Copyright Acknowledgment: All images of WEENIES and other
Products and Images, created by Mel Birnkrant and Mike Strouth are Copyright (c) KISCOM/ The OBB
THE ADAM BOMBS
Here is another letter, written by Harvey Zelman two months before the Licensing Presentation. Harvey needed help on the packaging. The very fact that he was asking us implied that his inside resources were running low. On the top of the page is a hand written note from Adam, saying he was sending the boxes to Mike. and adding “We got to hustle - sex, drugs, rock n’ roll - It’s starting to hit fast - need to talk - Weenies, Adam" ...He sensed the in-house competition going on at Coleco even then.
These are the packages that Harvey was talking about, after Mike simplified them. They are a far cry from those crazy bean shaped blisters Harvey had originally planned. Clearly, reality had set in!
Meanwhile, the Licensing Presentation came and went. And it was considered a huge success. And so, the TV Special progressed.
When I began this webpage, I never expected to find some of the curious things that have turned up. I also hoped to find a lot of stuff that is still missing. Trying to piece this story together from these surviving bits and pieces has been a challenge. Clues are hiding in dates that I ordinarily wouldn’t bother to read. With that in mind, here is a product submission that honestly gives me the creeps. Its been in the basement, for years, and it smells bad. It was contained in a roughly improvised corrugated package, like a portfolio. One side had been slit open, and I peeked in, from time to time. But I never had the appetite to actually look inside. Based on what little I could see, it appeared to be the mockup for some kind of sleeping bag. When I removed the contents the other day, I was surprised to find that it actually contained these costumes for Halloween. They are really scary. I debated whether or not to include them here.
Then checking the portfolio again, I found this letter from the licensee, Ben Cooper. It is dated October 8, 1984, and states that they needed to get the costumes back with my approval within 10 days. So, Nat Cooper, who might have been Ben Cooper's relative, sent this package to Cheryl on the 8th, and she forwarded it to me, which would leave just few days to reply. One does not need to be a detective to deduce that this, combined with the fact that the samples are still here indicates that the Weenies estimated time of death must have officially taken place, sometime, towards the end of those ten days.
1983 was a Fantastic year for Coleco. The success of the Cabbage Patch Kids had been phenomenal. They were suddenly the hottest doll in the country, perhaps, the hottest doll in history. Their success was generally attributed to the clever merchandising scheme that consisted of each appearing to be unique, having a birth certificate and its own computer generated southern sounding two-part name. The fact that they were in short supply and notoriously hard to get made them even more desirable.
From my own always visual perspective, I attributed the Cabbage Patch Kid’s appeal to the nonverbal message they conveyed. In a toy store full of pretty blonde haired, blue eyed babies, and stylized, idealized, impossible to emulate, plastic beauty queens, the Cabbage Patch dolls proclaimed: It’s “OK” to love something ugly.
A large measure of the Cabbage Patch doll’s success could be attributed to the talented doll maker, “Judy Albert.” Judy translated Xavier Robert’s original handmade dolls into vinyl adaptations that were even more appealing than the originals had been. And Coleco could manufacture these in large quantities while still maintaining the illusion that each doll was unique. Ironically, Judy and I were destined to meet a few years later when she once again performed her magic, this time, on a doll called “Baby Face,” created by yours truly.
Coleco had been relatively successful in the early days of video games with the “Game Genie” and "Coleco Vision." But, in 1982, the trend appeared to be moving in the direction of home computers. So in 1983, on the eve of the home computer revolution, Coleco introduced the “Adam”. The Adam Home Computer turned out to be an overnight failure! Its shortcomings were legendary. For starters, It was reputed to send out a blast of electronic energy, on startup, that erased entire software programs instantly including those that just happened to be lying in the table next to the computer. How does one describe such a colossal flop? To put it simply, the ADAM was a BOMB!
So while the world saw Coleco as a company joyfully wallowing in the success of Cabbage Patch, by 1984, they were actually hovering on the brink of bankruptcy. (which finally took place, four years later in 1988) This situation eventually gained the public’s attention, due to a seemingly insignificant event:
One feature of the Cabbage Patch doll was the advertised promise that each doll, on its first birthday, would get a Birthday Card from Coleco. The postage alone could have cost the company a fortune, a fortune they could ill afford in their dire situation. So they simply didn’t send them! One lady in the Midwest sued Coleco, and the incident made the news. That was when all Hell broke loose, and Coleco came to the conclusion that “Something’s gotta give!” That “something” turned out to be the Weenies!
