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December 25, 1994
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ON A GRAY AND GUSTY DAY IN JUNE, 35 GIRLS BETWEEN THE ages of 5 and 9 were gathered in a conference room near the San Francisco Airport, looking at prototypes of a toy they’d never seen before. Lewis Galoob Toys had convened a series of focus groups to watch real live kids interact with a doll being developed for 1995. The name of the doll was Sky Dancer.
Deborah Rivers, the research consultant who led the groups, would have preferred a less sterile environment to put the girls at their ease, but this windowless room would have to do. On one wall were pictures of military airplanes. Directly across was a one-way mirror, so that the precise reactions of the participants could be videotaped and analyzed later.
The grainy tapes show bunches of girls — some scruffy, some bright-eyed, some with bows in their hair. Rivers begins by making a “pinkie promise” with each girl to insure that everything said between these walls will be the truth. The children are happy to swear on their honor. They have a good idea that, just around the bend, there will be a reward for their consultations. So they like everything, agree to everything.
“You know,” Rivers says dubiously to the kids, “some people say that flying toys are only for boys. Is that true?” The response is immediate: “No!” The notion that anything could be “only for boys” is summarily rejected. Then Rivers’s tone changes. She has the girls close their eyes and then reads a brief set piece from her clipboard: “I’d like to welcome you to the enchanted world of Sky Dancers! Each beautiful Sky Dancer unfolds her elegant wings and flies with the wind. . . .” She goes on to evoke ocean waves and shimmering moons — cue words to let the Sky Dancer whammy take effect.
The girls open their eyes. By now Rivers has brought out a bevy of dolls — winged ballerinas, from the look of them. They are garish and plastic, with pink-and-lavender nylon hair. The girls blink a few times at the dolls. Many love them at first sight; others praise faintly, hoping they won’t blow their chance to get the money they’ve been promised. Two of the 35 girls react to the doll with open disdain. “Well,” says a girl named Kate, who’s missing a front tooth, “she’s not the best thing in the world.”
But Rivers isn’t discouraged; this doll’s got a gimmick. She picks up her prototype by its flowery base — or, more accurately, its pistol-grip launcher — and tugs at a string. The doll starts to twirl; its wings lift, by virtue of aerodynamic design, until all at once the Sky Dancer has risen free of its base and whizzed straight up in the air, winged arms whirring like a helicopter blade. The girls respond in a hushed chorus: “Cooool!”
Post-flight, Rivers elicits comments on the doll and asks the girls how they like it. One claims she wants a Sky Dancer “more than the whole universe.” At a certain point, Rivers leaves the room. Behind the mirror are a few Galoob employees, including Scott Masline, the firm’s vice president of marketing and a driving force in the doll’s development. Rivers wants to check with Masline to see if he’d like any departures from the script. It’s also an ideal chance to observe the girls at their most candid.
During one group, Rivers’s exit is greeted with silence. Finally, Emily, a blond girl with a ponytail, speaks. “She’s probably going to get the money,” she says quietly.
“How much are you guys getting?” asks a waif from across the table.
“We’re all getting $25,” Emily replies.
Behind the glass, Scott Masline is ignoring the girls’ discussion. He’s pleased. It seems that girls don’t need an elaborate story line to understand his product; “flying doll” is clear to them. Best of all, he has heard the elongated syllable “Cooool” uttered eight out of eight times.
ONE YEAR FROM TODAY, you may know Sky Dancer’s shape and features far more intimately than you’d wish. Perhaps you’ll have seen the television ad — even heard from your own child’s lips what sets this doll apart from the rest of the plastic merchandise being hawked in toy stores, why the toy is a vital addition to your household, why it’s necessary to own.
Sky Dancer’s suggested retail price will be $9.99. It is made of polyvinyl chloride and impact-resistant styrene. Including its platform, it stands at 11 1/2 inches — the precise height from which Barbie, the queen of all dolls, smiles out upon the world. If Galoob has done its work well — and is blessed by the capricious gods who in the past have decreed that turtles must have Renaissance painters’ names and that a cadre of teen-agers can transform themselves into the helmeted superheroes known as Power Rangers — Sky Dancer will be all the rage, the sort of product that engenders black markets, toy-related bribes and giddy newspaper stories invoking the word “phenomenon.”
The other end of the spectrum of possibilities is too awful for Galoob to contemplate. For the toy industry is like a child on a bad day: Darwinian in its selection of what to cherish and what to discard. As many as half of the 6,000 new toys introduced every February in New York at the American International Toy Fair (the convention at which new products are unveiled to retail buyers) do not survive to the holiday season. Even though two-thirds of all purchases are made between Thanksgiving and Christmas, retailers track their receipts through the summer and toys that do not sell quickly are shunned.
