When I was really young, we only had a handful of channels to watch. Because of that, my brother and I watched the same handful of episodes of the same shows over and over again. There wasn’t much television geared towards little kids in the 80s, and like so many of you out there, we grew up watching Sesame Street.
I don’t remember much about Sesame Street other than that it was on television, and I was frequently afraid of The Count. My brother really liked the show, I remember. But by the time I could choose my own television program, I had moved on from “The Street” to early Nickelodeon shows like Eureka’s Castle and David the Gnome. As I grew, programs like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Real Ghostbusters took control of my interest, and Sesame Street became a distant memory.
During the time period when I remember watching Sesame Street, as short as it may be, I couldn’t get enough of Grover and Cookie Monster. My brother was a big fan of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, who were always my least favorites.
Most children of today watch Sesame Street for one character and one character only:
Elmo, the red “monster” muppet with a falsetto voice, is beloved by young children worldwide. Self-described as a three-and-a-half-year-old, the loveable little monster who always refers to himself in the third person wasn’t always the big hit he is today. Today, he’s considered as big or bigger of a deal than Barney the Dinosaur, My Little Pony, or even Mickey Mouse. Market Evaluations, a company that ranks the likeability of products and celebrities, reported in 2018 that Elmo is by far the most popular character for young children. Elmo even tied Santa Claus as far as how easily young children recognize a character based on just an image.
Elmo’s increased presence on Sesame Street and visits to the daytime talk show The Rosie O’Donnell Show launched a once-in-a-lifetime toy that created a frenzy among parents. This toy would become the most popular Christmas toy of the last 35 years, causing adults to get into arguments, fist fights and would even send a Walmart employee to the hospital. How did a doll based on a loveable, huggable children’s show character get to that level?
Let’s take a look!
The puppet that would eventually become Elmo was created in 1979 by Jim Henson puppeteer and designer Caroly Wilcox. Originally intended to be just a generic “anything Muppet,” production labels from the time included “baby monster” or “little red.”
Elmo’s earliest appearances on Sesame Street occurred as a background character in late 1979. Sesame Street staff writer Nancy Sans once claimed Elmo’s origin began when “this extra red puppet was lying around, and the cast would pick him up sometimes and try to create a personality, but nothing seemed to materialize. His first noted appearance was in the song “We Are All Monsters” from a Season 11 episode in 1980. Elmo was officially given his name and became a recurring character during the “on the street” scenes later that same season. He only spoke in mumbles, and the press releases for Season 12 described him as a young monster that communicated with sounds rather than words, much like toddlers learning to speak.
Elmo (the puppet) was passed around from one performer to another until one day in November of 1984, Richard Hunt literally threw the puppet at Kevin Clash in the Sesame Street green room, telling him to take over the role. Clash took the character in the opposite direction from Hunt, who had performed Elmo with a gruff voice that yelled his lines. While trying to find a “hook,” Kevin Clash decided that Elmo should embody love. “I knew that Elmo should represent love – just kissing and hugging.”
Soon after Clash took Elmo in a more loveable, friendly direction, his popularity slowly began to increase. Market research showed viewers were not only entertained by the character, but children were also learning from him.
In 1996 when actress and comedienne Rosie O’Donnell began her daytime talk show, the big Sesame Street fan frequently had many Sesame characters on her show. Elmo, Rosie’s favorite, quickly became a regular guest. Along with visits to Rosie, Elmo began touring the daytime talk show circuit with appearances on Martha Stewart Living, The Tony Danza Show, and The View.
He may have visited several shows, but The Rosie O’Donnell Show took Elmo to new heights. Quickly becoming the number one show when it launched in 1996, Rosie was nominated for and won Five Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Talk Shows. Contrary to her current public persona, Rosie appeared upbeat, likable, and “folksy.” The show was a rating success and was enjoyed by the whole family, parents and children alike. She would frequently do fun segments that included launching Koosh balls around the studio, running gags such as her love of Tom Cruise and Barbara Streisand, and having frequent guests kids love, like Elmo.