Sometimes, it seems to me that my entire website consists of a series of attempts to explain why one after another of my children died. Alas, the explanations are never simple ones. Nor are they the obvious conclusions the uninformed public inevitably assumes were to blame, namely that the product or property just wasn’t any good. If that were the case, the untimely demise of properties, like The Weenies, Maxx Fx, and Baby Face might be easier to take. The truth is, their untimely demise was ultimately due to a complex combination of many causes, gathered together all at once by the unpredictable hand of Fate.
Thus, it wasn’t just the Adam Computer alone that ended, or I should say, late-term aborted the Bunville Weenies. There were also other elements at play. One was the in-house competition that was taking place between Harvey Zelman’s project, the Weenies, and Jerry Wood’s project, Sectaurs. Both concepts were battling each other for every development dollar they could get. In the beginning, our property had an edge, simply because the scope of Weenies was much bigger than that of Sectaurs, and the potential for rewards were, therefore, even bigger. Furthermore, both the product testing and the Licensing response indicated that Weenies were destined to be a winner.
The Weenies were playing in the biggest arena that Licensing had to offer. They aimed to be the kind of property that could be licensed for anything by anybody. The truth is, they were knowingly created in the spirit of Mickey Mouse and Minnie and all their friends, reincarnated as Weenies. Aided by TV, they had the potential to succeed and be applied to any item that had ever been made with Disney characters on it, from dolls to, well, you name it! You’ve seen the product boards; they only scratch the surface.
That was the Weenies good side! What was their bad? Well, if this were happening in the 1930’s, there wouldn’t have been one. No one looked at a doll back then and asked what does it do? But by 1984 we were living in a whole new era. Toy companies were all looking for a product feature, some novelty that would look exciting in a 30 second TV ad.
A product feature could either be something that did something, or merely a merchandising angle. The latter category was best, because it didn’t add anything to the cost of manufacturing. Strawberry Shortcake and her friends were scented; that was enough! Cabbage Patch came with a birth certificate and a unique name. The weenies, alas, didn’t have anything like that. But then again, neither did Mickey. A product feature could also mean the toy did something dramatic that looked exciting on TV. The Weenies didn’t have that either, nor did they have a key product, something unique that signified the basic Weenie. They were simply play figures that could only come to life when powered by a kid's imagination.
Sectaurs, on the other hand, not only had a product feature they had a key product as well. And the image of that bug puppet, crawling repulsively would look exciting in a 30 second commercial. Sectaurs were, in fact, nothing but a product feature. And then, an action figure concept had been contrived around it. Bottom line: if Sectaurs were going to be Coleco’s only introduction for the year, Cheryl Stoebenau could never have been lured away from Hallmark or hired to build a licensing program around it. She gave up her Hallmark career only because she believed in Weenies. The crawling bug made a compelling first impression, but, unlike the Weenies, it wasn’t a big concept. And the ambivalent appeal of its somewhat disturbing appearance was definitely limited to boys only.
In 1983 when Coleco was awash in money, they could afford to take a chance on financing a giant concept with a big licensing program and a TV Special with the obvious potential of becoming a weekly series on Saturday morning TV. But by late 1984, when Coleco was drowning in disaster they began to realize that they had to make a choice. They no longer had the money to do both Sectaurs and the Weenies.
Adam saw this crises coming early. Reading over the notes from our weekly meetings the other night I came across a very telling paragraph at the end of the page, beginning with, “Coleco is a company in trouble.” It was from a meeting dated, April 11,1984.
I can remember as if it was a dream, a very unhappy journey to Coleco that took place shortly before the end. Al Kahn, the head of Coleco’s licensing program, who was the man who made the decision to license the Weenies in the first place, and was also Cheryl’s boss, asked Andy, Adam, Mike, and me to meet him in West Hartford to discuss the Weenies. We realized that this did not bode well. Mike and I drove up together.
When we got there, Al laid his cards on the table, explaining his dilemma. Coleco was dropping the Adam Computer, but the lethal damage to their bottom line had already been done, and even Cabbage Patch was slowing up. The company was struggling. He maintained that he had invited us there for a discussion to see what ideas we as a group could come up with to make the Weenies product line a little more exciting
We brainstormed for several hours and produced a dozen ideas that Al appeared to like. And then began one of the most dreamlike experiences of my waking life. The afternoon had flown by and it was now well past dinner time. It was already dark outside. Coleco was shut down for the night. Al suggested going out to dinner. That sure sounded good to me. God knows, I had worked up an appetite! But to my surprise and disappointment, I soon realized that he wasn’t inviting me and Mike. For us, he had completely different plans in mind. The next thing I remember was Al, leading us through the deserted building, and up a darkened flight of stairs, into the desolate design studio, where he turned on a few lights.
