Toy-store chain takes 'Steve the Tramp' off shelves Homeless protest Disney's 'bum'

December 10, 1990|By Janet Gramza | Janet Gramza,The Stamford Advocate

STAMFORD, Conn. -- A national toy-store chain has pulled Disney's "Steve the Tramp" doll from its shelves after a dozen homeless people and their advocates picketed outside a mall here last week.

The group gathered at the Stamford Town Center to protest the sale of the toy because they said that it degraded the homeless.

"Steve the Tramp" is a "Dick Tracy action figure" whose package describes him as an "ignorant bum . . . dirty and scarred from a life on the streets. You'll smell him before you see him."

"I have a 6-year-old kid, and there's no way I want my kid to believe this about the homeless," said Carlton Whitehorn, a volunteer for New Covenant soup kitchen who was in the Friday protest. "I'm homeless, and you don't smell me before you see me. I'd like to let Disney know that Jesus Christ was homeless, too."

The activists organized the protest after an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Christopher Rose of Hartford, put "Steve the Tramp" at the top of his annual list of "Warped Toys for Christmas" circulated to social action groups.

The protest, which urged mall toy stores and customers to boycott Disney products and "Steve the Tramp," persuaded an official of Kay-Bee Toy & Hobby to remove the toy from its 1,200 stores in the United States.

"The character would be fine if it was just an old curmudgeon, but I think the copy on the package goes too far," said Ken Cunniff, vice president of advertising for California-based Kay-Bee. "This was the first time I read it, and I was offended."

Kay-Bee would not have distributed the toy if it had examined each figure in the Dick Tracy series, Mr. Cunniff said. "This protest called it to our attention, and we addressed it immediately."

"Steve the Tramp" is one of 14 "action figures" of criminals and mobsters inspired by the "Dick Tracy" movie produced by Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures. He is the only figure described as a street person.

"Hardened and bitter after a life on the mean streets, Steve the Tramp is a lout who would just as soon take your life as your wallet," reads the "biography" on the package. "Despite a low IQ, he's as dangerous as they come because he doesn't have anything to lose."

The package also notes that "Steve the Tramp" recruits runaway children "into his army of little street thieves and con artists," which protesters said imposes a negative image of homeless children.

In a written statement Friday, the Walt Disney Co. defended the toy as "not intended in any way to represent the homeless."

"We can appreciate the desire to publicize the plight of the homeless," the statement said. "However, it is stretching the point to focus energy on a fictional Dick Tracy villain, 'Steve the Tramp.' "

Disney said that the character was based on Fagin from Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and had been part of the Dick Tracy comic strip since it was created by Chester Gould in the 1930s.

"The character may have been created in the 1930s, but they describe him as homeless, and that's what brings this into the 1990s," said Stamford social worker Marvin Minkler.

The protest surprised store officials and mall customers who had not taken a good look at the doll.

"These days, everything is so racist and violent," said Laurie Lackyard, after accepting a leaflet from the protesters. "I don't think we're giving our children a very positive attitude about today's society."

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