For all their goofy unpredictability, toys are big business — really big. Retail sales in 1993, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America, were an estimated $17.5 billion, up nearly 25 percent from 1990. But with a wave of consolidation sweeping the industry (Hasbro, for instance, now owns Kenner, Playskool, Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers), it’s getting harder for the major companies to take risks when it comes to offering unclassifiable new toys — like, say, a flying doll.
“Think about it,” says Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison. “Mattel is going to make $3.1 billion in 1994. If they want to grow by 10 percent next year, taking into account the portions of their line that naturally fall away, they have to create the equivalent of the fourth largest toy company on the face of the earth, and they have to do that each year. They can’t consider every $20 million invention floating around out there. They have to get in bed with Disney and McDonald’s, to develop a level of predictability.”
The odd toys are left to the smaller, hungrier companies to develop. Make no mistake: dolls do not spring full-grown from the heads of inventors. They evolve. Every square inch of what you see on toy store shelves has been mulled over, revamped, checked against safety standards, then mulled over some more. The shape of a doll’s hand may well be the topic of costly research; its smile may be debated by trained experts.
The Sky Dancer line, for example, was developed not only by a marketing staff but by an aviation expert, an ex-nun and a key sculptor for the film “Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas.” Between the day Sky Dancer was conceived to the day it first came off an assembly line in Shajing, China, 24 months passed. And not one of the people who fretted the doll into existence has the vaguest idea if it will be next year’s white-hot item or an industry joke.
ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON IN the fall of 1992, a toy inventor named John Gentile was standing on his front lawn in Montclair, N.J., watching his young daughters play with maple seedlings — the elongated, wing-shaped kind that spiral when released from a modest height. As he stood observing his girls, who were 4 and 7, their game never varied: they would pick up a seedling, fling it in the air and watch it flutter back to earth.
A strange idea occurred to him. The girls, he realized, had been captivated by a toy that functioned beautifully at the lowest possible cost. They had shopped on the ground and had picked out a trinket they liked.
Within a half-hour, Gentile had dispatched his daughters on a little hunt to ferret out the lawn’s finest examples of seedlings. Not wet, not buggy. Dad wanted specimens that would flutter to the ground and not wobble. With a pocketful of seedlings, Gentile drove to work and showed them to his brother Anthony.
“What we thought we had,” John Gentile says, “was an idea for a girl’s toy we hadn’t seen before. We were familiar with flying toys for boys. I mean, we’d played with lots of them when we were kids. Whirlybirds, flight rings — they still have a dozen names. You pull a string and the ring zips into the air. Some of them aren’t even rings; they’re just sticks with propellers on top that you flick between your fingers.”
Three months passed. Since the Gentiles were already committed to other projects — mainly, a screenplay based on G.I. Joe — there was no question of dropping everything to explore the miracle of seedlings. No one leaped from his chair and cried, “By God, it’s the hit we’ve been waiting for!” But as the brothers pondered the way the seedling flew, a sense of its delicacy gradually pervaded their minds. Just maybe, they thought, a traditionally male play pattern could be recast as a female one.
On this autumn afternoon two years later, John and Anthony Gentile are in a conference room in their West 54th Street offices, seated across from their business partner, Marty Abrams. The company is called Abrams/Gentile Entertainment, or AGE, and the division of labor is simple: Abrams has been in toy manufacturing for 30 years and the Gentiles — whom he refers to collectively as Janthony — are idea men. Janthony dreams up shapes and functions and stories to go with them; Abrams knows what the market will bear.
The three men formed AGE in 1986. Abrams had transformed his family company, Mego, from a third-rate toy importer into an industry force, producing dolls based on Superman and the Waltons. But after heavy losses in the early 80’s, Mego filed for Chapter 11. Abrams managed to land on his feet and linked up with the Gentiles, who had had considerable success designing movie posters. “John would start painting at the upper right corner of a poster and Anthony would start at the lower left,” Abrams says. “Then they’d meet perfectly in the middle.”
John and Anthony Gentile are identical twins but decline to provide symmetry. They have not dressed alike since the age of 2. Anthony’s sneakers are white; John’s are black. Both men are slight — economically built, as if Marty Abrams has constructed them from scratch, with an eye to cost.
Hovering protectively over his two geniuses, Marty Abrams is affable and loud. “We asked ourselves, How can we put a beautiful head on wings?” Abrams says. “How can we make something magical here, without making it crazy expensive?”
By early 1993, Janthony was tinkering with existing whirlybird designs. “We started bending the wings, to see if we could still achieve lift,” Anthony Gentile says. “Since the thing would ultimately need to have a human form, we had to get the blades to look more like arms. We couldn’t have a stiff-armed doll — a Frankenstein monster look. We had to make it relaxed and graceful, like Tinkerbell.”
