Teddy Ruxpin needs an eye massage. After 30 years in a cramped storage garage near Los Angeles, his brown eyes no longer blink. It’s a common problem with bears his age. But with a click of the volume wheel on his back, his snout comes to life. Motors whirl. A speaker crackles. He sings his famous opening line: “Come dream with me tonight.”
It’s a humid summer day outside Los Angeles, and I’m with the toy’s creators in a storage facility nicknamed The Vault. We’re sorting through dusty boxes of merchandise, original artwork, tapes and blueprints that shed light on Teddy’s whimsical, Disney-infused origin story and the rich fantasy universe he roamed.
Born in 1985, the storytelling bear was the world’s first animatronic toy. Seven million Teddy Ruxpins found their way into children’s bedrooms (including mine), his soft voice serenading us with lullabies about the far-off land of Grundo.
Teddy was a bulky toy. Three servo motors in his head moved the eyes and mouth, but the bear’s brains were in the cassette tapes you inserted in the player in his back. The same magnetic strip that played the audio also delivered the commands telling Teddy to move his eyes and mouth in sync with his narration. As kids flipped through picture books, Teddy read from one of his 60 story tapes (he could speak 13 languages).
The bear was a smash hit as soon as he landed on toy shelves, pulling in $93 million his first year — unheard of for a new toy. Parents shelled out a whopping $70 for Teddy, the equivalent of $159 today. Teddy had a live-action movie and a cartoon TV series. There were Teddy bed sheets. Teddy wallpaper. Teddy picnic baskets. Teddy beach balls.
Teddy remained a best-seller — until the magic ran out in 1987. That’s when the Silicon Valley firm that funded Teddy went bankrupt, silencing his voice.
But not forever. After a long hibernation, the talking bear is returning for the holiday season, and with an updated look: LCD screen eyes, push-button paws and a Bluetooth-connected app. He retails for $100.
For the return of the king, I spoke to more than a dozen people involved with Teddy’s past and present, including the family of his creator, Ken Forsse, and the team that sewed his stuffing and programmed him into existence. Many of the original members of his team have reunited for Teddy’s 2017 return. Forsse died in 2014. His widow, Jan Forsse, is now president of his company, Alchemy II.
‘Come and discover the world with me’
Teddy’s DNA included traces of Disney theme parks, Atari, Chuck E. Cheese — there’s even a strand connected to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Forsse, Teddy Ruxpin’s very own toy-making Geppetto started out, appropriately, at Disney, where he was on the creative team designing Disneyland’s attractions. He sculpted the heads of animatronic bears at the Country Bear Jamboree and painted the eyes of dolls in “It’s a Small World.”
He was inspired by the way Disney animatronic figures moved, commanded by giant spools of magnetic tape. At home, Forsse tinkered with ways to use that technology in smaller form, even scripting a puppet show about a little bear’s adventures.
As with any good fantasy, the universe he created was a land of magical kingdoms, creatures and crystals — a bit like “Lord of the Rings” but with more fuzz.
Teddy’s version of Middle-earth is the land of Grundo. He was born on the southern island of Rilonia. The 16-year-old-bear is best buds with an oversized, eight-legged orange bug-like creature called Grubby. Together they befriend bumbling inventor, Newton Gimmick, and dodge the evil schemes of the inept wannabe-wizard Tweeg.
But Forsse didn’t bring his universe to life right away. Forsse left Disney to start his Alchemy company. He bounced between projects — working alongside the puppeteer creators of the children’s TV show “H.R. Pufnstuf,” and consulting for a startup, then called Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre.
The animatronic technology he created started out in a different breed of bear: Winnie the Pooh. That’s because Disney had commissioned Alchemy to produce human-size costumes for its 1983 TV show, “Welcome to Pooh Corner.” The costumes used preprogrammed eye and mouth movements — a giant version of what would eventually become Teddy Ruxpin.
Hasbro showed interest in a Teddy prototype, but wouldn’t provide the funding. Jim Henson visited, but had no immediate use for the tech. There were some weeks Alchemy couldn’t pay its staff, says Mary Becker, one of the company’s first employees, now vice president.
But then Forsse made a deal with the royalty of the toy world.
‘Let’s meet a lovely princess and stand before a king’
Teddy’s big break came in early 1985 when Forsse got the attention of Don Kingsborough, a former president of Atari. Teddy was just a stuffed bear head on a stick tethered to motors and a cassette tape player, but the crude prototype was enough to charm Kingsborough.
“I thought it was magical,” he says. “I had a gut feeling that you could make this into something. And I loved Ken Forsse. He was such a kind and gentle soul, an extraordinarily creative person.”
Kingsborough formed toy company Worlds of Wonder to license and manufacture Alchemy’s amazing bear, investing more than $60 million ahead of the holiday toy rush.
Teddy went from a head on a stick to store shelves in six months.
‘Friends are people that you like, and like to be around’
Forsse’s connections with Hollywood and Disney helped him assemble a talented pool of professionals, including a puppeteer, television voice actors and a director of music for Disney’s theme parks.
One of them was George Wilkins, who had just finished composing music for the 1982 opening of Disney’s Epcot theme park in Florida. (His theme song for the Horizons ride will forever be in my brain.) He wrote about 150 songs for Teddy’s story tapes and related shows, often three or four songs a week.
Wilkins, now 83, says one song is particularly unforgettable. A year into the project, Alchemy received a letter from a young girl dying of leukemia who requested the Teddy lullaby, “Will you go to sleep before I do?” be played at her funeral.
“At that moment we realized this was important stuff,” Wilkins says. “We took it very seriously.”
