Long live TOYS!

In December 1953, retailers had long waiting lists for the game Scrabble, which then sold for $3. St

In December 1953, retailers had long waiting lists for the game Scrabble, which then sold for $3. Store owners who didn’t keep waiting lists endured a mob scene among customers scrambling for a set when a new shipment came in. That year, consumers purchased 800,000 sets, contributing to the total of over 100 million sets sold worldwide. Even as the popular board game celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, it still remains a favorite, with sales between 1 million and 2 million sets each year.

Lasting Power

Scrabble is just one of several toys and games that celebrate milestone anniversaries this year, and as the holiday season approaches, they continue to be on shoppers’ holiday gift lists in new, updated versions that cater to today’s generation.

There are several factors that contribute to the longevity of classic toys and games. One is a “strong play pattern,” said Reyne Rice, a trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association.

“Little girls still love to nurture their babies, play dress-up as princesses or fairies, pretend they are ballerinas and make believe that they own their own pony. Little boys love the crash-and-bash play involved with mini vehicles, the build and rebuild possibilities with classic blocks, the fun of re-enacting their favorite scenes of good versus evil with their action figures and the joy of racing radio-control vehicles,” Rice said.

25 years and counting

While the toys themselves may evolve and undergo face-lifts, they still cater to how kids like to play, which hasn’t changed all that much even with rapid advances in technology.

Two toys that are marking 25 years are designed to please little girls — My Little Pony and the Cabbage Patch Kids.

My Little Pony owes its popularity to the combination of girls’ fascination with horses and hairstyling. With long manes and tails that can be combed and styled, ponies such as Butterscotch, Blossom and Cotton Candy have been pleasing little girls for the past quarter-century.

Manufacturer Hasbro celebrated the ponies’ birthdays with “The My Little Pony Project: 25 Ponies for 25 Years,” where they invited celebrities to design a collection of one-of-a-kind ponies that were auctioned to raise money for Give Kids the World Village. Children around the world also had a chance to design their own ponies as part of an online contest.

Cabbage Patch phenomenon

Another girl favorite, dolls enjoy continued popularity because they lend themselves to making up stories to go along with the play.

“The Cabbage Patch dolls in particular have remained popular because, like all dolls, they allow for that infinite variety of play and narrative,” said Patricia Hogan, curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester. “Their faces are very simple and little girls or anybody can impose their own characteristics or temperaments onto these dolls.”

Creator Xavier Roberts’ clever marketing helped to fuel his dolls’ popularity. Fearing that children wouldn’t take care of his creations, he dubbed children “adoptive” parents and asked them to sign an adoption certificate and pledge to take care of them. They’re “born” at BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland, Ga. The Cabbage Patch baby boom created a stir in the 1980s. One Cabbage Patch Kid, Christopher Xavier, even went into space aboard a space shuttle in 1985. He now lives at the Smithsonian.

The original dolls were made of fabric, and when their popularity soared, Roberts licensed the name to Coleco, which birthed the first Cabbage Patch Kids with vinyl faces in 1983 in their factories in Amsterdam. To celebrate the doll’s 25th anniversary, Play Along Toys, the current manufacturer, produced a line of “Anniversary Kids” that are replicas of Coleco’s dolls.

Racing into boys’ hearts

Nostalgia is another factor that contributes to a toy’s or game’s popularity. Parents have memories of playing with a certain toy and purchase their childhood favorites for their own kids.

Nostalgia, as well as boys’ love of fast cars, plays into the success of Hot Wheels, which turned 40 this year. Mattel has manufactured more than 3 billion of these toy cars that were the brain-child of the company’s co-founder, Elliott Handler, who came up with the idea while he was playing with his grandchildren in 1966.

Mattel’s board of directors didn’t share Handler’s enthusiasm for the toy, but Handler pressed on, assigning a former Navy missile engineer, Jack Ryan, to create a line of die-cast cars for Mattel. Ryan recruited a top automobile designer from Chevrolet to lead the design team.

