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
Meanwhile, in the four years that passed, while all of this was taking place; in Florida, a bright new toy company was growing. It was called, "Play Along".
Play Along began in 1999 by producing a successful line of dolls based on Britney Spears. Other celebrity dolls followed. Then, in 2002 the company reintroduced the Care Bears, and the rest is history! Followed by Doodle Bear and Cabbage Patch Kids, all of which were fabulously successful, Play Along grew from a staff of five to well over a hundred employees, here and in Hong Kong. One of those employees in charge of new product acquisition just happened to be our old pal, Peter Pook.
Of all the people I have met in the toy industry, throughout the years, Peter Pook has always been a favorite. Furthermore, the look and feel of Friendz n’ Family could trace their origin to "Best Friends", a project Peter inspired me to work on, years ago, when he was at Fisher Price.
Peter, as a longtime friend and confidant of the Obb, had been aware of Friendz n’ Family right from the beginning. Now, he volunteered to show them to the folks at Play Along. Play Along had achieved phenomenal success, almost overnight, by bringing back classic toys that were successful in their day, and maybe never should have gone away. Now, they asked themselves if they were ready to introduce an original property of their own. Could Acorn Family be that property? They were willing to give it a try.
Things were looking Up for Friendz n’ Family!
And Hope was dawning!
And so, a contract was drawn up and signed. Then, the Friendz 'n Family prototypes were entrusted to Peter Pook, who promised to treat them with the utmost care. He planned to send them to Orient to be replicated. Play Along seemed to think they could duplicate the dolls by simply copying what was there. I knew they couldn’t. Because of shrinkage and distortion, to get what they saw before them they would have to begin with the larger sculpts that I had started with. Therefore, I made a hurried set of impressions from the original plaster molds. Thank God, I still had those!
Although the perfect Sculpey masters I had made for Hasbro took several months to finish, these were ready in a week. And everything was then shipped off to Hong Kong. I never saw the dolls again till Toy Fair, which by the way, was just a few months away.
I wish I could find words glowing enough to express how Impressed was I with Play Along? Let me put it this way: In the three years that Hasbro had the dolls, they dirtied and destroyed them, and never in all that time did Hasbro manage to show us an actual sample. Even at the end, they were still using my prototype dolls to try on the thrift store fashions they created. Play Along, on the other hand, produced the beautiful dolls that eventually appeared in toy stores, in just a few weeks’ time. They were rushing to have them ready for a secret test at Toy Fair. Even if they passed that test, it would still have to be decided, whether to do the dolls immediately, or hold them for the following year.
Meanwhile, Play Along didn’t like the name "Acorn Family" or the Family Tree idea. Maybe it was just too big a concept. Ha! They came up with another, "The Hopscotch Club", and planned to introduce three dolls, instead of 35. The package cleverly resembled a club house, with a piece of chalk included for playing hopscotch. The acorn in one ear became a butterfly.
And that is how they showed it, in a private office at Toy Fair. They hadn’t had the time to make a grand presentation, so rather than not showing it at all, they invited just their major buyers in to test their reaction.
The Obb and I were invited to see it too. We loved what they had done! And so too did their major buyers. Well, that is to say, they liked it well enough to say they’d try it, which was all that Play Along had hoped to hear. And thus, the President of the company announced, while we were there, that he was definitely "doing it for the coming year!"
The Play Along Club
When Toy Fair was over, it was discovered that the Hopscotch name was taken, so, the "Hopscotch Club" became the "Play Along Club." I liked that better, anyway! Do kids still play hopscotch, these days? Inexplicably, the piece of chalk remained.
In the days that followed, Play Along fleshed out the project. Fashions and accessories were created by a talented young lady named, Cimmi Mills, and charming stories, illustrated by my friend who lives in Utah, Stefanie Eskander. I had given the dolls common names that were essentially generic. But Play Along took the opposite approach, and gave each doll a name that was unique. Jessica Jones became Olivia Reese. Samantha Smith became Sophie Kate. And Betty Brown was now called, Zoe Madison. Each was a distinct individual. I liked that better too. I hoped they would have many wonderful adventures together … and live happily…. ever after.
A few months later, several big boxes arrived, unannounced, at the front door. I carried them up into the hall. Out popped the "Play Along Club" dolls!
And so it was, my Friendz n’ Family had come home again, all grown up, five long years later. And they were REAL!
The mice came out to admire the dolls!
On the side of each packing carton, there was a sticker, referring to this fabulous commercial...
The Play Along Club web page I posted ten years ago ended on this optimistic note:
“The Play Along Club has taken the first step, on what we hope will be a long exciting journey. If the first three dolls thrive and survive this Holiday Season, they will acquire many bright and beautiful new friends and family in the springtime. I have seen a few of them already, and believe me, they are gorgeous. The team at Play Along has really done them justice. So with a little bit of luck this winter, early next year, you will see them too.”
And then, I offered a sneak peek at a wonderful new doll that Play Along called, “Mackenzie Blake”
Alas, as you, no doubt, know, the story did not have a happy ending. On the next and final page, I’ll attempt to explain what happened, or I might better say what didn’t, and offer you a delicious glimpse of things that might have been.
Play Along also introduced three accessory packs. Each package included an adorable flocked pet, so cute it almost looked like I designed it. Whoever did, was clearly well versed in my “look.” For that, I can thank Peter Pook. Each box, which actually had a window in the top to let in light, contained a fashion outfit, designed by Cimmi, a crafty play activity, and a storybook, illustrated by Stephanie.
This full-page ad appeared in several publications. “Get Real!” it said, Yes Yes! They had! My Friendz ‘n Family / Acorn Family dolls had become “Real girls who VALUE FRIENDSHIP first!
And for a brief moment in time, the Play Along Club dolls even had their own Play Along Club website on the Internet. “Theplayalongclub.com” was full of games, stories and fun things to do.
Here and there, some nice photos were generated. These were intended to be used on packages and advertising. I particularly like this photo of all three dolls together.
Here you see the exquisite moment that occurred all to rarely in my long history of toy inventing; that few seconds of ecstasy when I actually get to see a toy that I designed, beautifully realized, and appearing on the friendly shelves of Walmart, for the first time. My heart is going pita-pat! And I'm smiling, like a Cheshire cat, while Eunice, with camera in hand, is capturing this historic event. Little did I realize, then, that the likes of it would not take place again.
I was utterly thrilled with these wonderful new dolls. I believe my favorite was Sophie Kate, so sweet, so delicate, so pretty in pink! I took this photograph myself, just for the fun of it. It is seen here for the first time: pensive, alert, so alive!