Toy inventor Ron Dubren, known in the industry for creating “Alphie the Robot” (a children’s learning computer), presented a design he called “Tickles the Chimp” to Tyco Toys and their division for young children, Tyco Preschool. Tickles was a toy monkey with a computer chip that made the toy laugh when tickled.
In interviews, Ron said he wanted to create a stuffed animal that would mimic the children he saw at the playground tickling each other into hysterics, and Tickles the Chimp was born. While there was precedent for putting electronics in a plush toy, such as Teddy Ruxbin, the idea of Tickles was turned down by 12 companies before being liked by the executives at Tyco.
Stanley Clutton, Vice President of Marketing at Tyco Preschool in 1994, immediately liked the toy and thought Elmo, rising in popularity then, would be perfect for it. Unfortunately, Tyco didn’t own the rights to Sesame Street for plush toys. Hasbro had rights to plush toys, while Tyco only had the rights to create plastic toys.
Clutton decided that Tickles would be best under their Looney Tunes licensing deal. At the time, Warner Brothers were pushing the Tasmanian Devil, who was popular with both boys and girls. Clutton remembers presenting a “Tickle Me Taz” doll to Warner Brothers, who, after selling a handful at the WB Store in Los Angeles, decided it wasn’t for them. Sometime later, Tyco dissolved their agreement with Warner Brothers, and the whole thing was moot anyway.
By the time the deal with Warner ended, Tyco had secured the rights to create all Sesame Street toys. Big Bird was first pushed for the “Tickle Me” treatment. Former Vice President of Licensing for Sesame Workshop, Ann Kearns, said in an interview, “Story Magic Big Bird was really our first big item. It was low-tech but a huge success. Before Elmo came along, Big Bird was the start of the show. Elmo was starting to come to the forefront on Sesame Street… this was around 1995. He was becoming more and more popular with parents and children.”
At the time, Sesame Street was considered a “sleeping” license for toys. They were perceived as educational, and that’s often considered a death knell for a brand and its toys.
Work began on turning Tickle Me Taz into Tickle Me Elmo in early 1995, with the expectation it would be ready for the New York Toy Fair in February of 1996. When squeezed, Elmo shakes, vibrates, and recites his trademark giggle. The concept was that when you’d tickle it, it would laugh. Tickle it again, and it would laugh harder. A third tickle would cause the doll to go hysterical. Tyco considered the escalation important, giving play with the toy a beginning, middle, and end.
After the Toy Fair, Tickle Me, Elmo was off to a decent start when it hit store shelves in July of 1996 with an original order of 400,000 units. The dolls may have sold well but were widely available when the “Christmas Shopping Season” began mid-October. Without the viral marketing of today, a toy’s best chance at success was exposure to children – and Mom and Dad – on television. The market was oversaturated regarding toys geared towards preschool -or younger – children.
The doll was shown on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show in early October. Nothing made the air on Rosie’s show unless she liked it and gave it the ok, so when Tyco sent her son a Tickle Me Elmo. He loved it, so Rosie talked about it on the show days later. Humorously, Rosie told the story about this toy her son loved so much and that she had to rescue it from being flushed down the toilet. Tyco immediately sent 200 to her show to give out to her studio audience a few days later.
In 2011, Business Insider looked at the “lessons learned” from the frenzy caused by Tickle Me Elmo. One appearance on Rosie’s show was as good as running several thousand commercials on television for the Elmo doll.
Partnering with trusted “brands” such as Rosie often goes a long way, and this connection convinced parents that this particular toy was necessary for their child’s happiness. It also created a competition between parents to be the “best parent” by being the one to find that year’s hard-to-find toy.
Following O’Donnell’s endorsement, seemingly overnight, the doll became impossible to find. Tyco, which was only anticipating modest success, found themselves chartering jets in order to get more inventory from China more quickly. All across North America, shoppers and retail workers were reduced to primal instincts of hunting and self-defense to obtain the must-have toy of the holiday season.
Retailing for just under $30, once purchased, the toy could be resold on the secondary market for more than $1,000, depending on the desperation of the parent searching for Elmo. Online markets, like eBay, were in their infancy but did play a role in driving up the aftermarket price. The scarcity of the new toy provoked a “shopping frenzy” that quickly encompassed North America.
