The Story of the PlayAlong Club Dolls
~ by Mel Birnkrant

Page 2

Here the dolls are almost finished and ready for presentation. They are still waiting for their rosy cheeks, eyebrows and eyelashes.

Here is Betty Brown with Bobby!

Meet Jessica Jones!

And, Samantha Smith!

Each doll came with a Scrap Book and a kit full of "Stuff" to decorate it.


When the entire presentation was complete, my partners, the brothers Kislevitz: Andy, Adam and Noah, formerly known as "Kiscom" (now called "The Obb"), took the dolls out to show them . It is their role to take prototypes to companies in an effort to sell the concept.


So... what does it do?

If you say to anybody, "I made a doll", they will inevitably reply: "Oh! What does it do?" Everyone expects a gimmick, something no doll has ever done before. So what chance has an inventor got of selling a doll that "doesn’t do anything" to toy companies, who have seen everything?

None, I thought, no chance at all! I think my partners thought so too, but they were willing to give it a try. For years they had followed a pattern of showing a project to only one company at a time. This could be extremely time consuming, as each would hold it for months before they made up their mind to reject it; and soon the year was gone. This time the Obb decided to show the project to three potential buyers, Mattel, Hasbro and Playmates, all at the same time. To our Amazement, all three embraced it …


Playmates wanted Friendz n" Family. All the principals of the company agreed. But they could not make a proposal until the president, who had the final say, saw the dolls and said "OK". He was in the Orient at the time and would not return for several days. So, one of the seven dolls was left with Playmates, sitting on the President’s desk, awaiting his return. The Obb and I had worked with Playmates before, [Fuzzy Buzzies]. We knew and liked the people well, and felt for sure we had a sale.


Mattel wanted the dolls too, But! They adopted the attitude that they needed a "feature" which Mattel would attempt to come up with and apply. Thus they would offer only half a royalty to buy the "look" alone. They had played this game with us before on "Color Me Cuties". They promised to supply a "special feature", and chewed our royalty down. Then no feature appeared. They produced the product just as we had shown it to them in the first place, but at a lower royalty rate than it deserved. So, while once again, arguing the royalty, negotiations with Mattel continued.


Meanwhile, when the folks at Hasbro saw Friendz n’ Family, it was love at first sight!

The head of girl’s products had been a veteran of Coleco the year they introduced the Cabbage Patch Kids. She later told us what it was like when Cabbage Patch first came to Coleco. She described groups of people, gathering around to admire the Cabbage Patch dolls as she carried them down the hall for the first time. She then compared the reaction to that of Friendz n' Family. Apparently, the same thing happened when she took them down the hall to show the president of the Company, while the Obb, having just shown them, waited in the next room. That was the moment she decided, in her mind, that Hasbro Would DO THEM. And she walked into the president's office, put them on his desk, and said; "This is what we are doing next year."

Hasbro put their money on the table, and in a few days a deal was made. A handsome advance was agreed upon, and paid.

Noah called Playmates and got their one doll back, before the president of the company ever got a chance to see it. Playmates was not happy! Mattel, on the other hand, was angry. So angry, that they did not invite the Obb to a major inventor’s meeting the following year. This was absurd, considering they had been responsible for Diva Starz, the most successful new doll introduction Mattel had had in years.

The Hasbro Years

Hasbro told the toy inventing community not to show them any more doll projects, as they had their big girl’s item for the year! Meanwhile, for the next three years they screwed around with Friendz n’ Family. They loved the Look of the dolls and vowed to reproduce it faithfully. But beyond that, they really did not know what to do with Friendz n’ Family.

That winter Hasbro held a big brainstorming session to which we were invited. There were 20 company officials in attendance. Ideas were tossed out on the table, suggestions for a gimmick, like instant magic photos, albums, scrap books, etc. They were also looking for a marketing direction. Should they stress Friendz, or should the emphasis be on Family? Focus groups had been conducted, the results of which suggested Family.

We were informed that thirty-five dolls were planned for the initial introduction, along with books, accessories, computer games, a website and a TV show.

Meanwhile, they forged ahead, working on the dolls. They hired me to make final master sculpts for the hands, feet, heads and bodies, as well as additional heads with new expressions. That marked the end of my involvement. The project now went undercover, deep into the secret realms of Hasbro. It was in their hands now!

In big toy companies there are frequent firings and hirings and employees come and go. One most dynamic lady, who had worked for years on Barbie, was hired to be a consultant on this project. She had dominated the meeting in Pawtucket and was full of great ideas. But she was released when her brief contract with Hasbro ended. Several months into the project the young lady who was acting as Project Manager for Friends n’ Family went on maternity leave. More importantly, at the end of the first year the head of Hasbro’s entire girls division left the company. It was she, who as a veteran of Cabbage Patch, had championed our dolls. This spelled the doom of Friendz n’ Family.

The woman, who Hasbro hired to replace her, took one look at the dolls, which were Hasbro’s lead girl’s item for the following year, and purportedly proclaimed. "I’m not betting my chances of succeeding here on a doll that doesn’t do anything!" And so she placed the dolls on a back burner.

We were not informed of this decision until nearly a year later, when our two year contract was about to expire. At that time this same new Head of Girls Product, who had managed to weather a lack luster year, without our Friendz n’ Family, came to the Obb apologetically. She confessed that she had been responsible for putting the dolls on hold. And claimed that, since then, she had done a complete turnabout and "Now she got it!" proclaiming herself, suddenly, a "Friendz n’ Family Moonie!" Thus, Hasbro paid us an additional advance and extended our contract for yet another year. Before that year was over, they dropped the project. Why?


One thing never changed throughout the three years Hasbro toyed with Friendz n’ Family, they could never quite figure out a merchandising angle. The dolls had visual appeal and play value, but they didn’t have a "feature" or a gimmick, or any "pre-sell". The term "Pre-sell" means a previous history of success that makes a property instantly familiar. Pre-sell is why everything "new" today, from toys to movies, is usually a sequel or reissue of something old that has already been successful in the past.

So what happened? Through the door walked "Trollz", the marriage of the ugly, and once popular, Trolls and the now hot Bratz. Trolls meets Bratz! What’s not to understand? This, Hasbro could grasp, they knew the merchandising angle. They thought it would be an easy sell. So Friendz n’ Family were replaced by "Trollz".

I dare say, Hasbro must have, ultimately, regretted this decision. For Trollz were an instant disaster and went directly to the close-out counter, in spite of a TV show.



Prototype Photos and Story Text copyright (c) 2007 Mel Birnkrant and the Obb
PlayAlong Stock Photos (c) PlayAlong Toys Inc.
Trollz photo (c) Hasbro Inc.
Web Page Design Copyright 2007 (c) PrillyCharmin's Dolls