Out of This World: An Oral History of ALFLocation: Walmart Supercenter, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Date: December 1. Victim: Stock room employee Robert Waller.
Injuries: A broken rib, pulled hamstring, and concussion. Cause of emergency room admission: Tickle Me Elmo. The 2. 7- year- old stock clerk had been working the overnight shift during the holiday rush when he was spotted holding the giggling, vibrating toy by a crowd of frantic shoppers. Hospitalizations Related To Pressure Ulcers Among Adults. The ensuing melee left him looking like he had just been in a minor car accident. Someone had even torn the crotch from his jeans. The last thing he saw was a white Adidas sneaker kicking him in the face before he lost consciousness. All across North America, shoppers and retail workers alike were reduced to their primal instincts in an effort to obtain Tyco’s must- have toy of the holiday season.
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Tickle Me Elmo combined the appeal of Sesame Street’s breakout character—a three- and- a- half year old monster with charmingly clipped speech—with a novel design that allowed him to be “tickled” until he was practically out of breath. It was impossibly adorable, and impossible to get: Tyco, which was anticipating a modest success, found themselves chartering private jets in order to get inventory from China more quickly; John Gotti Jr.
Elmo pick- up at a Queens Toys "R" Us; bomb threats were called in to Tyco; one Elmo disappeared from a New York City police station; a toy designer carrying parts through airports was suspected of being the Unabomber. With Hasbro re- releasing the toy for a new generation of kids this winter, we assembled the inventors, designers, marketers, and industry insiders who helped make Tickle Me Elmo one of the biggest success stories in the history of playthings to talk about how the furry red monster became a pop culture phenomenon—one that parents would literally step all over someone to get. I: TICKLISHTickles the Chimp. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NYWith an interest in art and a degree in clinical psychology, Ron Dubren had been making board games and toys for 1. A mutual friend had introduced him to the late Stan Clutton, who held inventor liaison positions with a number of companies. Clutton was always willing to listen to Dubren’s ideas, but had rarely said anything other than "no." That’s not unusual in the toy business, but it was still gratifying when Dubren—who had only had modest success with games like Babble On—finally heard Clutton say “yes” to a prototype he made: a chuckling primate named Tickles the Chimp.
Ron Dubren (Co- inventor): I had been in the park one day watching a bunch of kids tickling each other. It brought back childhood memories—how much I loved tickling or being tickled. There was usually a kind of build- up of this laughing jag until you just finally lose it. I thought that would make a great toy.
Patricia Hogan (Curator, The Strong National Museum of Play): There was some precedent for putting electronics into a plush- type toy. There was Teddy Ruxpin, who had a cassette recorder in his torso. He read the story to kids like a sort of surrogate librarian. Dubren: I can’t tell you why I used a chimp. I somehow associated chimps with laughter, or maybe I saw J.
Fred Muggs on the Today show when I was a kid. I don’t know. Mark Johnson- Williams (Electronics Designer): I had been doing design for Tyco for years. There had been talking dolls since you could pull a string. What made this different was the right sound and right personality. Dubren: Sound was becoming inexpensive for toys at that point. We were getting into sound chips. It was too expensive to make one, so the prototype had a cable connected to a computer.
Johnson- Williams: Later on, I basically wrote the program for the circuit board that tells the motor what to do. I had done a talking Cabbage Patch Kid. Dubren: I called up [co- inventor] Greg Hyman, who was a sound engineer and had recently lost his business partner. Jason Behr And Katherine Heigl Dating. The original idea was a chimp that tickled you, but it wasn’t feasible.
Greg and I worked on developing a prototype to show around. We were turned down by 1. Dubren, who refers to the toy business as “the failure business,” wasn’t dissuaded. He finally came around to Clutton, who was working as vice president of marketing at Tyco’s Preschool division, in 1.
Dubren: We showed it to Stan, and his immediate reaction was, “This would be great as an Elmo, but we don’t have the rights.”Janice Yates (former Associate Vice President of Marketing and Development, Tyco Preschool): We had the plastic rights. Hasbro had the plush rights. Dubren: The meeting lasted about 1. Stan referred me to another guy at Tyco, Gene Murtha. He knew that side of the company had the rights to Looney Tunes. I met Gene that day.
Gene Murtha (former Vice President of Marketing, Tyco): I instantly liked what he had. It was kind of reminiscent of Curious George. Dubren: He looks at it and says, “This would be a great Tickle Me Taz.”What remains of Tickle Me Taz.