The flying doll got its very first head, an oval nub of Styrofoam. Wings made of holographic material (which is translucent, not unlike an insect wing) were attached. It also got its first nickname. For ease of reference, John Gentile dubbed the dolls “Twirlies.”
Incarnations of Twirlies proliferated. John and Anthony Gentile, who work side by side at computer-equipped drafting boards, drew color renditions of round-headed elves — big-eyed, rosy-cheeked, with pointy ears and painted hair. The decision to make Twirlies elfin was not purely esthetic — the Gentiles were convinced that adding hair would ruin the creature’s chances of flight. “Putting wings on a doll is one thing,” Anthony Gentile says, “but adding hair complicates the whole process. Hair is awfully heavy.”
The Gentiles also banged out a bunch of possible names for the doll. There were 23 on the final list, which included Spinderellas, Fancy Flys and Pettifloats. Somewhere toward the middle of the column was a name they couldn’t get enough of. And even though in-house diagrams would continue to bear the Twirlies logo, everyone started to call the doll Sky Dancer.
Months later, Galoob would generate 64 more potential names, but none would ever depose Sky Dancer. “If this doll is blessed to become a hit with girls,” Anthony Gentile explains, “the Dancer name allows us to add any number of names in front of it.” Expanding the line would be simple. A lighted version of the doll, for instance, might be called “Night Dancer.” A glittery one, “Star Dancer.”
Meanwhile, Janthony was churning out technical drawings, grappling with how to help Lift win out over Drag. When the twins decided that a hair style was viable, the pixie Sky Dancer was unceremoniously killed off. Its face morphed overnight into that of a 19-year-old girl, with blond hair tied straight up in a bow a la Barbie. She was anorexically thin, for the sake of aerodynamics, and decidedly flat-chested, also for the sake of aerodynamics. Her hands were folded across her heart, hugging flowers to her girlish chest. That, too, was aerodynamic.
As night falls on 54th Street, Anthony Gentile is still at work, buzzing down well-worn furrows in the blue carpet. His twin was born two minutes ahead of him and tonight it seems he intends to make up the difference. Returning to the conference table, he indicates the series of 3-D forms Sky Dancer took after the sketching was done. “At this stage,” he says, pointing out a sticklike shape, “we had to add a smidge to the rump. Then we tossed it on a phonograph turntable to see if it would spin evenly. We’re high-tech.”
The body was first shaped in clay, then translated into styrene plastic. At last, AGE had a model it could reasonably show to toy manufacturers. The prototype was primitive. Its arms were green propeller blades torn off an old whirlybird. It had a yellow silk flower for a skirt, with a round head and a dab of blue paint for hair. It was, after all, only a prototype.
Over the summer of 1993, the Gentiles and Marty Abrams pitched Sky Dancer to a few of the big toy companies. Tyco liked it, Abrams said, but was nervous about safety; Hasbro, too, was all smiles but clung to the belief that being able to fly was primarily a male fantasy and rejected Sky Dancers on the spot.
In July, Gary Niles, Galoob’s executive vice president of marketing and product acquisition, stopped into AGE. The trio showed him a few concepts he wasn’t interested in, then gave him a glimpse of the flying doll. It took him two minutes to decide he wanted to buy it for Galoob. A deal was struck. AGE would receive around 6 percent of Galoob’s net revenues on the doll, with an advance of $150,000.
AS YOU ENTER THE MAZE OF Galoob’s offices out near the San Francisco Airport, you see high-gloss framed photographs of the firm’s greatest hits: a blond doll who seems to be struggling to keep afloat in crystal-blue water; a life-size four-wheel-drive vehicle with a Micro Machines logo crushing real Cadillacs in a field.
Gary Niles’s desk sits beneath a Chagall and pictures of vampires. At 54, Niles dresses elegantly and has a pugilist’s frame. “The first time I saw this doll,” he says, tugging upward at the hair of a Sky Dancer, “she looked like a scene from the Crucifixion. She was stiff and ugly, but the concept was there. I said: ‘A flying doll! Of course!’ “
Niles is not a details man; he trusts others in his company to know that a doll’s eyes are blue and that her hair, if it is not a “fantasy color” like glitter-pink or teal, is blond. “Blond!” he shouts, pounding his index finger on page after page of a Toys “R” Us catalogue. “Blond! Blond! Blond!”
After the snap decision at AGE, Niles sent the prototype back west to his marketing staff. “My instinct,” he says, “is to know if a doll has a chance. A chance, O.K.? It’s that simple. I gave the model to Scott Masline and said, ‘Make this pretty.’ “
Masline was hired by Galoob in October 1992, about the time John Gentile was pondering maple seedlings. Galoob needed to fortify its girls’ sales, which was Masline’s line of expertise. At Mattel, he’d been a director of marketing for fashion dolls and was therefore on intimate terms with Barbie.
