Here is the latest on the dolls. I went to Hasbro in Pawtucket Rhode Island on Monday. I could hardly believe that I was there, and that It was not all just a dream. It might have been.
I met Noah at the Palisades mall in New Jersey at 11, and he drove up in nasty frigid snowy weather. It was a three-hour drive. We stopped to pick up Andy in New London on the way. He was there at Connecticut College visiting his daughter. Then we continued an hour more through blinding foggy snow and low visibility, to Pawtucket, where we had lunch in a little sandwich shop. Both Andy and Noah had gone to Brown, which is in nearby Providence, so they knew the area well. They have visited Hasbro dozens of times, over the years, to show them hundreds of products, without ever selling one of consequence. Andy gave up on them years ago, but Noah persevered. Thank God. That is why they were shown the dolls, even though, Mattel was holding them. We arrived at Hasbro, right on time for our 3 PM meeting.
Hasbro is housed a HUGE old commercial building, formerly used for God Knows What? A giant fiberglass sculpture of Mr. Potato Head stands out in front of the building. The entrance was a wall of glass with a line of many glass doors, along the bottom. The enormous empty corridors reminded me of being in a dream or a childhood nightmare. They were oversized and out of all proportion to Reality. Each corridor was VAST, and easily 50 feet wide. The ceilings appeared to be every bit of 40 feet high. Except for an armed Guard and a receptionist, sitting at a tiny desk by the door, there was no one in sight, in all that huge expanse of empty space. We signed in and were issued stick-on visitor badges.
While Andy filled out the register, for all of us, I looked up at the wall behind the desk, adjacent to the wall of glass. There was some sort of ghastly assemblage hanging there that looked as if a tricycle had collided with the innards of a giant clock. Great coils of springs, spoked wheels, gears, and scraps of jagged metal, were all intertwined, and painted in garish Day-Glo colors. I believe it was intended to be Art.
The awesomely large interior was rather somber and depressing, dominated by red brick walls with massive wood ceiling beams. Lone showcases, freestanding and illuminated, were scattered along the empty corridor, and occasional window cases punctuated the brick walls. All displayed Hasbro Products.
Jodie, the young lady who had written the email about the meeting came out to greet us. She appeared like a distant mirage, at first, way off in the distance down the hall, and we watched as she approached. There was no telling how tall she might be, until she was at hand, for there was nothing of normal scale to compare her to. She greeted us warmly. And we followed her for at least 500 feet down the corridor. At the end, it opened out into and even larger one, perpendicular to it that stretched out to the left and right, like the top of a gigantic letter T. This space was even wider than the last and more unsettling. It must have been a thousand feet, or more, in each direction and 100 feet wide, with equally high ceilings. Far away, at each end, one could see another wall of glass and the falling snow, outside. Showcases with GI Joe and Mr. Potato Head, etc. were scattered around every 100 feet or so, looking as minuscule and unimpressive, as I, myself was feeling. The ambiance was like a deserted shopping mall or Galleria with all the stores removed. And it made me think of the kind of science fiction story, in which the time or space travelers wonder what sort of beings once tread these enormous corridors, and why they needed to be so large and wide? Then we noticed a kind of rounded bay or out cropping of glass brick, illuminated from within. We entered it through a 10-foot tall narrow door of inch-thick glass.
Inside was a long narrow room with a strange long conference table, obviously crafted to fit the room, or visa versa. The table was flat on one side, and curving in a gentle arc on the other, matching the contour of the Glass block wall behind it. Twenty chairs were all lined up on the rounded side of the table, facing away from the glass wall towards the wall, behind it, which was covered in what amounted to a huge bulletin board, stretching the entire length of the room. There were easels with paper and markers, standing between the table and the bulletin board wall. Having just eaten lunch, we were not hungry. But there was an impressive spread of and all kinds of snack foods, cakes and cookies, and bottled water and soft drinks, etc., in buckets of ice, set out, buffet style, along the far end of the room.
I don't know where I got the idea, ahead of time, that there would be 35 people, I feel sure, it was Andy who told me that. There were actually 20 people, apart from the three of us. Noah counted them. As they wandered in, we were introduced to most of them, until all the chairs were filled. Every major department head was there, even those from non-related departments. It was made clear to us that this was not an ordinary meeting, even for Hasbro. Noah and Andy spread out, stationing themselves wide apart, along the long table, to get a read on the reaction of those in their part of the long room.
The table was easily 35 foot long. Lined up along its entire length were all the current products, some thirty or so, that represented the best selling of what amounts to our doll's competition. Hasbro subscribes to a service that tracks competitive products in current, up to date, and minute detail. WOW! The current competition is terrible. We would be coming out, as things stand, now, against NO competition that is viable!
