grow. There were 19 million children under 14 in 1995, a number that’s expected to jump to 21 million by 2005.

Such predictions helped spur the creation of a new bachelor’s degree program in toy design at Los Angeles’ Otis College of Art and Design. The program, which began in September with about 20 students, is the second of its kind in the country, behind a 1989 program established at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

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“Toys don’t just generate spontaneously; they need to be created,” says Mark Salmon, vice president of the college’s academic affairs, who designed the program in collaboration with Mattel. “There were no toy design programs west of New York City . . . and there was the opportunity to create a meaningful educational relationship with Mattel.”

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Mattel and other industry Goliaths dwarf companies that supply specialty toy stores, such as Imaginariam, KUSC Learning-smith, KCET Store of Knowledge and Lakeshore Learning. But the specialty store is where consumers with Barbie burnout seek refuge, perusing more stimulating playthings. Most of these toys are not advertised on TV, which is an enormous disadvantage.

“Half the toys on the market are licensed from TV and movies,” says Frank Reysen, editor of the trade magazine Playthings. “Specialty toys are the non-promoted, nonlicensed side of the market and they are up against the big boys. It has forced these smaller companies to become more creative.”

For better or worse, industry and parents tend to buy brands they bought before.

Specialty toys gain popularity mostly through word-of-mouth, from child to child or parent to parent. A recent hit is Beanie Babies (from Ty Inc.), plush animals stuffed with--you guessed it--beans. There are 66 characters with names like Legs the Frog and Weenie the Dachshund. All have imploring eyes, a birth date, a rhyme and an invitation to visit a Web site on a heart-shaped tag, reminiscent of the gimmick that made Cabbage Patch Kids so popular. (Beanie Babies rank No. 1 on the Specialty Toy Mainstay List in this month’s Playthings, followed by Thomas the Tank, Learning Curve, Breyer Horses, and Games and Floor Puzzles.)

But what ranks as a blockbuster in this category--retail sales of about $35 million--barely makes a blip on big manufacturers’ radar screens, says Sean McGowan, a senior vice president at Gerard Klauer Mattison, a New York research and brokerage company. Such sales figures are Monopoly money compared to the take for industry phenoms like Barbie (a $1.5 billion-a-year cash cow) and first-year hits such as Hasbro’s Transformers, which pulled in $114 million when the line debuted in 1984.

“Parents might like the novel new drawing toy, but kids may not,” McGowan says. “You bring home a [educational] toy for your kid and she says, ‘No, I want ‘Doodle-Me-Hair Barbie,’ or, ‘I want the white trygasaurus.’ The buzzword is brands.”

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Against such colossal forces, the inventor parlays a childlike worldview into a stream of ideas for which they must create a prototype, then shop it around to manufacturers. Because there is no watertight formula for success, anyone’s idea could be a hit, which is both encouraging and maddening.

“What keeps people in this business is: One of those ideas can be a boom and you can never tell which one it is going to be,” McGowan says. “Like with Cabbage Patch dolls, you say, ‘Remind me why this was a hit.’ ”

The decidedly ugly dolls Xavier Roberts sewed together while in college and dressed in secondhand clothes were initially laughed out of toy manufacturers’ offices until a small company, Coleco, gambled on it, making Roberts wealthy enough, that, as one toy inventor put it: “You don’t have to take up a collection for him.” (Mattel now has the doll, which underwent some minor plastic surgery and is being sold again).

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The final word belongs to that most diminutive of consumers, the child. Rosemary Dawson, a Fresno-based inventor, tried to sell a board game called the Manners Game, but a toy company executive bluntly told her: “No kid in the world is going to say, ‘Mommy, Mommy! Puh-leeeze buy me the Manners Game.’ ” Dawson says the executive did her a big favor, saving her from spending hours development on a toy that needed to be killed in the idea stage.

Barfnoid inventor Rosemary West, who collaborated with her engineer brother on the toy, thinks the story that goes with it has definite kid appeal. A mad scientist trying to develop a way to preserve foods to make them last a million years accidentally explodes food samples, causing them to mutate into new life forms.

“We were having dinner--carnitas--and we had glops of chopped tomato, cheese and meat everywhere,” recounts West, who also teaches an introduction to toy invention at Otis. “Trying to come up with a boy toy, we thought, ‘Little boys like gross.’ I came up with Barfnoids. A friend’s 9-year-old boy came up with the particular specific names--Count Hamula, Paranormal Pizza and Sewer Sushi. It is the perfect boy toy because it will make girls shriek and parents cringe.”

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So far, there have been no takers on Barfnoids, an idea that cannibalized a girl toy that West and company invented named Kissin’ Kuzzles (alien creature plush toys with tiny feet, eyes and a mechanism that activates in human company to make sounds that may strike you as sweet and cuddly--or totally irritating). West says she and her brother have spent considerable portions of their own money getting the toys patented.

Whether Barfnoids and bleeding dinosaurs can be described as educational is questionable. But psychologists who study the importance of play in a child’s life are critical of toys that are linked to overly specific play schemes, advising parents to buy more general toys to stimulate the imagination rather than railroad a child into a play template dictated by movies and TV shows.

Still, anyone who has watched a child engage in make-believe with an action figure, a Barbie (who comes in so many incarnations that the next manifestation has to be Superwoman Complex Barbie), or for that matter, an empty appliance box, it’s a child’s imagination as much as anything that brings a plaything to life.

“A child lies on the ground a lot, pushing their car around, and that is the homeland of a child’s muses,” says Steve McAdam, director of product design for Mattel. “The world looks full of danger and wonder. The secret of a great toy designer is one who carries that into old age and never loses their sense of wonder and playfulness. The technical side of that is being able to translate that whimsy into a toy that is fun to play with and delivers that ‘wow.’ ”

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TOP OF THE HEAP

Here are the 10 best-selling toys of 1996, based on a survey of the nation’s retailers by the trade magazine Playthings:

1. Barbie dolls (Mattel)

2. “Star Wars” merchandise (Hasbro Toy Group)

3. Nintendo 64 video game (Nintendo)

4. Baby Go Bye Bye doll (Hasbro Toy Group)

5. Batman merchandise (Hasbro Toy Group)

6. Saturn video game (Sega)

7. Tickle Me Elmo plush toy (Tyco)

8. Beanie Babies plush toys (Ty Inc.)

9. Wild West building set (Lego)

10. Bananas in Pajamas plush toys (Tomy America)

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Three of the top five--Barbie, Star Wars and Batman--also appeared on last year’s bestseller list. Other toys cited by the survey as standouts include:

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* “Hunchback of Notre Dame” merchandise (Mattel)

* Power Rangers Zeo (Bandai)

* “Toy Story” merchandise (Thinkaway)

* Playstation video game (Sony)

* Take Care of Me Twins dolls (Toy Biz)

* VideoCam (Tyco)

* Baby So Beautiful doll (Playmates)

* “Goosebumps” Terror in the Graveyard game (Milton Bradley)

* Pound Puppies plush toys (Galoob)

* TalkBoy tape recorder (Tiger)

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