He's Proud to Be the Talk of the Toy World

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tony Pope loves to toy with his voice. He stretches his vocal cords from a gravelly grandfather voice to a high-pitched boyish cry.

The Pasadena man has been the voice behind dozens of toys and famous cartoon characters like Goofy and Winnie-the-Pooh for 25 years but never before has his voice created such a stir.

Pope is the voice behind Furby, the cuddly gremlin-like talking doll that has become this year's hottest toy sensation.

Even Pope got caught up in the Furby frenzy. He bugged toy manufacturer Tiger Electronics for about a year to send him one of the fur balls. One finally arrived in December, but Pope says he had to go to a specialty store and shell out more than three times the market rate of $30 to get another.

The second Furby is a Christmas gift for his mother.

"I won't tell you how much it cost. Too much. It amazes me that people would get in line at 5 a.m. and wait in the cold," Pope said. "It's just a toy, not a pet."

Pope admits there's been a family tug of war over the cuddly creature. His 10-year-old daughter, Marcella, hasn't let go of the gray-and-black-spotted creature since it arrived. She even took it to school for show-and-tell.

Pope, 51, wants the doll to remain in one of the three bookcases stuffed with toys that he has done voices for over the years for toy companies such as Mattel, Hasbro and Parker Brothers.

"I got it. It's mine," he joked.

Pope's passion for imitating voices started at age 15. His first impersonation was of the character Crazy Guggenheim on "The Jackie Gleason Show."

"I got pretty close to sounding just like his voice, and all of a sudden I was doing James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and all the stars at the time," he said.

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But not everybody loved his voice impersonations. When Pope mocked his high school teachers, they became so irritated that his parents finally yanked him out of Catholic school his freshman year and enrolled him in a public school.

Determined to make a living doing impersonations, Pope left his small hometown of Willoughby, Ohio, about 20 miles northeast of Cleveland, 25 years ago for the West Coast.

"He was loaded with talent when he left for California with a baby, wife and $1,000," Pope's mother, Katherine, said. "I knew it would be hard, but I told him to go ahead and try. He made it, thank God."

The inspiration for Furby came from Pope's mentor, Dawz Butler, who was the voice of Yogi Bear and other Hanna-Barbera characters. For three hours, Pope tried unsuccessfully to find a voice for Furby. He started wondering how Butler would do the voice, and it came to him.

He took one of Butler's characters, Elroy Jetson from "The Jetsons," and altered it.

"Elroy was a cute voice, so I made it a little bit more childlike. I said, 'My gosh, me love you,' " Pope said, easily slipping into the Furby voice. "It was the cute little voice they wanted."

Pope, who said he can do 150 voices, is currently the voice of Sgt. Garcia in the "Zorro" television cartoon series. He's also the voice of Mr. Pennybags in the Electronic Monopoly hand-held game and Mr. Mint in the Electronic Candyland game.

Pope wouldn't reveal how much he was paid to create Furby's voice but said he was paid above average. He doesn't get any royalties on Furby sales, but he said the toy has kept him busy. Currently, he's recording Furby's voice in other languages, including French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

"I'm not getting rich doing this, but it pays the bills," he said.

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