When the Sky Dancer sketches arrived at Galoob, Masline was impressed but concerned. “I realized that a flying doll would have no direct competition,” he says. “That wasn’t all good, since it meant there was no data on which to judge the thing. But maybe there was a way we could nibble away at some of Barbie’s business.”
Like Masline, Barbie is 35, but she still holds sway over the doll world. In 1993, Barbie and her accessories earned $1.2 billion in sales for Mattel. She has no buzz — people are not huddling outside Kmarts to find her — but if Barbie were somehow separated out from Mattel, she would comprise the third largest toy company in the nation. “Any girl’s toy, in a sense, goes up against Barbie,” Masline says. “Our wildest dream is that a girl will be in the market for Barbies and, instead of buying seven of her, will decide to get six Barbies and one of ours.”
In September 1993, Masline oversaw a market viability test — a precursor to Deborah Rivers’s focus group — to see if Galoob’s faith in Sky Dancers was misguided. Although the breadth of the survey was tiny by scientific standards — it included only 50 children — the degree of enthusiasm was enough to keep Galoob moving. Ninety percent of the sample kids picked Sky Dancer as either a first or second choice against the competing dolls they were shown, and one of those dolls was a Barbie.
“And so our doll was born,” Masline says. “We simply didn’t know what it was going to look like until it got older.”
“THIS COMPANY NEEDS FOCUS TO survive,” says Mark Goldman, Galoob’s chief executive officer. “Our revenue from last year, $134 million, is lower than Mattel’s ad budget. Sky Dancer would be a minuscule product to them, but if it brings in $25 million in 1995, as I expect it will, that’ll be a big percentage of our business.”
As Christmas 1993 approached, however, Sky Dancer was still in limbo. Karyn Silfies, Galoob’s preliminary-design chief, was scuffling with the guys in engineering about how to make the doll flightworthy.
“The trouble was not merely that the doll had to fly,” Silfies says. “Boys’ toys are accepted if they can merely stay airborne. This had to fly beautifully — and that’s close, in engineering terms, to being an intangible.”
Silfies, like Gary Niles and Scott Masline, spent her formative years at Mattel. She is fortyish and has blond hair that flows to her waist; it is as perfectly straight and silky as a doll’s. But she is an extraordinarily technical person. “Engineering was telling us that we’d have to use a paddle for a wing,” she says. “That made the doll look like a moth. We kept having to remind everyone that this was a human form, not a thing with propellers.”
Galoob engineers were initially convinced that the doll’s arms would have to jut straight out from her shoulders — the crucified sprite of Gary Niles’s nightmares. Then in December, an aviation expert named Bill Kelley (formerly of Mattel) made a crucial suggestion: What if the doll’s wings rose and fell not laterally from the shoulders but to the front and back? With the right wing rising forward and the left rising behind, Sky Dancer wouldn’t look like she was being tortured. She would be dancing.
Kelley’s prototype is still lying in Silfies’ office, alongside the boxes of heads and torsos that trace the doll’s early history. There is a black “#3” written in Magic Marker on one Styrofoam wing. Square white joints and metal pins clutter the shoulders. Most important, the wings fold to the front and back, and the thing does more than fly: it glides.
Silfies commissioned a graphic designer named Marlene Dantzer to sketch rough versions of Sky Dancer’s face and body. Two days before last Christmas, Dantzer faxed a packet of line drawings of Sky Dancer in a variety of childlike poses, along with a letter explaining how she had interpreted Silfies’s request for a realistic-looking Tinkerbell. “Well,” Dantzer wrote, “Marilyn Monroe was the model for Tinkerbell, so she was a very sensual, sexy little imp, not unlike a subtler version of the Playboy bunny. So while I kept her more of an ingenue, I made her sensual, a little sexy.”
The pictures show a girl only the toy industry could legally concoct. She might be 20 or she might be 9. She is on tiptoe, with legs that are far too long for her nubile body. In other words, she is the epitome of a marketable doll. She is only remarkably thin, instead of being anorexically, aerodynamically thin.
SHELLEY DANIELS GOT HER START in sculpturing as a 7-year-old growing up in San Diego. Since the family ate dinner in the kitchen, she and her siblings started messing around with clay on the dining-room table. For the next 10 years, the table was known as Claytown. “I played with Barbie dolls,” she says, “but eventually I just wanted to play with the town more.”
There are pictures of Claytown left over from the 60’s: overvivid Kodachromes that show turrets and castles as well as the giant children who built it all. In the photos, Shelley stands primly wearing a red scarf and an innocent smile. Her face, in fact, is not at all unlike that of the Sky Dancer she formed out of clay — no surprise, since it is a longstanding theory of the industry that sculptors tend to create likenesses of themselves and their families.
