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
This brings us to the final chapter. The Play Along Club dolls did not survive. I never learned the reason why. If my partners knew the details, they never shared them with me. Perhaps, they didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Perhaps, they couldn’t afford to waste the time. Perhaps, they simply had too many other fish to fry.
Working with the Play Along Company had proved to be frustrating. When they wanted something they wanted it “yesterday.” Everything was done in Hong Kong in a hurry. What they didn’t want was input, suggestions, and, above all, questions. None of which were ever answered, like for instance: “What happened to the “Play Along Club”?” Did they drop it? If so Why? The fact is, I don’t know to this very day. There was never an explanation or any word of termination. I guess the answer is obvious: The Play Along Club dolls, most likely, did not sell well enough to survive in a company that was pumping out Hanna Montana dolls by the millions.
Forgive me if I find a certain irony in the fact that Miley Cyrus who portrayed that clean-cut teen for Disney, went on to “twerk” her way to new heights of popularity, and vulgarity, while the Play Along Club dolls, who were her polar opposites, the very essence of purity and innocence, were trampled in her wake.
Quite by accident, a few images came my way. They offered a glimpse of what Play Along was working on, for a future that was never destined to take place. I will share them with you now. This fragment of an unpublished add portrays some of the dolls who might have, once, been on the way, and it reveals their proposed names. The new arrivals were Mackenzie Blake, Kyra Jane, Riley Rose, and Emma Paige.
And here, we see some of these dolls, ankle deep in what I surmise was lush Florida grass.
In the ensuing years, I came to learn, thanks to the Internet, that all the Play Along Club dolls outfits and hairstyles, were the work of a talented young lady named, Cimmi Mills. Her name has since been changed to Cimmi Cumes. Cimmi was, in fact, the product manager for the entire Play Along Club line. And since that time, she has moved on to become many things, including, a mom. She even tried her hand at toy inventing, working with my partners at the Obb, as one of the many individuals who have, unbeknownst to me, been secretly competing with yours truly. Most recently, she has become a “Key Lead Designer at Mattel.” Cimmi has several venues on the Internet, a Facebook page, and a Blog, that she refers to as, "The Dollhead." The iconic photo of Olivia Reese, below, is the one that Cimmi is currently using as the logo for her websites.
Here we see Olivia, admiring a slide show of Cimmi’s designs for Play Along Club dolls that were, no doubt, proposed for year two. I harvested these images from the Internet where they are all available. And this is where this webpage would have come to an end, if I had bothered doing it at all. But a curious twist of Fate that took place a few years ago, changed everything. And from this point foreward, all the images you shall see will be brand new, photos that I shot in the last week or two.
Several years ago, long after my association with the Obb had ceased to be, my former partners were selling the building in New Jersey that they had owned and occupied, throughout their toy-biz history. And so, it came to be that one afternoon, following an unexpected phone call earlier in the day, Noah, the youngest of the Kislevitz brothers appeared in our driveway, piloting the modern-day equivalent of Santa’s sleigh, an open back pickup truck, overflowing with the last remaining remnants of the multitude of projects I created, over the twenty years we worked together. Rather than throwing this stuff away, Noah was generously giving it all to me.
We emptied the truck bed together, carrying one box after another up the stairs and into the hallway. Soon, every square inch of the floor was covered, and the entire hall was full. Then, after a pleasant chat and a glass or two of gin, Santa Noah rode off into the twilight, and I found myself standing in the crowded hall alone, up to my knees in memories.
Among this new found treasure trove, were half a dozen badly crushed and damaged cartons that stood out from all the others. I soon discovered that they contained all that remained of the Play Along Club when the Play Along Company dropped the project in midstream. A brief peek in each revealed the fact that they were full of prototypes and doll designs that Play Along intended to add to the line, had it continued. As I rummaged through the contents of these sadly battered boxes, I was overcome with mixed emotions. Part of me felt like a kid again, excitedly opening the most wonderful of Christmas presents, on a joyous Christmas morning, and momentarily rejoicing at seeing, for the first time, these charming dolls that might have been. I could feel my old heart palpitating. At the same time, it was breaking.
So, I sealed the cartons up again, secured them with transparent tape, and managed to make room for them in the secret storage space behind my desk. And that is where they have remained, for many years, waiting for a time when I felt inclined to drag them out again, explore them properly, and share their contents on the Worldwide Web. Two weeks ago, that time arrived! I've been working on this website, ever since.
Unpacking the half a dozen cartons, I soon realized that the contents fell into distinct categories. First and foremost, were dolls that were complete with both fashions and hairstyles that were unique. Then there were other dolls, often with no clothes. These were, essentially, intended to represent a variety of experimental hair styles. Some of the most interesting were merely heads, with no bodies at all. Other samples were experiments in various forms of manufacturing. Some demonstrated what a doll would be like made entirely out of fabric with wires in the arms and legs, eliminating the vinyl body and the jointed hips and shoulders. Thank God, Play Along didn’t adopt that mode. The resulting dolls were bendable, but horrible. I threw those back into the boxes, along with any dolls or other elements that appeared to be duplicates.
So, this is what a corner of my studio looked like when one of each variety was sorted into categories. The results were quite spectacular. Meanwhile, just out of camera range, cartons of duplicates and other incidental things were scattered around my studio, half full.
