All Original Toy Concepts, Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
At the dawn of the new Millennium, computer chip generated voice technology exploded upon the toy industry. Talking dolls were no longer limited to eleven pre-recorded phrases, triggered by a pull string, as they were in the days of Chatty Cathy. Suddenly, toys and dolls could speak with unlimited vocabularies. They could not only rattle off preprogramed sentences, they could seemingly interact with other similarly equipped playthings, and even carry on simple conversations with humans.
One talented engineer in Massachusetts was the creative genius behind much of this new technology. His name was Robert Jeffway. My partners KISCOM, over the years, expanded their horizons, and began to represent a growing number of other toy inventors, along with me. Eventually, they set up their own design studio, which was something they asked me to do, early on, but I refused. With this move, they became not only my representatives, but also my competition. This was not a healthy situation, and it eventually led to my dropping out. But, not until I did one final doll, without their input or participation. It was called, "Friendz and Family." And they peddled it for me.
Meanwhile, KISCOM had enjoyed a huge success with an item that they partnered with Bob Jeffway. It was a series of interactive talking dolls called, “Diva Stars” that was developed by Mattel, using a voice chip that Bob created. Subsequently, KISCOM, who had changed their name to “The OBB,” myself, and Bob entered into a three-way partnership on several items. The first of these was originally called, "Talk and Listen.”
Bob engineered the electronics and I designed the mechanics:
And seeing they were done already, we decided to install the Talk and Listen mechanism in the sculptures that I had just finished for “Squeeze Me.” Therefore, I spruced them up with paint to put their best foot forward. Gosh I hated parting with these. Before I did, I photographed them, one final time. They really did look nice, and full of life. I'd even painted a twinkle in their eyes.
The Obb managed to sell the Talk and Listen babies to a relatively modest company, called, "Unimax." One had to read the fine print on the packaging to even find their name. They actually did a very nice job of producing the item, and translating my sculptures into dolls that could contain the mechanism. And they renamed them, “Babbling Babies,” which was a name we really liked. As for the dolls, themselves, they adapted what I gave them to become jointed figures. The heads remained pretty much the same as mine, but the bodies and appendages became separate pieces. They were essentially re-sculpted, with limited articulation. They managed to hold a pose, similar to what I gave them. But when the arms and legs were repositioned, the contortions created were awkward, to say the least. As the buyer had no way of knowing what the original pose had been, the articulation was always somewhat strange, and several dolls could not stand up at all.
I will attempt to photograph them, posed as close to the intended position as I can recall it. Meanwhile, my friend, Cyndy Stevens has created an excellent website, comparing the original sculptures to the finished dolls. Unlike what I write, it's short and sweet. You can see it HERE.
The Babbling Babies did actually listen (there was a microphone installed) and respond to a human voice, or that of another doll. When the baby’s belly button was pressed, it would react with a greeting. Then, if the user said something, the doll would reply. This conversation would continue, until there was a minute of silence, and then, the mechanism would automatically shut off.
One charming, if slightly bizarre feature that Bob’s programming offered was the ability for an element of each doll to light up, in unison with it's voice. It was up to me to decide where the lights would be located. Unimax asked me to provide a script, suggesting what each doll would say. I wrote it sort of tongue in cheek, burps and farts included, never dreaming that they would follow it religiously, which is what they did!
For years I believed I never received, or even saw, a sample of these dolls. Then, just last week, I discovered these. The packaging is really very pleasing. Each “Try Me” package displayed the doll’s name prominently. Cute names, like “Cha Cha,” “Tickle Toes,” and “Sneezy” were printed on the acetate window. A starburst sticker proclaimed, “Talk to Me! I’ll talk to you and light up.” Unimax refused to sell these dolls to individuals or doll dealers directly. Baby Face was highly collectable at the time, and there were many doll dealers and collectors, alike, who would have gladly bought decent quantities of Babbling Babies, directly from Unimax, and tried! As it was, they could not obtain any, unless they stumbled across them, hit or miss, at Kmart.
Later the dolls were repackaged with hang tags only, and sold in a counter display on special order to KB Toy Stores. That is where I bought this entire display, as well as all the loose pieces they had in the store. The clerk who manned the cash register, to which they were adjacent, was glad to see them go. Every time a customer pressed the button on one dolls tummy, the others heard it, and joined in. Thus, the babbling became a cacophony, as the Babbling Babies babbled on for hours, until they finally ran out of things to say.
And here is that very display case. The shipping carton was never opened, until today. It contains a dozen Babbling Babies, pristine mint, and ready to play.
Here is the package back, on which the Babies explain: “We love to babble and play together, so COLLECT US ALL!” Sounds logical to me! Would that more people did, or had the opportunity. The photograph indicates how each one glows.