Shelley Daniels is now at work on Disney’s version of “James and the Giant Peach.” When Karyn Silfies phoned her to see if she’d be interested in a little work between films, Silfies sounded desperate. “We need a head,” she told Daniels. “How soon can you do it?”
This was a Friday. Daniels asked, “How’s Monday?” Silfies did not provide Daniels with sketches. She simply said that the face should be sweet, innocent. Younger than Barbie. Daniels told Silfies she was happy to oblige.
Like any visual artist, Daniels has trouble describing how it is that her hands formed a head out of clay. This much she can tell you: she started by rolling it in her hands, then went to work on it with her favorite tool, a flat wooden knife. She pulls out a lump of clay and sets about making a head. Nothing fancy — just something to show how she uses her array of blades and dental picks. The blade rises, stabs, pokes and smooths out features — a mouth, a face.
She squints at a Sky Dancer head lying on the desk and points out a dozen imperfections visible only to her. There used to be a dimple in the right cheek — just where Daniels has one — but the reduction process made it look like a pit and it was filled in. “And one eye,” she says ruefully, “is higher than the other. And there’s a nick in the nose.”
Monday rolled around. Daniels carried her head, in a box, to Galoob. Silfies told Daniels to try for a straighter smile; the rest was fine. Daniels went home with her tiny head and put it in her makeshift kiln.
“I popped it in the oven,” she says. “Two hundred degrees, since it’s such a tiny head. Ten minutes, tops. I didn’t want to burn it.” Daniels’s head was transformed into a wax mold, from which plastic and steel molds and millions of other little heads could be fashioned. “It was several weeks before I saw the final model,” she says. “The only thing that still troubles me is the ears. There was some sort of accident, and they had to change the ears. Mine were dainty, but these . . . I don’t know. They’re wormy.
“Still, when I look at her” — inevitably, the pronoun has at some point become humanized — “I’m so proud. I think it’s nice she has a crooked little smile.”
THE PRE-PAINTED HEADS were bald and colorless — babies’ heads, with neither pupils nor teeth. Galoob was in crunch time. A showing in Hong Kong, where international buyers would meet the doll, was only two months away. This girl needed lips — and hair. Silfies approached a celebrity hair stylist she’d worked with in the past, Nellie Muganda. Muganda’s clients ranged from Paul McCartney to Pat Buchanan. By July, Muganda had created a gallery of Galoob-approved hair designs.
Now it was time to put features on the face. Silfies turned to Kathy Bleser, one of the world’s premier doll-face painters. Bleser had spent a year in a convent before she realized that she was in the wrong line of work and took a job at Mattel. When Bleser left the company in 1970, she had painted the face of every Barbie in that year’s catalogue.
Bleser’s studio is in Long Beach, Calif., and overlooks the Queen Mary. Her hands are scuffed and nimble. There are permanent indentations, made by brushes, on the tip of her index finger and the inside edge of her middle one.
Since Bleser has herself worked as a freelance inventor, Karyn Silfies’s initial call about Sky Dancer was vague. “That’s the way we work,” Bleser says. “She didn’t say what the doll was. Everything’s on a need-to-know basis.” Bleser wasn’t insulted by Silfies’s secrecy; when Bleser’s own daughter visits her, she drapes her desk. After all, her daughter is in the business.
There were 36 heads in the first shipment Bleser received, and she now recreates how she did the job: She stacks white towels seven inches high and lays a featureless baby head on top, pulling magnifier goggles over her eyes. Out comes a brush. The best instruments, Bleser says, are ones that have been used for months — brushes that have only four or five bristles left on them. On the scale she works, a new brush is as useless as a broom. In a few minutes, the doll face is getting real; you can almost see the whites of its eyes.
“I’ve painted heads the size of a pea,” she says. “I do not breathe.”
Freehand, she creates a perfectly round iris in blue. Sky Dancer is gazing out, but you can’t yet see where she is Continued on page 43 gazing. Eventually, pupils arrive. With two quick taps of white paint from a sharp point, Sky Dancer’s eye gets highlights — “sparkles,” as Karyn Silfies likes to call them. Little twinkles to show the doll is alive, here with you now, full of hope. The doll’s cheek is then dabbed with ground pastel chalk for blush; acrylic is stroked over her lips and eyes to give them extra shine. The entire process takes four hours.
