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
So, Andy drove up to the schoolhouse to learn what my final project was, and at the same time, pick it up. I’d like to say that he was blown away, but that, alas, was not the case. As I had predicted accurately, this was a project that The Obb would never have OK’d. And, I would be the first to admit that I could see their point of view. A few years before they had sold a doll concept to Mattel, called, Diva Starz, that turned out to be huge. They were the contribution of an electronics wizard who packed them with computer gadgetry. Diva Starz could carry on a conversation with their owner, and with each other too. Now, I was offering The Obb a series of dolls that did nothing but look cute. In a toy industry that was both jaded and sophisticated, dolls that don’t do anything are never an easy sale to make. Nonetheless, my partners unenthusiastically agreed to show them anyway.
So what could possibly be the rational for offering Friendz ‘n Family? I chose to put it this way:
A Friendz doll is a doll that does "nothing", and at the same time, can do "everything," everything a doll is meant to do, animated by a child’s imagination, no batteries required. Her “Look” is both stylized and realistic, hopefully implying a kind of inner “life”.
She also has a unique feature, her Pose-ability. To the best of my knowledge, she is the first and only doll to have limbs that are both jointed and bendable. Thus, she can pose and do anything a child would want her to. Beyond that, she is intended through the combination of flocked vinyl and velour to have the look and feel of a soft rag doll … And, at the same time, the stand-up pose-ability of a dress-up fashion doll. The luxurious flock used on the prototypes made the transition between vinyl and velour almost imperceptible.
These dolls may look a bit old fashioned, for they have old fashioned values. Bright eyed children, radiating innocence; they speak of fun and friendship, and the kind of happy childhood many of us once knew, or wish we did.
Could such pure spirit survive in a toy department that was going to Hell in a shopping basket? If it could, there might be hope, not just for the dolls, but for the human race, and the world as well. For, after all, the Friendz n’ Family dolls, were, in fact, the "Anti-Bratz."
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 that 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 entire 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 The Obb’s 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, on a project called, The Fuzzy Buzzies.
Mattel wanted the dolls as well. But they adopted the attitude that they needed a "feature" which Mattel would attempt to come up with and apply. Therefore, they would offer only half a royalty to buy the "look" alone. As the owner of Fisher Price, Mattel had played this game with us before on "Color Me Cuties." They promised to supply a "special feature," and because of that, they chewed our royalty down to half. As Andy often said to me: “What do you want Mel, half of something or all of nothing?" And so, we took the deal.
Then no feature appeared. They produced the product exactly as we had shown it to them in the first place, but at half the royalty rate that it deserved. So, while, once again, arguing the royalty, negotiations with Mattel continued. In the hierarchy of toy companies, Mattel considered themselves to be the King. Hardball was the game they played!
We knew and liked the folks at Playmates well, and felt, for sure, we had a sale. Now, seventeen years later, I wish we'd waited a few days more.
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 the dolls down the hall to show the president of the Company, while the Obb, having just shown them, waited in the other 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."
As fabulous as this sounds, we had been there with Hasbro before. They purchased our property, “Invasion Earth,” and held it for two years, while they screwed around with us and it. At one point, they had plans most grandiose, to combine it with GI Joe, as the biggest introduction in the history of Hasbro. When the two years were up, they extended it for yet another year. Meanwhile, they compensated us handsomely. Then, they suddenly gave it back to us, in the middle of year three. Was history about to repeat itself with Friendz ‘n Family? We shall see!
Hasbro put their money on the table, and in a few days, a two year deal was made. A generous advance and guarantee was agreed upon, and paid.
Noah called Playmates and got the one doll they still had back, before the president of the company ever got a chance to see it. Playmates was not happy! Vengeful 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 the fact that The Obb had been responsible for Diva Starz, the most successful new doll introduction Mattel had in years.
Meanwhile, for once, the Obb and I were on Cloud Nine. We set our well founded doubts and fears aside, and simply enjoyed this exquisite moment in time. We were, momentarily, as much in love with Hasbro as they appeared to be in love with Friendz ‘n Family. And against our better judgment, we managed to believe that Friendz 'n Family was going to succeed. My humble dolls, who did absolutely nothing but look attractive, had climbed the highest mountain in the toy industry, and stood proudly on the pinnacle, thanks to their looks alone. And we were Happy!