America's most wanted Toys: Each year, at least one plaything has a bounty on its head as desperate parents pay the price to give their kids the secret of holiday joy.

November 29, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

A friend calls.

"I hear you're working on a story about hot toys," she begins in a conspiratorial whisper.

Yep.

"Are you going to write about Nintendo 64?

Uh-huh.

"Do you know where I can get one?

Nope.

"Well, I've heard there's this place in Northwest Baltimore, where you might be able to get one if you arrive by 7 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving." She breathes the name of this fabled Fort Knox, this toy store Atocha, then extracts a vow of secrecy as she hangs up, presumably to get her sleeping bag and go stand in line.

For the record: Nintendo 64 is the latest generation of Super Mario video games, the first 64-bit game machine on the market, as opposed to the 32-bit games introduced last year by Sega and Sony. Today, as the official Christmas shopping season begins, many parents will start what promises to be a futile search for the machine and its cartridges.

Nintendo 64 also is the latest entry in a relatively modern &L Yuletide tradition -- the hot toy.

Each year, a new item -- the more expensive, the better, at least for retailers -- is anointed this season's hard-to-find-must-have-fisticuffs-engen- dering gift. By law -- the law of supply and demand -- it should never be the same gift two years in a row.

Or, as Ray B. Browne, editor of the Journal of Popular Culture, says: "Last time, we had X. Now we have to have Y. And next year, Y will not be satisfactory, we have to have Double XX."

We determine intrinsic value by extrinsic value, Browne explains. When others want it, we know it's worth wanting.

Many manufacturers will claim to have the "it" toy of 1996, but only a few will genuinely achieve that frenzy-inspiring status. Once those items are identified, toy stores give breathless reports on how the product is "flying out of the stores." (True trademark of the hot toy: It always flies, never runs or walks.) Media outlets then dutifully report these fly-by sightings.

The hot toy is now so much a part of our culture that it is the subject of a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie ("Jingle All the ** Way," which could be subtitled: The Search for Turbo Man) and a car ad. You know, the one where daddy drives all night in his big, safe car to track down the toy his son must have.

Some rogue scholars believe the first hot toy may date back to the first Christmas. In fact, their theory goes, the three kings took so long to arrive because they went to every Toys R Us in Bethlehem, looking for Lazer Tag. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were strictly a fall-back position.

Flash forward to 1983. The Cabbage Patch doll, which started life as a one-of-a-kind, handmade doll from a Georgia artist, was being mass-produced by Coleco for the first time. But apparently not quickly enough, as fights and riots broke out in toy store aisles nationwide.

People stampeded in Charleston, W.Va. A woman's leg was broken in a Cabbage Patch-related melee in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where 1,000 people stampeded a Zayre's. The store manager armed himself with a baseball bat. "This is my life that's in danger," he told a New York Times reporter, as he crouched behind a counter.

One rare voice of dissent was heard from a beleaguered parent, Peter David, who wrote in the Times: "It is the parents of America who are acting like children, and spoiled brats at that. But it's not the concern that their child might not get this toy for Christmas that has parents trembling. It's the thought that someone else's child might."

Nevertheless, a cultural watermark had been established. From then on, every hot toy was judged on the Cabbage Patch scale: Were there riots? Were there injuries? Was there a thriving black market?

Lazers, Rangers and bears

The next contender for the toy-that-could-make-parents-kill was Teddy Ruxpin (1985), a stuffed bear that spoke in a fuzzy, irritating voice. Had to have it, had to have it, had to have it. Until the next year, when the toy to have was Lazer Tag, and then a string of Nintendo games, which dominated the market for three holiday seasons.

The recession of the early 1990s was bad for hot toys. Power Rangers to the rescue! Although relatively inexpensive for a hot toy, they made up for this by failing to meet demand for two Christmases in a row, 1993 and 1994. At one point, the manufacturer was scheduled to go on the "Today" show, but couldn't find any Power Ranger action figures to take with him. Which raises two questions: Why go on television before millions to show off something they can't find? And, don't you have an advertising budget, bud?

Last year threatened to go hot toy-less, until collectors helped to create the famous Holiday Barbie shortage. Stores ended up giving out vouchers for the doll, which was expected to be in stock by Easter.

Where's Elmo?

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