In August, Galoob was getting ready to film its Sky Dancer television commercial; Bleser was enlisted to paint 36 more faces for the shoot. Her work would be used not only in “hero shots” — close-ups of the doll’s features — but also for the medium shots, where Sky Dancers would be zooming around. A week before the shoot, Bleser broke her wrist in a self-defense class. Galoob shot the ad on schedule and was even able to use Bleser’s faces for the hero shots. For three months, though, Bleser was unable to work. The hospital had braced her arm with a cast. These days, at least in California, you can get casts in different colors. Hers was in the precise shade the toy industry knows as Barbie pink.
THERE ARE A THOUsand points at which a toy company can pull the plug on a product in which it has lost faith. One is early viability testing, which Sky Dancer had passed with flying colors, even if the flying-color prototype wobbled. If there is one Rubicon in the process, however, it is the day of cutting steel.
“Cutting steel” is toy-industry slang for creating the expensive molds that will eventually (and, with luck, for years and years) churn out dolls. Since Sky Dancer was a complicated piece, there was a lot of tooling to make — $400,000 worth, in fact. On May 24, Galoob cut steel.
Tooling was not all Galoob had at stake. Research and development had also cost $400,000, which included not only the work of Shelley Daniels (at $50 an hour) and that of Kathy Bleser (at $150 a head) but also the myriad of unforeseeable costs that toy executives must foresee: wing designs that never panned out; trial and error on fabrics for Sky Dancer’s tutu; abortive head-sculptures. “That R.& D. money paid for everything that happened from Square 1,” says Scott Masline. “Everything that stunk and everything that didn’t.”
Of the $7.49 wholesale cost for one Sky Dancer, Galoob will take a narrow profit to begin with. (The $9.99 store price, conveniently under $10, is a magic “price point” in the industry.) Scott Masline won’t specify exact figures, but he says it costs the company about $3.30 to make one of the doll and launcher sets. Beyond that, there are other costs the company has paid up front: package design, presentations, first samples (which can run up to $20,000 each) and TV-ad production.
“By the time we made our tooling,” Scott Masline says, “we’d already sunk in excess of a million dollars into this doll. Granted, if we only sell a half-million of these, it’s going to be very bad news. But this is what the toy industry is all about. If you have a multiyear success, you get past that narrow margin. You already have the molds. Suddenly, the toys are easy to make. The company’s sliver of profit becomes a chunk.”
In June, Masline took one minute of edited tape from the Deborah Rivers focus groups and left it grainy, just to underscore its realism. For the next three months, Galoob showed Sky Dancer, along with the video, to major retailers. This wasn’t just to show off the doll’s fabulous smile. Many chains plan precisely how they will stock their shelves several months in advance. Target stores have a rigid “planogram”: by October, their strategists already know what toy will be sitting in the center of Aisle 7B, third shelf up, next spring. If Sky Dancer was to be under Christmas trees in 1995, it had to be on the shelves by May.
During the presentation season, Masline braced for resistance, but there was none. “What we were worried about,” he explains, “was that the retailers would say, ‘This is not a product for girls.’ The reason they didn’t is that we had tape of girls actively loving this doll.” This was no small relief. “If Kmart and Wal-Mart tell you you haven’t got a toy,” he says, “then you haven’t got a toy.”
On Aug. 23, Toys “R” Us, which presides over the retail world with 21.5 percent of all toy sales, made its regal inspection of the flying doll. The company’s buyers offered minor advice, mainly about packaging, most of which Galoob humbly accepted.
Toys “R” Us, like any cold war government agency, is bureaucratic and reticent about everything. I phoned one of its major buyers to ask how the doll had been received. The person to whom I spoke paused, then said I could not attribute what he was about to impart to me. Then, in the halting tones of a hostage, he whispered that Toys “R” Us had liked the doll, had found it “fresh.”
SKY DANCERS CAME INTO this world on Sept. 19, at a factory in the Pearl Delta region of China. Molten nylon metamorphosed into wings. Extra-hard plastic narrowed into extra-sleek bodies. One-and-one-half grams of hair was rooted in, at precisely the right number of strands per inch. Each coif got a lightning-fast styling and trim, using genuine Paul Mitchell Freeze and Shine Super Spray.
Lastly, as packaging was applied, each head was turned coquettishly outward, to insure eye contact with consumers. In the first run, this phase bedeviled Galoob. Heads were being bent at a 45-degree angle off center — but a doll’s gaze, as everybody knows, should be no more than 10 degrees off. When parents and tots wander down retail aisles, Sky Dancer must not be shy. She should look at her new moms, so they will recognize that she is their girl.
From China, a battalion of Sky Dancers was shipped to San Francisco. A small number, about 20,000, would be trucked to Cleveland, Houston and San Francisco, where test launches would be conducted this Christmas to gauge how many dolls should be manufactured for next Christmas.
