Cool tools for budding Bonds

Trend: The local toy store is ready to equip would-be spies with everything from code books to micro-cameras.

April 15, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

From Beijing to your local cineplex, spies and espionage are big right now. Only one organization had the intelligence capabilities (not to mention James Bond-like luck) to see this coming: the toy industry.

Been inside your neighborhood toy store lately? There's no shortage of spy-spawned toys on the shelf -- from micro-cameras and fingerprint kits to eavesdropping microphones and code books. Until a few months ago, they might have looked like charming anachronisms in the post-Cold War era.

But that was before veteran FBI agent Robert Hanssen was accused of being a Russian spy, or 50 Russian diplomats were kicked out of the U.S., or a Navy surveillance plane with 24 Americans on board was held by the Chinese.

Add to that a hit family movie, "Spy Kids," about a family of gadget-loving secret agents, and suddenly spies are hot and so are toys modeled after them.

"There's something attractive to young children about collecting secrets," says Gary Cross, a history professor at Penn State University who writes on toys and popular culture. "Someone in the toy business is probably thinking about coming out with a spy plane right now."

Long before "Spy Kids" started setting box-office records (with a $48.3 million gross its first two weeks of release), the toy industry had already started taking notice of spy technology.

Wild Planet, a San Francisco-based toy manufacturer, launched a line of tech-laden spy gear in 1998 and now dominates the niche market.

This fall, they're introducing four new products -- a spy door alarm, a head-mounted spy telescope and light, a listening device attached to sunglasses, and binoculars with a pop-up light to see in the dark.

"Our spy line evolved from our existing tech gear like walkie-talkies and metal detectors, and now they're our bestsellers," says Jim Garber, Wild Planet's marketing director. "Spies are no longer about Navy SEALs taking out 20 terrorists, and it's more about surveillance and trying to get information."

The toys are generally geared to children between the ages of 6 and 12. All are functioning, but none comes equipped with the de rigueur equipment of the 1960s spy -- a gun, knife or some other kind of deadly weapon.

"I like kids running around with spy cameras but not with [guns], not with what's going on in schools," says Eric Compton, director of merchandising for Zainy Brainy, a specialty toy retailer with 188 stores. "I find the trend encouraging."

Stevanne Auerbach, a child psychologist and author of the "Dr. Toy" column and books, says she also sees benefits to the renewed interest in spy toys -- as a non-violent and possibly educational pursuit that taps into a child's love of secrets.

"The downside, I suppose, is that this can build on kids' fears or anxieties about life," says Auerbach, who is based in San Francisco. "It could also produce some obnoxious behavior. But if it's done in good-natured fun and the kids don't get overly engrossed in it, it's probably OK."

Toy industry officials recall that spy toys were immensely popular in the 1960s when such franchises as the James Bond movies and TV shows like the "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," "Mission Impossible," "Get Smart," "The Avengers" and others were at their zenith.

"They were the 'Star Wars' toys of their day," says Cramer Burks, a Springfield, Ohio, toy collector and author of "Spy Toys" (Windmill Press, $19.95), a history of spy-related playthings. "The toys today don't have quite the cultural impact."

Some baby-boomer parents may kick themselves to find out that toys like the James Bond attache case, a plastic briefcase containing a gun, knife and code book that was produced in 1964, is now worth as much as $2,000, according to Burks.

But by the 1970s, spy toys had largely lost their popularity, replaced by science fiction, he notes, although they were never completely gone from toy-store shelves.

"We've always sold a fair number of them. They never really went away," says Debbie Wurzburger, owner of the Toy Chest store in Pikesville. "They've just gotten to be better quality than the old days."

One of Wurzburger's favorites is the "Supersonic Ear," a set of headphones attached to a microphone set in a parabolic dish. It also has a suction cup so users can hear through doors and windows.

Professor Cross says spy toys fit a classic play pattern of searching for secrets and solving mysteries. That's really the same model as the Harry Potter books -- with technology taking the place of magic.

"Spy toys have become a classic," adds Christopher Byrne, a New York-based toy-industry consultant. "The best thing about them is that they're not a 'watch me' toy. They require a child's imagination to really complete the play experience."

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