All the competing products appeared to be Baby Dolls, except for one Cabbage Patch Doll, which is now sold only as a Toys-R-Us exclusive for $50+. And American Girl, which is, of course, mail order. We have, as of now, virtually, No meaningful competition in the age category. We were surprised to learn that the best selling item is a $50 electronic feature doll from a European manufacturer.
Starting at one end of the table and moving to the other end, where I was sitting, everyone introduced themselves. I introduced myself, last, as the dolls' “Single Parent.” And then the Brainstorming began.
They went over every competing product, and offered their reaction to why they thought it sold. When ten pages of notes were filled, they cleared the table and set out my dolls, alone in the center. They were in surprisingly good condition, still posed in the same positions I had put them in when they left my house three months before. Then, the moderator, asked everyone to talk about what Family means to them, and show pictures of their Families. I wondered if this was what constituted creativity in a big toy company, or was it simply a session of group therapy. As the level of emotion in the room grew to proportions that were both embarrassing and huge, so did the list of the key words: Love, Belonging, Security, etc.
One after another, all these sentimental adjectives were written down with markers on enormous sheets of paper. As each page was filled, it was torn off the giant pads, and adhered to the wall by some sort of adhesive quality on either the pages or the wall, itself. I realized that the giant Pads and the 45-foot wall behind the table were all part of some kind of an elaborate system. Then, they started expressing and writing down what the Friendz n' Family dolls mean to them. By the time the meeting was over, two hours later, the wall was full. And THERE WAS NOT A SINGLE NEGATIVE, ALL GLOWING POSITIVES! Afterwards, Andy was Flying. He exclaimed that had never experienced a meeting anything like this one.
Hasbro, clearly, is inclined to emphasize the Family angle more than the Friendz. We don't care, as long as they do it! And, By the Way, They ARE Going to DO it! Furthermore, they are talking like it is going to be a HUGE introduction. At least, as of now. They discussed 750 large walk-in dollhouse display units to promote it in certain Key locations, Websites, Contests etc. Almost everyone at the meeting had been involved with Cabbage Patch in its Heyday. Others were from Mattel and worked on Barbie. Clearly, they are ALL in love with this concept!
They have already Priced the dolls out, and that is Great, because it means a huge stumbling block has been overcome! A price, too high, would change the dolls dramatically, if not eliminate them altogether. They will retail for $20. THEY ALSO TOLD US THAT THEY ARE KEEPING THE LOOK EXACTLY "EVEN THE EYELASHES!" which are something that I would be willing to forgo for printed ones, but I kept my mouth shut.
I brought a care package with a CD with my 26-page letter, which I also printed out, and several others, as well as the patterns, and all the photos as PSD and JPG files, and lots of fabric, eyes, joints etc. Also My view of the dolls, written out.
After the meeting, when everyone was chatting, Noah stepped aside and had some preliminary talks with the Procurement Manager, about "the Deal", and set forth our proposal, which we all think is reasonable and fair. They will have to "get back to us". Noah, already, made the concession of deducting the 20 grand option money from the advance. He is asking for an extra sum, in the event that Hasbro, in the end, does not ship the item, for any reason.
I learned some Amazing things on the drive up, there and back, as I have not spoken with Andy and Noah, at length, for quite some time. Toy Companies are dropping out like flies! Did you realize that there are essentially only two toy companies of consequence left in the United States: Mattel and Hasbro? Kenner is GONE! They have been absorbed by Hasbro. All the Star Wars stuff and action figures, except GI Joe was Kenner, Gone! Now they are all Hasbro's. There is one other smaller company, Playmates. They are in trouble, and depending on the reintroduction of Ninja Mutant Turtles to save then. If Turtles do not work, Playmates, too, will be gone!
Mattel reigns supreme in "Girls." But, with the exception of Hot wheels, and Tyco RC, they suck in the Boy's Categories. Hasbro, on the other hand, is the reigning king of "Boys", and has virtually no girls facings at all! Not since Cabbage Patch, not since My little Pony, has Hasbro had a huge Girl's Hit. The people who are working on my dolls have all been, either, at Hasbro from the Cabbage Patch days, or they are newly hired from Mattel, from the Barbie group, to attempt to bring back and revitalize the Girls division at Hasbro. At this moment in time, they see "Friendz n' Family" as the vehicle that can bring about that resurrection.
Mattel never would have done it right, as to be what it is would put it in direct dress-up competition with Barbie. Mattel would have to do what they tried to do, add a feature, and make the Look secondary, giving us a reduced royalty, in return. But Hasbro sees Friendz and Family for what they are, All LOOK and MARKETING POSITION. And they accept and welcome them, as such!