F.A.O. SCHWARZ, IN its San Francisco incarnation, sits across the street from Macy’s in the Union Square shopping district. With the exception of Barbie, who has an area all her own on the first floor, dolls are consigned to the second floor and are separated into two sections. There are the “Fine Dolls,” which stare out from acrylic boxes in bridal gowns and nighties and cost anywhere up to $1,500. The more affordable figures are known as “TV Dolls,” since that’s where children are first introduced to them.
Unlike fine dolls, TV dolls are built less for beauty than function, and at F.A.O. Schwarz, function is in rich supply. There are dolls that wet themselves, dolls that chat on the phone, dolls that tap-dance.
Sky Dancer is being test-marketed here, tagged at $15 — double the wholesale cost. (When it comes to setting prices, F.A.O. Schwarz is a world unto itself.) Even so, she has been granted third-rate placement in the store, since she is a 1995 item and has no TV recognition. Besides, when the first case of the dolls arrived a week ago, F.A.O. employees were unimpressed.
“They looked stupid,” says Jason Stewart, the spiky-haired floor manager. “I mean, fairyland-theme toys are a dime a dozen. Then, out of curiosity, some of us started trying them out.” Hands-on demonstration turned the tide. As soon as employees started tinkering with the dolls — fiddling with the pull-string to make a Sky Dancer twirl or playing catch with one during lulls in the afternoon — the dolls started blowing off the shelf. Today, the Sky Dancer area is empty. There are only two left, and one of those is stranded up near the ceiling, the victim of an overly ambitious launch. Her blue head can still be seen jutting out from a ledge.
By 2 in the afternoon, 12 new cases of Sky Dancers have arrived and are ready to go. Employees are a bit relieved; they can again fool around with the doll without having to explain to customers why they have none to sell.
The first parent-child combination to wander past is a ponytailed man and a blond 4-year-old girl in a “Lion King” shirt. As they walk by, Jason Stewart launches a Sky Dancer off to the little girl’s left. She has seen the doll in its static pose during her reconnaissance of the area a few minutes ago, but this fresh development stops her dead in her tracks. She stares, slack jawed, at the sprite’s powerful launch, then its smooth descent. Stewart even succeeds in catching the doll by the swivel base, so that it continues to pirouette even after he has it in hand. He has the touch. The Sky Dancer comes gradually to rest and its wings fall modestly to its side.
The little girl is rapt. Her father, who has now strolled 10 feet ahead, feels his child radar kick in and turns to see where his daughter has gotten to. He catches sight of the expression on her face and knows it instinctively. It is the look that says his girl’s thoughts have gone to another place. It is the look that says: Are fairies real? Can a little girl fly? Should I instruct my purchasing agent to acquire this article, as an important addition to my current collection?
Dad isn’t ready to commit himself, so he pulls a deft maneuver. “Honey,” he says, “do you see the lions?” For a crucial instant the child is diverted. She glances over at a pile of cuddly cubs: scores of identical Simbas, based on the Lion King character she has emblazoned on her chest. By now, it’s all over. The Sky Dancer has passed from her field of vision.
“A flying Barbie, huh?” Dad says over his shoulder as the two stroll away. “That’s something!”
Other parents are less equivocal. For a solid two hours, the response is uniform: A parent strides up to the register with an Aladdin doll or a Sanrio duck and, after witnessing a twirl or two, lobs a Sky Dancer onto the top of the pile, often without pausing to ask the price.
Others get a glimpse of Sky Dancer’s wings and see only blades. “Yes, it does look like Tinkerbell,” an Italian woman whispers to her daughter, “but it is actually a very dangerous ballerina!”
For every parent who doubts Sky Dancer’s safety, though, there are 10 who feel the foam wings and take their softness as an assurance of safety. As the afternoon passes, sales in the doll section are suffering: Baby Walk ‘n Roll is neither wiggling nor giggling. Cabbage Patch dolls are looking more forlorn than ever. Jennie Gymnast, who earlier was attracting even 12-year-old boys with her strange writhing motions on the floor, seems to be facing a long dry spell until the next Olympics. But for Sky Dancer, sales are brisk. There is every sign that, in this unrepresentative toy store, on this unrepresentative day, there’s a run on the flying doll.
Still, as anyone in retail can tell you, there is no such thing in life as an unqualified hit. A cold rain starts blowing across Stockton Street and F.A.O. Schwarz falls quiet. The second floor feels especially bleak. Several girls give the doll a spin or two and, bored silly, drop it where they stand. A pudgy 8-year-old girl in a windbreaker stares at a demonstration without saying a word. Her face is blank. When the Sky Dancer hits the floor, her indifference turns to hostility. She glares at the doll as if it has stirred a terrible memory in her, then walks dejectedly off toward the video section.