Voice actor Phil Baron also wrote many song lyrics and stories. Decades later, I got goosebumps hearing my childhood toy speak to me over the phone.
“Hi Bridget,” he says, shifting his voice to a slightly higher pitch. “Can you and I be friends?”
When recording for Teddy, Baron had to speak extra slowly since audio was sped up slightly to make him sound other-worldly. A slow pace helped puppeteer Thom Fountain.
By rolling a joystick, Fountain controlled Teddy’s mouth, which had two motors to separately move the upper and lower jaw. Fountain, a self-described Pac-Man fanatic, says the joystick was his electronic paintbrush. His movements were recorded onto a large spool of magnetic tape.
His experience with Teddy led him to puppeteer a more sinister toy: Chucky in “Child’s Play III.” Fountain also puppeteered Salem the talking cat on the TV series “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch.”
Teddy’s creative team reached across pop culture. The voice of the fairy Leota is also the voice of Minnie Mouse. Will Ryan, who voiced of Teddy’s pal Grubby, can be heard as Goofy. And Tony Pope, who gave voice to Teddy’s pal Gimmick, would later become the voice of another popular toy: Furby.
The Alchemy team produced a paper book and matching audio a week. But although they worked fast, they kept a playful spirit — even hiring storytellers to gather staff around fake campfires, sparking new ideas.
‘The orange leaves of autumn will crackle through the air’
Meanwhile, Worlds of Wonder — 350 miles away in Fremont, California — was pouring money into other high-tech toys and talking-doll spinoffs. It became the North American distributor for Nintendo and it created the first Lazer Tag — another hot holiday toy.
Toy stores were placing orders for thousands of Teddys, Lazer Tag kits and NES game consoles in the same sales call.
A tragic incident halted the momentum. One April night in 1987, a sheriff’s deputy near LA shot and killed 19-year-old Leonard Falcon — mistaking the $40 Lazer Tag gun he was carrying for a real weapon.
Worlds of Wonder staggered under the bad press. Later that same year, Nintendo ended its partnership with the company, followed by the largest stock market crash in history that October. At the same time, toymakers were capitalizing on the Teddy craze by flooding stores with talking dolls.
Four days before Christmas, Worlds of Wonder filed for bankruptcy protection, owing Alchemy $7 million. Teddy’s assembly line shut down, and Alchemy fired 158 employees, scattering talent in all directions. Becker, one of Alchemy’s first costume designers, found work as a real estate agent. Linda Pierson, who picked the fabric for Teddy’s snout, now works as a hospital administrator in rural New Hampshire. She says she doesn’t talk much about her past, for fear that co-workers won’t believe her stories.
Alchemy tried to resurrect Teddy. Three companies bought the license and put him on shelves, but he never lasted. Alchemy execs and former employees pin the blame on toymakers’ bad business decisions or manufacturing mistakes.
Now another toy company is trying a new approach.
‘And if our dream’s a good one and if we see it through…’
Back outside Los Angeles in The Vault, I find myself poking through stacked boxes of cassettes and rolls of matted bear fur. I’m with Jeremy Padawer, co-president of Wicked Cool Toys, the young Pennsylvania-based company that’s. Padawer’s boyish enthusiasm convinced the Alchemy team that his company could be trusted to redesign the bear for today’s iPad-navigating toddlers.
The nostalgia factor adds new hope: Today’s parents would have played with Teddy when they were kids.
“It is the perfect storm to bring back a brand where there’s this multigenerational commonality,” Padawer says.
On top of that, there’s still a diehard Teddy fanbase out there. Ebay sellers price original bears at $200. Message boards keep the world fresh with fan fiction. Old cartoons and songs live on YouTube.
The new Teddy Ruxpin had some work done. His eyes were brown; now they’re blue. His plastic eyes are now LCD screens. And when they’re turned off, they’re empty, dark globes. (He comes with a sleep mask for that very reason.) He no longer wears his original vest and red shorts. Now he’s hip, with a suit vest and blue jeans. But will today’s kids mind that his new outfit doesn’t match the original art from the books, shown when they read along in the app?
The Alchemy team believes in the new look. Kids will find his new threads more relatable, and the designers say blue eyes pop better as animations on his LCD screens.
“I didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like, but we trusted the company,” Jan Forsse says, standing next to the original Teddy prototype, preserved in a glass casing. “And I just knew they were going to do something great.”
Some of Teddy’s most diehard fans have mixed feelings. Josh Isaacson, who runs the superfan site TeddyRuxpinOnline.com, has seen it all. Activity on message boards and Facebook groups swell with delight of the toy’s return — while still nitpicking over changes. (The same fans who debate over electronic eyes also debate whether his friend Grubby is a mammal or an insect.)
The Wicked Cool Toys team says it has written back to a small number of distressed fans who reached out.
“I’d say there’s a few people that will never get over the fact that he looks different and has different eyes,” says Michael Rinzler, co-president of Wicked Cool. “It’s inspiring that people care that much.”
There are signs that this could be a hit. Teddy sold out on several early-morning QVC spots in July. A few new models are being scalped on Ebay for $50 over retail.
But today’s toy world isn’t like the one that gave Mr. Ruxpin his first success. He’s up against a host of interactive plush toys: Furbys that play viral videos, Hatchimals that sing and FurReal Friends dragons that blow smoke.
What will it take for Teddy to really make it? Wicked Cool Toys says if kids take a quarter million of these furballs home with them, Grubby and other characters could make it onto shelves, too — possibly expanding on the story Forsse never finished.
Then super fans can find out what happens to Teddy, and if he can stop Quellor from destroying Grundo with the seven crystals.