The whole phenomenon reminded toy historians and casual observers of the Cabbage Patch craze a decade earlier. Much like the Cabbage Patch dolls, Tickle Me Elmo was also a gender-free toy, meaning that parents of either boys or girls would purchase it. Overzealous parents would race through stores to get their hands on an Elmo for their child that Christmas. Yelling, shoving, and the occasional fistfight was all too common.
As Christmas neared, it was clear that not everyone who wanted one would get one. The phenomenon had become a cultural symbol of how determined shoppers were to land the coveted toy monster. To prevent theft, Toys “R” Us would call raincheck holders and leave vague messages about an “item” ready for pickup. At the store, customers would be handed pre-wrapped packages so they could slip out of the store without other customers ripping the Elmo from their hands.
Regular Moms and Dads weren’t the only ones feeding the Elmo frenzy. Celebrities got into the act, as well. Now disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein sent a bunch of Oscar movies to Tyco in exchange for a few Elmos. The David Letterman Show provided tickets and merchandise in exchange for the plush monster. NFL quarterback Brett Farve and even Vice President Al Gore placed personal calls to Tyco asking for an Elmo for their children.
Famously, on Black Friday in 1996, John Gotti Jr., the son of the late mafia boss, was filmed entering a Toys “R” Us after the store had closed and walked out with several Elmo dolls. Cartier Jewelers offered free Elmo dolls with the purchase of a $1 million necklace. Bomb threats were frequently called into Tyco headquarters, with people demanding their own Tickle Me Elmo, and one Elmo even disappeared from the evidence room of a New York City police station!
Two women were arrested in Chicago for fighting over the doll, while in New York City, some people ran after delivery trucks, hoping to break into them at stop signs to get their hands on Elmo. There is even an urban legend that someone purchased a Tickle Me Elmo for $7,100 in Denver just before Christmas. A radio station in Los Angeles held an auction for charity just five days before Christmas, and the winning bid was $18,500!
An employee at a Wal-Mart in New Brunswick, Canada, was among the more notable injuries caused by “Elmo-Mania.” During a Midnight Madness sale on December 14, over 300 customers stampeded down an aisle after spotting him holding a box of Elmo toys. Trampled by the pushy adults, he suffered a “pulled hamstring, injuries to his back, jaw, and knee, a broken rib, and a concussion. Someone had even torn the crotch from his jeans, and the last thing the 27-year-old employee remembers seeing was “a white Adidas sneaker kicking him in the face.”
Tyco executives said, in newspaper interviews of the time, they were on the phone three times a day with the factories in Hong Kong begging for more. The tools would begin burning out on the high manufacturing runs, so they were frequently building new tooling and machinery. Tyco also decided not to run the full television ad campaign, feeling it was inappropriate to advertise a toy that people couldn’t find.
After Christmas that year, Elmo didn’t go away. A million Tickle Me Elmos were sold by the end of the 1996 season. Rainchecks from Christmas of 1996 were still being fulfilled in stores through the summer of 1997. By the end of 1997, more than 5 million units had been sold, making it one of the few times a toy performed better in year two than year one.
In March of 1997, Mattel purchased Tyco, and the Sesame Street line of toys was transferred to the Fisher-Price division. The total purchase price for Tyco ($737 million) was recouped by Tickle Me Elmo in the next three years’ worth of sales.
Other characters from Sesame Street got their own “Tickle Me” versions, but none had anywhere close to the success of the original. New editions of Elmo are released every few years for new generations of children to play with. As technology advances, Elmo not only laughed and vibrated, but he learned to play peek-a-boo and hug children back.
At last inspection, the original Elmos from that 1996 frenzy can go for over $250 on eBay if it’s still in original packaging. Weathered, well-loved Elmos go for significantly less.
Ron Dubren, the creator of the ‘Tickle Me’ toys, said that he feels his creation, Tickle Me Elmo changed the toy world forever. He said the “biggest thing I found following the craze was walking into a toy department and seeing people pick up a plush toy and squeeze it to see if it would do anything.”
People still use Tickle Me Elmo as the standard for Black Friday and become the next coveted “must-have” toy for Christmas.
What will be the next Tickle Me Elmo?
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