But all is not lost. Just before closing, I drop by the main office to ask Gary Jockers, the store’s general manager, what sort of business he thinks the flying doll will do next year. Though he has no way of knowing it yet, the 12 cases of dolls that just arrived will be gone in three days and F.A.O. Schwarz’s buyer will say that “I now expect to sell thousands before Christmas, 10 times the number I’d planned for.”
“The flyin’ doll?” Jockers repeats. “It’s blessed.”
SCOTT MASLINE PROJECTS THAT GALOOB WILL sell 1.5 million Sky Dancers in 1995. “Two million,” he says, chortling, “wouldn’t terribly upset us.” Outside the three test cities, only a few people have seen the doll and issued their findings. “Sky Dancer has very strong appeal,” says David Leibowitz, who follows the toy industry for Burnham Securities in Manhattan. “It has every sign of what the trade calls ‘play value.’ I can’t define that quality, but I know it when I see it.”
Sean McGowan, the toy analyst, predicts “it’ll sell well for a year, but I don’t see that girls are going to need more than one, and that’s a problem. It won’t be a hit three years down the road, I’m pretty sure of that.”
For the moment, Sky Dancer’s prospects for the year ahead are daunting enough. Some 300,000 Sky Dancers are now snaking their way through the distribution systems of various American retailers for next spring. The TV commercial makes its national debut in early February. Galoob has slated roughly $4 million in air time for the doll — enough so that, by next Thanksgiving, children may be able to lip-sync with the little blond girl who shouts, “They really fly!”
HOPE AND KATE KRAUSE ARE TWINS — THOUGH, unlike the toy-inventing Gentiles, they are fraternal, not identical. A few days before Thanksgiving, I brought them a pair of Sky Dancers, to see two 6-year-old girls react to Sky Dancers outside a toy store and without the aid of one-way mirrors.
The Krauses live in New Canaan, Conn., in a spacious house surrounded by its share of maples.
As a Sky Dancer was snipped from the captivity of its window box, Hope grabbed up the doll, grinned and scampered out the back door. Her sister, who was under the weather with a slight fever, watched quietly from the window.
Hope seemed to know instinctively how to launch the doll. I now realize this is because she and her sister have an extensive collection of whirlybirds — a whole drawer of them, in fact.
After a few practice pulls, Hope saw her doll sail into the absolute blue of the late-autumn sky. The miracle of flight seemed to please her. She did not, however, catch the doll as it returned to earth. The family dog, an Australian shepherd called Boomerang, got there before she did and for several minutes ran around chomping it, playing out its own Sky Dancer fantasy. This scene repeated itself a few times — launch, race with dog, chomp, launch. Even after the doll had sustained massive injuries to both wings and its left buttock, it still flew. It didn’t even wobble much. But these subtleties were lost on young Hope. For the moment, she’d had enough of the doll.
We walked back inside. Kate was pulling at her Sky Dancer’s string and eyeing the doll suspiciously as it pirouetted. “So,” I asked the girls, trying not to pressure them, “will you play with these things?”
“Oh, yes,” Hope replied politely. Nothing was clear. There was no point in relating how much time and money Galoob had gambled on this cheap-looking sylph. Two well-schooled consumers, in the precise age range of the product’s target group, had met the doll and currently had it under consideration. Time would tell.
Outside, millions of maple seedlings were being crushed underfoot. Some would take root and some would not. NEW FOR ’95 Surprise Hat Susie, Tyco’s lead doll for spring, has a few unexpected treats under her bonnet. “Best of all,” says Bruce Maguire, a spokesman for Tyco, “her hat doubles as a cool purse to carry her brush, ribbon curler and the rest of her stuff.” Surprise Hat Susie is scheduled to reach toy store shelves next month and will retail at $20. Tyco has high hopes for this one, the first radio-controlled motorcycle on the market. The 1995 catalogue describes it as “two wheels on bone-shakin’ speed that can’t be beat.” The miniature cycle performs a variety of stunts, including 360-degree “donut” spins and jumps, all at the pull of a lever. The little Harley debuts in March and will retail at $75. Mattel’s 35-year-old, ultra-lucrative line of Barbie dolls shows no sign of slowing down; Dance Moves Barbie, arriving next spring, follows fast on the heels of Gymnast Barbie. It will retail for about $13. Hasbro Inc. has put serious corporate muscle behind the action figures based on the TV show, “VR Troopers”: the hunky Ryan Steele, the brainy J. B. Reese, the lovely Kaitlin Star, the villains Dark Heart and Tankotron. The smaller action figures will range in price from $4.99 to $7.99, while the tall “Ultimate Ryan Steele” will sell for $19.99. Vehicles — a VR Turbo Cycle, a VR Pursuit Jet and a Skyborg Jet — will cost between $9.99 and $27.99 M.S.