Our mission if we chose to accept it, would be to frantically draw up the ideas we had generated throughout the afternoon, and If we didn’t eagerly comply, the Weenies would implode! We were generously allotted all the time we needed, while in the meantime, the other three, Al, Andy and Adam went out to eat! Andy promised to bring us back something, when they finished their feast. Mike and I were slightly stunned to say the least, but we were determined to rise to the occasion. And we drew as if the Weenie's life depended on it, inspired by the fact that we knew, in fact, it did.
The ideas were really not that great, but because we were trying to please Al, we concentrated on the ones that he thought up. He seemed to favor those that came in some kind of carrying case. I recall drawing something, known as Joe Baloney’s Bag of Jokes, while Mike worked on Meany Weenie’s Bag of Tricks, a sort of magic set. An idea that I liked best was one that Al requested I continue to refine at home. It was a line of Wee Weenie Baby Dolls, full size and made of vinyl with diapers and baby bottles, inviting the possibility that they might even drink and wet. By the way, they did bring us back something to eat and we gulped it down as we continued to work for a few hours more. The drawings that we did that night have recently been rediscovered. They can be seen right HERE.
The long drive home was a sad one. In our hearts, we knew the end was near. We got to my house after midnight. Mike’s car was waiting there. He still had another half hour drive ahead of him. The next day, I addressed myself to the Wee Weenie Baby Dolls. These seemingly happy images don’t reveal how down I felt. I realize, now, in retrospect, they were the last Weenie art I ever did! Damn, and just when I was getting good at it! Then I copied and enlarged the drawings, and colored them with marking pens, carefully shading them with colored pencils to look quite three dimensional. Finally, after mounting them on illustration boards I sent the finished artwork to Coleco. Of course, I never saw it again.
There must be several missing boxes of Weenie stuff. One, I know, was full of more vehicles. And there were many more boxes of drawings, including the pencil sketches for those large dolls. But I was only able to find a single set of copies. I don’t see Pee-Wee, the one with a thimble on his head. Perhaps, I was asked to only do a boy and girl, or maybe Pee is simply missing. The copies are so big I’ll have to scan them in three pieces and then reduce them to fit in. But I guess it’s worth the trouble to end this melancholy page on a somewhat happier note.
I can’t remember how and when we got the news that the Weenies were dead. It’s not as if we didn’t
see it coming. I imagine it was Andy who informed me. This wouldn’t be the only time he’d have to deliver
unhappy news. In the years that followed, bad news became commonplace. Eventually, rejection didn’t
faze us. It happened once or twice a week. That is all part of the toy inventing game. Over time, I learned
to handle the bad news better than I could the good. Nonetheless, I won’t pretend that this first time didn’t
hurt. It represented so much hard work, propelled by so much inspiration and determination to see the
Bunville Weenies succeed. This drawing of Joe Baloney conveys how sad we felt. There was no joy in
Bunville. The Mighty Weenies had struck out.
But, every now and then, there was good news too, and, all in all, it added up to making a living, which I promptly spent on collecting. Coleco made good on their obligation, and a check arrived every month, until the promised advance was paid. This certainly went a long way to easing the pain. “Close, But No Cigar” was proving to be a lucrative career.
I’ve spent many hours, wondering how the future would have turned out if the Weenies had been chosen over Sectaurs. Al Kahn and Cheryl Stoebenau must have done the same. For the Sectaurs struggled through a lackluster first year that proved to be an uphill battle. And they did not survive to see a second. Coleco was really ill prepared to introduce Sectaurs, and few, if any, companies licensed them. In a touch of poignant irony, one that did was Colorforms. And I was the guy who had to picture them in the 1985 catalogue. But there was no artwork available. So for the first time in Colorforms' history a toy that was not yet made appeared as simply a blank page. That, more or less, says everything. If, in fact, the toy happened at all, I don’t remember ever seeing it. And I'm the guy who would have had to art direct it!
Harvey Zelman remained a friend of KISCOM, but I don’t know how long he remained at Coleco. I do know that he later started his own toy company, and he licensed several ideas from yours truly. The prototypes that Harvey made were great. Alas, my ideas were not. They not only didn’t sell; they didn’t even get produced. I still have some of the samples, and they are wild and crazy. When I find them, I will post them here.
