”Creatures” and “The Pets of Frankenstein” and all drawings pertaining to them are Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT and KISCOM. “Aahh! Real Monsters” are copyright 1995 Nickelodeon. All Rights Reserved. NICKELODEON, Real Monsters and all related title, logos, and characters are trademarks owned and licensed by Nickelodeon. Characters and storyline created by Klasky-Cuspo Inc. Photography and writing on this website are Copyright Mel Birnkrant.
Kenner’s reaction to my menagerie of monsters was several light years beyond positive. As I heard tell, they were Thrilled, Flabbergasted, and Amazed; Howard Bollinger, especially. He found it hard to believe that just one individual had done all this in only thirty days, and enthusiastically conveyed the message that, in his opinion, I had nailed it, totally! Everyone was pleased, including yours truly! The video, by the way, had come as an unexpected surprise. Sort of like a fortune cookie, it was never on the menu. Nonetheless, I hoped that it would bring us luck. And, Kenner gobbled it up!
Throughout my long history in the toy industry, I had a ringside seat, from which to see a trend develop and grow to such monstrous proportions that in the end, which is right now, it stifled creativity. At the beginning of my journey, when I created the Outer Space Men, inventing toys was fun and easy, and coming up with something original was considered commendable. Everyone was seeking the latest thing. “What’s new?” is what they used to say. Now, all of that has changed! Today, a potential toy buyer inquires, “What’s the Pre-Sell?” “How many sequels have been made?”
Introducing something brand new is inviting an uphill battle. It’s almost impossible to compete with a winning known commodity. That increasingly familiar truth weighed heavily on the creative crew at Kenner. They longed to develop an original concept of their own. And as I said already, it looked like our Creatures might offer them that possibility. Rick got his chance to do just that, for a day or two, adding his input to our concept, and loving it.
Kenner, and most big toy manufacturers, by then, couldn’t afford to take on a new property, unless they could anticipate sales of at least 30 million dollars. And if a submission looked promising, they set up focus groups, and tested it, ad nauseam. Mattel, for instance, was notorious for testing everything, over and over again, every few weeks. If extensive testing indicated that they should buy a concept, the inventor was, by no means, home free. All the while that product was in development, it would be tested again regularly, pitting it against every new property that walked through the door. So, even if a product happened to be nearing completion, it would immediately be kicked out of bed if a new arrival tested better.
Howard Bollinger informed us that our Creatures tested well. He felt that they had the potential, if promoted properly, to meet the necessary 30 million dollar goal in projected sales. Having gotten this far, the next step would be to present the concept to upper management.
A few days later, Howard got back to us with the troubling news that the “Powers that Be” were not impressed. With product lines, like Star Wars and Batman, generating sales of over one hundred million dollars why should they bother with, or take a chance on unknown monsters? Howard asked us to see if we could come up with an angle to tie the concept into something that had instant recognition, i.e. Pre-Sell!
What the Hell could that be? Something with instant name recognition was required. Hopefully, it could be something generic, and, therefore, free. That’s how I came up with “The Pets of Frankenstein.”
Growing up in the 1940s, I saw every classic horror movie that came down the pike. And I had become something of an expert on the saga of Frankenstein, by the age of nine. I saw the movie, for the first time, way too early. I persuaded my parents to take me. It was on a double bill with Dracula, which was a customary coupling, at the time. Both films were already old by then, but they were, nonetheless, rerun together frequently. I made it through Dracula, without a shiver; and proudly marveled at my bravery. Then, came Frankenstein! The movie scared the crap out of me! I watched it with my hands over my eyes, peeking through the narrow slits between my fingers, and I was hooked for life. Unlike most of my contemporaries, my parents let me see these movies. I recall one day in science class. The teacher invited me stand up, and in my squeaky voice, recite the history of how the Frankenstein Monster survived, from one sequel the next. Some of his illogical escapes from death were farcically farfetched. I had them all memorized, and the class was mesmerized.
