Getting wiggy with it

Times Staff Writer

At Maggie Rothschild's home office in Sherman Oaks, multicolored wigs rest on Styrofoam heads, mascot toys line the shelves and plush Rally Monkeys dangle from display rods.

Her Rothschild Worldwide Licensing Inc. may look like a children's playroom, but it's a business that sells hundreds of thousands of novelties a year to sports teams and retail stores. If you've ever gone to a ballgame, chances are you've spotted -- or bought -- one of Rothschild's products.

The success of her operation, she says, is simple: Her novelties make people feel good. "When times are tough, why not monkey up or wig out?" she quipped.

It wasn't the career Rothschild had expected when she switched to product manufacturing after running a children's clothing showroom for 24 years. It was 1999, so Rothschild created the Millennium Bear, a bean-filled toy with a clock in its belly that counted down to the year 2000. Although the bears sold well, she didn't foresee a major flaw.

"Once the clock hits the millennium," she said, "you're out of business for the next 1,000 years."

Then the Dodgers, who had ordered bean-filled dogs from her, called. Could Rothschild design Dodger blue novelty wigs to be sold in the team's retail stores?

"Blue hair?" she recalled thinking. "I was very taken aback. I was like, 'I don't know if I'm the right person for this.' "

Rothschild, who'd never made or even worn a wig, began rifling through catalogs, sampling dyes and contacting designers. Soon she had fashioned 600 fluffy, blue wigs made of polyester and acrylic fiber.

The wigs "sold out almost immediately," said Mike Nygren, the Dodgers' former director of merchandising, who came up with the idea. "They were kind of goofy, they were kind of fun, they were a way to identify. We knew they'd sell."

Orders quickly poured in from teams who wanted wigs made in their own colors. The flamboyant pieces -- available in such styles as mullet, mohawk, curly and fuzzhead -- are now given away by the thousands as game-day promotions and sold by retailers for about $25.

"When we took this on, I didn't know if it was going to last one month," Rothschild said.

The business kept growing. Rothschild, 56, added Rally Monkeys, stadium cushions, plush toys and other items to her inventory.

Sales topped $1.5 million in 2007, and Rothschild said she expected to double that this year, based on growing retail, team and private label orders. Among her clients: teams from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Assn. and the National Hockey League, as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.

But the wigs remain among the most sought-after items. About 175,000 are sold a year, Rothschild said.

"We're in the 'wow' business," she said. "It's a fashion statement at this point."

Rothschild also makes "player identified" wigs to match a specific athlete's hairstyle. Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Juan Toja of FC Dallas, boxing promoter Don King and Burnie, the mascot of the Miami Heat, have had their hair (or, in Burnie's case, feathers) replicated.

She even designed a hairless "wig" in honor of the NBA's Drew Gooden, who is bald. They're such attention-getters that the company doesn't have an advertising budget. The wigs, featured regularly on the Jumbotron screens at arenas, sell themselves.

"You see people going to games over and over again with the wigs," said Larry Gotlieb, RWL senior vice president. "Who gets on the big screen? The big fan."

Andrew Mayorga of Monrovia is one of them. At a recent Dodgers game, Mayorga was leading his section in a series of cheers, his blue wig standing out in a sea of baseball caps.

"Not many grown men would wear blue hair like this," said Mayorga, 25, a union organizer. "But at a Dodgers game, hey, it's time to be a kid. You've got to support the team."

Mayorga snagged the wig at a Dodgers promotional night five years ago and has worn it to "every game" since -- about 20 a year.

"I bleed blue," he said. "I let everyone know what I stand for. The hair tops it off."

Although other companies sell team wigs, Rothschild can always identify her own: Each patented RWL wig is attached to a sweatband, which is used to display a team's logo.

Rothschild operates RWL out of her home, working with just two employees. She logs 15-hour days, selling to retailers across the country and coordinating with factories in China, where her products are made.

A first-time manufacturer, Rothschild admits there have been a few mishaps.

Once, she placed an order for plush polar bears, with instructions for the bears to wear bandannas.

When she received a sample from China a few weeks later, the bear was exactly what she wanted -- except it was wearing a large yellow banana around its neck.

Although many of her products are designed to get a laugh, Rothschild said her goal was to create "something of value." She points to the details on her plush items: sparkling rhinestones, real denim jeans, removable footwear and embroidered logos, "instead of screen-printed mumbo jumbo."

"It's the philosophy of the company to do it right," she said. "We're after the kid who doesn't want to just throw it in the closet when he gets home."

She recently finished developing her newest product, a line of jumbo plush mascot heads to be worn over the hand like a puppet. If the heads do well, they could become the next foam finger, she said.

But Rothschild knows it will be difficult to top the popularity of her wigs.

This season, the L.A. Avengers have signed on to do four promotional wig nights, with a different style for each game. It's the first time the company has produced a wig series, and Rothschild said she expected the arena football team's giveaways to become collectibles.

"Bobbleheads move over," she said. "There's a new kid in town."

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andrea.chang@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Game pieces

Business

Rothschild Worldwide Licensing Inc. makes novelty items, often for sports teams, including wigs, Rally Monkeys, seat cushions and plush toys.

Owner

Maggie Rothschild

Revenue

$1.5 million in 2007

Number of wigs

sold a year

175,000

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