Jerry Wood is another story. He didn’t remain at Coleco, either. Instead, he became a toy inventor, and ironically he also became a partner of my partners, KISCOM. I didn’t consider him to be in competition with me as most of his concepts were automotive, and the more products KISCOM had to show, the more likely they would be to get the time and attention of leading manufacturers, like Mattel and Hasbro. So, it was a good thing.
Let me pause here for a moment, before this trip into the Land of Memories is over, and say a few words of praise about my business partners. Their parents, Harry and Pat Kislevitz had six children together. All of them were extraordinary. I saw them quite often when they were growing up. Some of them would say today that their dad wasn’t a particularly good father. But, from what I was able to observe, that was not the case. If in the middle of a business meeting, always held at Harrys home, one of them came to him with a concern, he would stop everything and listen caringly. Then, like Michael Landon in Little House on the Prarie, he would solve their problem lovingly with words of wisdom or five dollars, and continued with the meeting. I can’t say that I would do the same.
Many years later, Noah told me that they regarded me as their sixth brother, the one who got more of their father’s time and attention than they did, as Harry was always on the phone with me throughout their childhood. I can see their point as it was true that we spoke for hours every day for many years. And from my point of view, he was indeed a kind of father figure to me, and a kind one too.
Harry was a very intelligent and complex human being. And from my romanticized perspective, I characterized each of his children, particularly his five sons, as each embodying one of Harry’s traits.
Andy who is the eldest inherited Harry's drive and ambition and a propensity for anxiety. Andy’s younger brother, Adam, who could remain cool and clearheaded in any situation, except on that “Day of Blue-Green Algae” that began this whole adventure, embodied his father’s concern and caring. And Harry’s youngest son, Noah, who later became a partner too, acquired his father’s ability to cut right to the truth, and state it clearly.
Andy was the most complicated. He carried the weight of responsibility for his whole family on his shoulders. But you would never realize that to meet him. When he first began to work at Colorforms, he struck me as too young to assume the role of President. He had a youthful eagerness about him and Robert Redford-like good looks, but he also conveyed the impression of a superhero’s young sidekick. He was Jimmy Olson, office boy at the Daily Planet, Little Beaver,” You betcha Red Rider!,” and young Robin, “Golly Batman!”
Nonetheless, there was a curious fact about Andy that contradicted this impression; and it was always a mystery to me. How could this clean cut eager to please young man, who, even though, he was a college grad could still pass for a teen, be the Captain of the Brown University Soccer Team?
Over the years, the answer became clear to me. Andy’s polite and gentlemanly fighting spirit never failed to amaze me. This personable, honest, upright, fair-playing young man was simply determined to WIN! Losing, or even coming in second, was out of the question! And I watched him lead our team to victory, time and time again. But, in all the years, I knew him, I never saw him cheat, or lie, or say a bad word about anybody.
And, whenever we experienced defeat, whenever a project, into which we had invested all our hopes and dreams was deemed hopelessly dead, Andy always had a word for that occasion, one word only: “NEXT.”
And that is what he said on this occasion. Among the notes from our weekly meetings, which had continued even though Mike had opted out of attending them. I discovered one dated, July 1984. I was surprised to learn that as early as that, we had, in fact, already moved on to “NEXT”
I was also surprised to see that Next was called, “Lullaby Babies.” Soon after that, the name must have been changed to “Lullaby Dreamers,” which is the name that I remember. When CBS Toys bought the concept the following year for an even bigger sum than Weenies, they changed the name again to “Sleep Stars.” But I see here, that even in mid-July we had many of the Characters pinned down. My God! So this was happening at the same time the Helmsley Palace Weenies Presentation was taking place. Even before the Weenies were dying, the Sandman was already flying his Enchanted Dreamboat through the Midnight Skies. And this time I was flying solo.
Many a concept has come and gone since then. Only a precious few of them survived. Most died and were flushed away as frequently as goldfish down the toilet bowl. Meanwhile, throughout the years, in the darkest corner of my studio, high up in the shadows where no ray of sunlight ever shines, the Weenies Display, the very one that had its day at the Helmsley Palace, remains. Through the gloom, its colors still shine as vibrantly as they did on that special day in NYC, when the Weenie’s future still looked bright.
Now, coming to the end of this website, I realize why I avoided doing this for so many years. There is so much here that I had swept under the carpet of forgetfulness, so many sweet and painful memories. I invested so much of my heart and soul and then still youthful creative energy into this pleasant Weenie fantasy. Even to this day, more than a little part of me remains behind, and still resides in Bunville USA.