In the original movie, the monster perished in a burning windmill. But, in the sequel, we learn that he actually fell to safety, in the pool below, and was still wading there, in time to meet the Bride of Frankenstein. Later on, he’s frozen in a block of ice, until the Wolfman thaws him out. Yes, I knew them all: “Frankenstein,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Son of Frankenstein,” “Frankenstein meets the Wolfman” “The House of Frankenstein,” “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” and, ironically, the scariest one, “Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein.” And so, in honor of all the above, our creatures would become: "The Pets of Frankenstein!” I even wrote a three page story, which popped up, several weeks ago, but has since been misplaced. If I ever come across it again, I’ll add it here.
Now,KISCOM cleaned up the Pets of Frankenstein, dusted them with flea powder, and took them on the road again. The next stop on their odyssey turned out to be our old “friend,” Gary Niles, at Galoob. We had enjoyed some spectacular successes with Galoob, and some disastrous failures too. Andy knew just how to get Gary to buy something. Telling him he was on the way to show it to Mattel, was all he had to do. Gary always reacted with the equivalent of, "What am I? Chopped liver? I could do it too!"
So, not surprisingly, Gary adopted the Pets of Frankenstein. Thank God, only temporarily. If anyone could screw up a good concept, it was Gary. At his best, he was terrific, but, more often than not, he inadvertently turned out to be the kind of friend that made the need to have an enemy unnecessary. In this instance, he was taking no chances, and submitted The Pets of Frankenstein to Market Testing.
Market Testing at Galoob, consisted of: making a short video, and adding it to an hour long tape that contained a series of other product videos of equal length. The video was produced by a company that specializes in testing. The total tape always consisted of a long list of products, each with its own routinely made four minute spot. One after another, these were shot, against the same neutral blue background. The videographer had to be careful not to enhance any product with added romance or sizzle. The presentations had no music or trickery. The idea was not to glamorize any product with ad agency gimmickry. Then, the tape was played before a series of focus groups. The theory being that the best products would rise to the top, on their own merits. And all would have an equally uninspiring opportunity to succeed.
By some miracle, I got a copy of the entire hour long video. The Pets of Frankenstein, which I have extracted, was the third product shown. Believe it or not, it was preceded on the tape by another of our products, “Tiny Tots.” Galoob was testing them as well. And the Pets of Frankenstein, which, on the tape Galoob renamed, “Creepy Creatures,” are followed by some kind of Batman item. The narrator is, by design, attempting to curb his enthusiasm.
Alas, Kenner’s upper management did not share my enthusiasm for Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster, and gave the concept back again. Howard, Rick, and the entire action figure group at Kenner were as disappointed as we were. From that time forward, until the end, when Kenner was gobbled up by Hasbro, the action figure department at Kenner never, ever, got their chance to generate an original in-house concept.
I found the video to be unimpressive and depressing. Both the Creatures and the video were Creepy. When I was a kid in Detroit, every Sunday night at midnight, I used to listen to a terrifying radio show called, “The Hermit’s Cave.” Even the commercials for the Mistle Coal Company were somber and scary. This video conveyed the same impression to me, and awakened that old memory. The Tiny Tots came off the same way, and both concepts were returned to us, on the same day.
Thank God, Galoob gave the concept back to us, without destroying it, for once. Throughout the years I gambled at inventing toys, I never lost sight of the saying that characterizes what it’s like to be a toy inventor; namely: “A successful toy invention is one that ninety-nine out of one hundred toy companies turn down!” The implication being that it’s the one company that doesn’t turn it down that counts. I never gave up hope that the Pets of Frankenstein would find a home. Neither did my partners who cleaned the creatures up again, and, once more, hit the road!
Several weeks passed. Then, one day, my partners, KISCOM called to inform me that the Pets of Frankenstein were sold! Not optioned, or held for testing, but SOLD! Incredibly, the buyer was Mattel! I nearly dropped the phone! As customary, there was an advance and guarantee. Not the sort that we were offered for the Weenies, ten years before; the toy industry had smartened up, since then. But it was enough to live on for a year, and we could count on that, even if our chickens didn’t hatch!