The meeting ended on a triumphant note. It appeared that some of the sharpest people there, who showed the only faint signs of asking the tough questions, in the beginning, had been won over, by the end. There was talk of how important it was that this would be introduced in a HUGE way.
Cathy, the woman who was the head of Hasbro's girl's division, went into a reverie about what it was like, when Cabbage Patch first came to Coleco. She was there at the time. She described the 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, as, apparently, the same thing happened when she took them down the hall to show the president of the Company, while Kiscom, 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."
It is quite a MIRACLE that these dolls that sat, on my desk and off, off and on, again, for eight months, trying to tell me what they wanted to become, and urge me, often without success, to continue to work on them, were now sitting in front of the best company in the World to produce them. And they Love the LOOK and vow to retain it.
The dolls were my flat out attempt to create a doll, in which the LOOK, alone, is so strong that Look, alone, is reason enough, to produce it.
And so the meeting ended. There was a lot of handshaking and a crowd of enthusiastic people, chatting and chattering, as they escorted us down the long walk to the door and bid us safe journey and farewell. And, we headed out into the snow.
Hasbro had booked rooms for us at the Biltmore, in Providence, in case the weather was too bad to travel. The weather was really nasty, so we made the decision to stay over, rather than drive back at night. Actually my vote was to head back, but Andy and Noah seemed eager to celebrate, and I did not need much convincing. I had never seen Providence before, but the boys know the city well, as they both had gone to college there. They excitedly discussed where to go, first, and chose a rather elegant Bar, very upscale, beautiful and spectacular. I had two Bombay Sapphire Gins on the rocks, Andy two Vodkas and Noah, who was driving one Martini in a perfect triangular Glass with two giant olives. Two hours later, the bartender recommended the "current best" Italian restaurant, and we got into the car and drove all through the winding streets of Providence.
I don't know if it was the gin, or just the occasion, or perhaps the new fallen snow that covered everything, But I swear that I was Little Nemo, and Providence appeared that night to be the most awesome city ever to grace the Enchanted Realm of Slumberland. Winsor McCay couldn't have conceived of a Dream City more Wonderful. There is a quaint turn of the century theatrical quality to all the building in the city both old and new. The terrain appeared to be quite hilly and on many levels. There were many ornate towers with illuminated clocks, floating like full moons in the misty sky. And there were monuments and fantastic domed buildings, like state houses and capitals and cathedrals, towering up above us, near by, and far off in the distance, And everything was bathed in lights of many colors. And all the trees were twinkling with tiny Italian lights, and the very air itself seemed to twinkle with great gusts and spirals and clouds of sparkling blowing snow. The afternoon at Hasbro had been awesome, but this trip to Slumberland was better still.
Then we had a fabulous meal and many bottles of wine, in a charming restaurant that twinkled, too, with a thousand tiny lights. And then to the hotel and a suite of my own, fit for a king and big enough for all his Friendz n' Family. And I fell asleep, reluctantly, knowing no dream could ever be this good.
By 7 AM the following morning, we were on the road again, for the 3-hour drive back, which took four hours in the traffic and the snow. When I got back to the Palisades mall, instead of going home I drove down to Paramus to get the Super Sculpy I will need to begin translating the heads and body pieces into reality. I had some Spicy chicken at Popeye's and headed home again.
The whole experience was more like a dream than reality. I was there, yet I was not. Even if the worst happens and if for some reason the dolls do not go forward, and in this world who can count on anything? It was a wonderful day, one that, surely, I never thought I would live to see. Andy said that he had never seen or attended a meeting like it, even Diva Starz was nothing like this. One simply is never taken inside a major company to attend a major meeting, nor do meetings occur with every one from every department in attendance, nor is there Never a negative, expressed in any form. Yes, this was, a Midwinter Night's Dream, a pleasant and most Welcome Gift and Wondrous Twist of Fate.
Cyndy I want to THANK YOU for your prayers for both me and my Friendz n' Family. I KNOW THEY HELPED, and MADE A DIFFERENCE. You were the first and only one to see the dolls, and you will be the first to break the news, when, and IF they happen. It's too soon to say anything about them, yet, not even a hint. But I will keep you posted, and let you know the minute you can say something. Mattel only knows that the dolls were taken away from them, the slightest mention that MB sold a concept, or God forbid, the mention of Hasbro, could give the game away. If we are lucky, there will be no competition, when they appear in fall 2004. I hope that I will be there to see it, but even If I am not, it will have been a GRAND FINALE.
Many THANKS, and much love, Mel
Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of FRIENDZ N' FAMILY, ACORN FAMILY, PLAY ALONG CLUB
and other Products and Images created by Mel Birnkrant are Copyright
(c) BIRNKRANT KISCOM/ The OBB