I also shot some photographs at random. The one that shows three disembodied heads, posing with the Yellow Kid is interesting. It demonstrates the importance of subtleties. The redhead in the middle is not flocked. She also has crude overstated eyelashes in black. A toy company less sensitive than Play Along might have opted for this cost cutting solution, as Tyco did when they eliminated the flock on CODs.
Among the hair style photographs below, are several that I like so much I don’t want to minimize them in a slide show. This first one is especially beautiful. I love the iridescent ribbons and the colorful pompoms. But most of all, I adore her bright expression, the kind of look that implies she has a soul.
Here is a group of young ladies, showing off their hairstyles. Their yarn hair is really quite amazing. Even after twenty years in storage, it can be groomed easily. A touch is all it takes. Each strand of yarn stays where it’s placed. Alas, they have no clothing. I tried to find enough underwear to go around, but in the end, I had to rely on a well-placed puppy to maintain modesty.
And here is a Zoe Madison variation, with blue bows. I wonder what she is thinking? It’s clear she has a mind of her own, and a slightly Mona Lisa like smile.
This charismatic young lady is clearly full of personality. She has a devilish twinkle in her mysterious green eyes, and fiery red hair with crazy Dionysian braids that make her seem like a wild sprite from fairytale mythology.
This young lady with a pink butterfly, is the only one in the assortment that appeared to be medium-sized.
And last of all, the image of the young lady, below, turned out to be my favorite photo. She was just a head, tossed in a box with many others. For the sake of photography, I popped her disembodied head onto what appeared to be an experimental body, with arms of the wrong color. Nonetheless, it worked. She absolutely comes to life, and glows. Is she not both charming and beguiling? The camera captures a moment of sheer magic. Can you see what I am seeing? Or am I just imagining that she's alive?
Several years ago, I frequently corresponded with a friendly group of action figure collectors in the Four Horsemen’s Forum. These young Action figure collectors, who are all somewhat obsessed with how many points of articulation their action figures possess, were shocked when I informed them that I have never played with the toys that I collected, nor the toys that I created. Now, here I was photographing the Play Along Club dolls and positioning them in animated poses, and all at once, I realized that I was essentially playing with them, and having a wonderful time!
Now, let’s see what I can do to bring these dolls to life for you. Here are the rarest of the rare, the fully realized Play Along Club dolls that never happened. None of these simple animations were preplanned. I simply let the dolls adlib them.
The cozy scene below is quite intentional. Play Along clearly planned to merchandise it as a bedtime theme. All the elements, the fold-up bed, pillows, and accessories, like the CD player, popcorn, cookies, a board game, and a teddy bear were found, carefully wrapped in plastic, among the odds and ends of stuff, other than the dolls, themselves, in those large boxes. There were two sets of these accessories, each one a little different.
Last, but not least, this photograph tells us a lot. The mocked up package reveals the fact that Play Along planned to merchandise the smaller dolls as “Little Sisters.” They also planned a series of themed accessories. This one is called, the “Fairy Fun Set,” and it contained: an Outfit, a Wand, Shoes, and a Tiara.
There were some other treasures in those Play Along cartons too. One that is rather large and not very exciting to see in its package is this sample of what Play Along called, a “Double Sided Neighborhood Play Mat.” Perhaps when it can be seen unfolded, it would look more impressive. I hesitate to include it here. But, as this is now or never, I will bow to completeness and show you what the package is like. There is not a lot to catch the eye.
And, finally, we come to a true treasure that was hiding in those amazing boxes. This was a most pleasant and precious surprise: the complete counter display of Play Along Club Storybooks. I never realized that these were intended to be merchandised individually. They are of the highest quality, hard bound, and fully published. The fact that these will never see the light of day, and were essentially a wasted effort in the end, is another tiny tragedy, like the Little Sister Dolls, themselves. And even more surprising was the discovery that the charming illustrations were created by a friend of mine, Stefanie Eskander.
Stefanie lives in Utah, and the fact that we have met, although, not in person, is a story full of circumstantial irony. Our paths crossed for the first time in 2011, when although she didn’t know me, Stefanie included yours truly in her blog, “The Copycat Collector.” Years later, I discovered that as a toy designer, she had been working with the Kislevitz brothers for a quarter of a century, like many, secretly competing with yours truly. They had actually been sending her items of mine to inspire her designs. But that’s another story to be told another time. Stefanie also has another amazing Website that showcases her excellent designs for toys and otherwise. She generously sent me the treasure trove of her Play Along Club illustrations to share in the slide show below.
So, I guess this brings us to the end. Working on this website all these years later, I feel like I got to know the Play Along Club dolls better, and fall in love with them. There is an elusive quality about them, that I was too preoccupied to appreciate fully, at the time. Play Along managed to capture something very delicate and fragile, a precious freshness that makes them seem alive.
And here they are, my original Friendz ‘n Family prototypes, surviving on a lower shelf in my studio upstairs, much the worse for wear. My good pal Peter Pook kept his word, and just as he had promised me, returned the dolls, almost unscathed. That's what I would call, a Miracle! Having traveled so many highways on my long journey through the toy industry, and lost so many of my original prototypes along the way, I especially cherish these remnants of the best dolls I ever made. Even though, their once bright colors have begun to fade, and their latex skin has darkened and grown brittle with age, they still manage to radiate a faintly magic glow, and remain as bright and vivid, in my memory, as they first did, in those golden days when I created them, so many years ago.
Here’s Zoe Madison in a French beret, with her Little Sister, Kyra Jane.