And so, our chickens baked in Mattel’s incubator for several months. During that time, I sent Mattel's design department everything I had, including all the plaster molds, with which one could replicate much of the line. Meanwhile another Christmas came and went, and when the new year began, unbeknownst to us, Mattel was beginning to chicken out.
Therefore, a few days before Toy Fair, they contacted my partners, and proposed the possibility of an arranged marriage. Mattel played nice, and kept the shotgun out of sight, but we knew that it was there. The pairing was to be between an animation company called, Klasky-Csupo and KISCOM. Unsure of the viability of our unknown Creatures, they had in mind marrying them to "Aaahh!!! Real Monsters," which brought with them the allure of looking fresh and new, and being on TV! It was an insurance policy.
In 1991, Klasky Csupo Inc. had produced a show for Nickelodeon, called “Rugrats.” Rugrats was “Peanuts,” in an alternate universe. It featured a cast of precocious preschool brats who lived out a series of sophisticated fantasy adventures, of which their parents were unaware. In 1964, with three years of episodes, slowing to an end, Klasky-Csupo, created a new property for Nickelodeon, called, “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters.”
“Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” chronicled the adventures of three young monsters, Oblina, Ickis, and Krumm. This rather refreshingly designed trio attended a Monster Academy, located in a New York City landfill, where their course of studies consisted of learning to scare human beings! A fourth main Character, and the most complex and interesting of the bunch was the school’s headmaster, a bizarre four legged creature, called “The Gromble.” He bore a certain resemblance, that was, most likely, coincidental, to an old Johnny Gruelle "Raggedy Ann" character, known as "Snoopwiggy".
Aaahh!!! Real Monsters first episode aired on Halloween 1994. Just three months later, Nickelodeon was knocking on Mattel’s door, with Toy Fair opening two weeks later on February 14th, 1995, Valentine’s Day.
Meanwhile, Mattel was introducing our creatures at Toy Fair. I can’t recall what they were calling them. I don’t believe it was the “Pets of Frankenstein.” And I don’t know if they appeared in the catalogue. But in a week, I will find out! Yesterday, twenty years later, I ordered a 1995 Mattel catalogue on eBay, for ten dollars. Mattel, as usual, would not give us a copy, at the time. They really were a pain. This was not the first time. We never got to see the catalogue the year they did "My Very Own Puppy," either. Mattel’s CEO, Jill Barad was something of a tyrant, and she ran the company like a totalitarian police state. This woman in business was as scary as any villainess ever created by Disney.
The deal that Mattel and Nickelodeon proposed was, in my opinion, pure insanity, and impossible to turn down. From Aaahh!!! Real Monster’s point of view, our creatures, being Toy Fair ready, were Klasky-Csupo’s only chance to get their foot in Mattel’s door, in time to appear at Toy Fair. This, on the other hand, would cost us half our royalty. And this is the crazy part, in exchange for that, we would share half of theirs. We would become equal partners, and get half the royalties generated by Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, not just on the Mattel product, but on all the other Aaahh!!! Real Monsters toys to come, manufactured by any company in the toy industry. Thus, if Aaahh!!! Real Monsters turned out to be as successful, as Rug Rats proved to be, this could add up to a fortune. There was no way we could say, "No!".
I rather liked the Aaahh!!! Real Monster's styling. The characters were offbeat and original. And they were cleverly designed to be scary, without being scary. Oblina was no more than a walking letter “J” with lips. And Krumm, a blob of naked flesh with hairy armpits, carried his eyeballs in his hands. Everything about the realization was well designed and slick. The style book, below, which I didn’t get until after the fact, was luxurious and impressive. Just click on the cover to lift the flap!
This secret flap on the cover opens, to reveal the basic story. This spectacular presentation must have cost a fortune. Two tiny extensions of Ickes’s smile extend on either side. These had to be die cut and scored to fold over, and reduce the size, enough to fit a standard envelope. This needlessly expensive bit of publishing served no logical purpose, beyond being an effort to impress. And glistening beneath a laminated coat of high gloss acetate, impress, it did!
The interior contained an overkill amount of style guides for every character, and swipe art galore; more than anybody, licensing the property would ever need. As it turned out, way more!