Speed was of the utmost importance. Designers achieved this through the cars’ suspension and then added candy-colored metallic finishes to make them eye-catching. Throughout the past 40 years, Mattel has worked with real automobile manufacturers to design more than 800 models of Hot Wheels cars. According to Hogan, the only toy that sells more units per year than Hot Wheels is the Crayola crayon. “Mattel predicts that the average kid owns about 41 Hot Wheels cars,” she said.

The toy cars have remained popular because they not only cater to boys’ love of racing cars, said Michele Sturdivant, director of Boys, Girls and Games Public Relations for Mattel, but the toys continue to evolve with each generation of kids. “We do research every day of the year on how kids are playing,” she said.

To keep the toy fresh, that research goes into new products, such as Trick Tracks, that allow the cars to perform stunts.

One of the newest projects combines cars and technology that is such a big part of today’s lifestyle. The new Hot Wheels Turbo Driver comes with a car that can be played with on the floor, as well as a game controller that can be plugged into the computer. The controller unlocks a special 3-D racing game on HotWheels.com that takes the toy from the floor to the computer.

Mattel celebrated the Hot Wheels anniversary with several events, including a Designer’s Challenge for Dodge, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Lotus and Mitsubishi, a six-city cross-country road trip, and a custom jeweled Hot Wheels car designed by celebrity jeweler Jason of Beverly Hills. The 18-karat white gold car is studded with 23 carats of diamonds and has a value of $140,000.

Related products, such as books or television shows that boost a toy’s exposure, also contribute to its popularity. A television show and series of books reinforced My Little Pony’s appeal. In the fall of next year, a Hot Wheels animated show, “Battle Force 5” will debut on the Cartoon Network.

Let the games begin

Games have always been a favorite way to play because of their sociability. “Classic board games remind families of times spent with siblings and with parents, and often of family reunions where many generations joined together to celebrate family occasions,” said Rice, noting that there is a renewed trend toward intergenerational play.

Games bring families and friends together, and give people an opportunity to show off their intelligence, skill, and oftentimes, luck. “Everybody likes the immediate reward of answering a question correctly,” Hogan said, speaking to the appeal of Trivial Pursuit, which turns 25 this year. “You get to show off that you’re pretty darn smart, and you’re having fun doing it.”

Rice also points out that in today’s economy, many families are creating “staycations,” as she calls them, spending evenings at home on family entertainment nights. “Family Game Night is back,” she said.

Scrabble originated from an unemployed statistician with a degree in architecture, Alfred Butts of Poughkeepsie. He developed Scrabble’s precursor, “Lexiko,” in the early 1930s, without a game board, selling handmade sets to friends.

Many incarnations later and with the help of a friend, James Brunot, the game was transformed into the one played today. Part of Scrabble’s popularity is fueled by the National Scrabble Association that boasts more than 300 clubs in North America and sanctions 250 Scrabble tournaments a year.

Colonie resident David Goodman, one of the directors of the Capital Region Scrabble Club, has been playing since he was in high school. The club draws 12 to 15 players a week and about 100 people for the three tournaments it hosts each year. “I think the game is much more complex than many people realize, and because of its complexity, it appeals to people who are interested in different things,” Goodman said.

Two Canadians, Chris Haney and Scott Abbot, came up with the idea for Trivial Pursuit in 1979. It had a slow start making it to the market, but then it took off, selling more than 15 million games in 1984. Over the years, manufacturers have developed new themes to appeal to different consumers, such as the “Star Wars” and Warner Bros. editions.

Now the game is available on DVD, and the latest version, Trivial Pursuit Digital Choice, allows players to create and select their own categories from hundreds of topics available online.

Time-honored icons

Each year, the Strong National Museum of Play adds toys to its National Toy Hall of Fame. A national selection committee chooses the winners from a group of 12 finalists that have been evaluated based on four criteria — creativity and imagination, iconic status, longevity and innovation. Scrabble is in the Hall of Fame, and Hot Wheels was one of the 12 finalists this year, but not a winner. Selected this year were Baby Doll, Skateboard and Stick.

Categories: Life and Arts

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