All images and photographs od BRAINIACS are copyright MEL BIRNKRANT,and KISCOM - The OBB.
“PurrBalls” tells a story of the ups and downs of toy design. It's a tale, about a litter of fresh and funny looking kittens, and the resourceful things they did to stay alive. It’s said that cats have got nine lives. And that was almost true of PurrBalls too. From “PurrBalls” to “Perky Pets” to Pet Tunes, these pussycats had many incarnations; none of which, alas, survived.
In the beginning, PurrBalls was just an honest and straight forward attempt to make a unique looking soft kitty, one with a lot of personality. They also had a modest electronic feature: When a PurrBall was picked up, it purred. The styling was intended to be slightly realistic, but a little bit stylized. Like many of the dolls I did before it, the kitten’s face would be formed of vinyl, and covered with flock to make it appear not only soft and fuzzy, but also well defined. The rest of the cat’s body would be plush.
So here he is, our little PurrBall prototype.
Naturally, he was styled after my best friend, Peewee!
Several sketches expanded on the styling and explained the concept clearly. Among them, were a few that led directly to a later variation that we called “Perky Pets.” Others suggested accessory sets and carrying cases called, “Kitten- Kaboodles.”
Meanwhile, we sold PurrBalls to a buyer named, Gary Niles. Gary had been with Galoob, throughout Baby Face and The Magic Diaper Babies, and he remained a friend of KISCOM. Now, he was setting up his own toy company, and PurrBalls looked like just his cup of tea! So, as he had done with many of our stray projects in the past, he agreed to take them on. The results are what you see below, a masterpiece of weirdness and mediocrity. This goes to show how fragile a “look” can be. Without a measure of finesse, a subtle vision can turn, easily, into a mess. We should have learned our lesson when Gary’s company executed, (meaning murdered) “The Real Little Nursery,” previously.
Alas, my poor little kitty, the one who looked so much like Peewee, was destroyed by Gary’s factory, in the process of creating the travesty you see above. Now, with no appetite left to recreate another purrfect prototype, I went out and purchased a store-bought kitty, and installed a walking motor in it. We called this concept Perky Pets. It grew out of one of the action drawing variations that I had done for PurrBalls. And the concept really worked effectively in this quick little video.
Andy had a tendency to show new items to his friends, and so, he presented Perky Pets to Saul Jodel. Saul had been one of the guiding lights behind Baby Face, when he was at Galoob. He had now formed his own company, and was enjoying some success. Saul said that he loved the Perky Pets concept and intended to do it. Then, nothing happened! Saul’s assistant Kathy Oy, also from Galoob, in the days of Baby Face, told us that her boss loved it so much, he kept in in his office and played with it on his desk. After several months, of nothingness, Andy asked Saul to send it back to us. Alas, both Saul and Kathy claimed that the prototype had been misplaced. And as Andy had several items in the works with Saul, that KISCOM didn’t want to see screwed up, that was the end of that. Ironically, a year later, Hasbro produced a line of similar action pets that proved to be a huge success. Today, they are still in their line. So we had simply missed the boat on Perky Pets. And, once again, our prototype was gone!
But we were not ready to give up yet! Our dogged determination led to a concept that involved singing pets. We called it "Pet Tunes." Andy and Adam went out to sell the concept based on a series of drawings, photos of our long lost PurrBall prototype, and a quickly assembled video. Yours truly did the animal sounds, and the voice-over narration, as well. The products feature was based on the technology of a currently available electronic violin. We figured that if we could interest a manufacturer in the concept, the means of doing it would follow.
Some recycled drawings, now, became Pet-Tunes. And, on the drawing board, the concept grew. Soon, several breeds of dogs were added, and the door was left ajar for other pets to enter too.
So, that is toy design, my friends: If at first you don’t succeed, change something, and try again. Chances are you’ll fail miserably, in the end. But, along the way, you may have fun. Looking in the folder for Pet Tunes, just now, I discovered some unfinished drawings that reveal where we were heading with the concept next. Damn! These concepts are not bad! Looking at these drawings now makes me wish I was a younger man, and the Golden Age of Toy Inventing didn’t end.
Both the following concepts would have worked on the same principle as the electronic violin. The first would have been a line of interactive dolls that each played instruments, called, “Tune-Y-Tots.” The drawing is self-explanatory. From there, my thoughts traveled to another favorite theme, one, with which we somehow never managed to succeed, a doll and her pony. In this incarnation, the pony would be musical, and come from a carousel. While the pony made music, the doll, placed in its saddle would sing along.
And last of all, (Gosh! I really like these!) is “Hug-A-Tune,” a series of soft instruments, with electronics inside that enable them, with the help of a child, to play themselves. I like the styling too, another of those instantaneous events, in which a whole series of characters seemingly create themselves, and concepts flow from my pen spontaneously. I think my favorite must have been the drum, because I took the trouble to color him. I thought it amusing when he said, “My business is booming” and “Beat it kid!” And then, ... I put the drawings away, and never looked at them again.