The Bizarre Story Behind Teddy Ruxpin

Teddy Ruxpin

Talking toys are a dime a dozen now and we take the technology for granted but which toy in the mid ’80s was the orginator?

Teddy Ruxpin was an animatronic children’s toy that could talk, and move its eyes and mouth while telling stories. It was a combination of many unique influences from Disney to Chuck E. Cheese, came out in 1985 and became the best selling toy of the mid-‘80s also leading to a cartoon show.

I never had a Teddy Ruxpin growing up but remember it being a huge deal. It was impossible to ignore from all the commercials but I think I still thought of it like a teddy bear and I was more concerned with G.I Joe or transformers at that point. It’s still a real symbol of the ‘80s and surprisingly was the best selling thing for 85-86 which is really impressive when you think of this time as the golden age of toys.

Teddy Ruxpin has gone through a bunch of changes and has been owned by multiple companies. It tried to advance as the technology changed and is still connected with some pretty bizarre stories and history.

So you can either read with your ears by listening to the podcast or continue with the blog!

O.K let’s take a deeper look at Teddy Ruxpin:

The Creation of Teddy Ruxpin

An original prototype- Sally Neiman/CNET

Teddy Ruxpin was first created by a guy named Ken Forsee. He started out working for Disney and then shortly worked for Sid & Marty Kroft who gave us a lot of LSD inspired entertainment…

Forsee was big into animatronics and one of his first big projects was providing the animatronic characters on Welcome to Pooh Corner which would end up influencing the design of Teddy Ruxpin. His big goal was to get into the commercial toy business using the concept of animatronics and one of his first ideas was to make a monkey in honor of NASA and their early experiments with them in the early days of the space race.

Teddy Ruxpin was a combination of different things Forsse had been involved with, it had some Disney to it, Atari, Chuck E. Cheese (Forsee was involved with the startup of the restaurant) among other influences. Forsse was also responsible for designing the Disney Haunted Mansion and created the heads of the animatronic bears of the Country Bear Jamboree.

Hasbro originally had some interest in Teddy Ruxpin but there wasn’t really a lot to go off of. At that time Teddy Ruxpin was basically a bears head on a stick as a crude prototype. Ultimately Hasbro wouldn’t provide any funding and Jim Henson actually had visited and considered but ended up passing.

At this point, Teddy was still a head on a stick but now had movable eyes and a mouth and was hooked up to a tape recorder. Forsse was able to get the attention of Don Kingsborough who was the former head of Atari. Kingsborough was able to see past the crude prototype and see a real possibility.  Forsse had originally started his own company called ‘Alchemy’ but Kingsborough started a whole new toy company called “Worlds of Wonder” in order to produce and sell this new bear.

The Teddy Ruxpin Backstory

Forsee had some really good foresight and knew that for Teddy Ruxpin to have a future he needed a good backstory. This could help lend itself to any possible future cartoons and any other creative endeavors.

Frosee was inspired by his time with Disney and realized the importance of story, he took this idea and meshed it with a little bit of Lord of the Rings to create a whole world.

The story with Teddy Ruxpin goes a little something like this: Teddy comes from the land of Grundo and comes from an island on the southern side called Rilonia. You wouldn’t think Teddy would have any discernable age but based on the story he’s actually 16.

One of his best friends, that you may remember from the cartoon, is an eight-legged bug/spider-like thing named Grubby. They make friends with their version of Doc Brown who’s a bumbling inventor named Newton Gimmick. And as usual, there’s an antagonist who is always coming up with evil schemes and this was Tweeg, the wannabe-wizard.

Teddy isn’t even technically considered a bear based on his backstory, he’s an ‘illiop’ which just happens to have a carnivore-like resemblance to bears. Fun fact: We get the name ‘Teddy bear’ from Teddy Rosevelt who once refused to shoot a bear and a stuffed bear was made and dedicated to the president who refused to shoot a bear and they called it “Teddy’s Bear”.

How Did Teddy Ruxpin Work?

My first car had less instructions

If you ever held a Teddy Ruxpin in the ‘80s you remember it to be a pretty bulky, and somewhat heavy toy. This was actually pretty advanced technology at the time as the prototypes, based on the Disney animatronics, required much larger technology and a separate piece to control the face via FM signals.

This changed when Forsee stumbled upon the idea of using a standard two-track stereo cassette tape. Whereas the Disney animatronics had to use giant spools of magnetic tape, a simple two-track cassette was small enough and could do multiple functions. One of the tracks could be used for the recorded audio and the other side could use signals to send commands to a receiver in Teddy’s head.

Inside Teddy Ruxpin you had three servo motors that were used to control the eyes and the mouth. The back of Teddy was where you could put the two-tracked cassette so whatever audio was on that tape would sync up perfectly with the eye and mouth movements. This seems kind of primitive today but at the time was pretty advanced technology, especially to have in a toy,

Teddy would be sold separately from the cassette tapes that also came with a book so that kids could read along with Teddy. There would be around 60 different tapes that were released and were also available in 13 different languages.

Creating The Voice and Movements of Teddy Ruxpin

The coordination of Teddy’s movements didn’t just happen, they had to be designed. They also needed to have the perfect voice to make this toy feel warm and engaging and not annoying as hell like so many other talking based toys sound.

Forsee was able to use his connections at Disney to get puppeteers to design the movements, voice actors, and musical directors. All of the tapes needed a basic soundtrack and Forsee got George Wilkins who had created music for Epcot in Florida (around 150 songs would be needed for all the different stories/tapes).

Phil Baron would be the voice of Teddy Ruxpin. He would have to slightly pitch his voice up to sound a little more cartoony and then would record at a slower pace. The audio would be sped up to give Teddy a more other-worldly sounding voice.

Puppeteer Thom Fountain would use a joystick to control Teddy’s movements. He would use a slow pace to design the movements which would be recorded on to large magnetic tape spool to program all the bears to be sold. Fountain would go on to help create the movements of bit more intense animatronic creation; Chucky in “Childs Play III”.

Teddy Ruxpin and Chucky always seemed to go hand in hand but actually, Chucky was based more on the ‘My Buddy’ toy of the ‘80s.

Forsee also had some other good hookups used to record various voices over the stories including the voice of Minnie Mouse, Goofy and the guy who would go on to do the voice of Furby.

Teddy Hits The Market

Don Kingsborough didn’t leave a lot of time to get Teddy Ruxpin up and running. The goal – like with pretty much any toy ever invented – was to get it out by Christmas. That only gave Forsee and team about 6 months to get this thing up and running. (this is kind of similar to the 5 weeks given to get the E.T Atari video game out, but that story turned out quite a bit worse…).

Besides just having 6 months, $60 million was put into the production and even with that large amount of money it’s amazing how Teddy Ruxpin went from a prototype to on store shelves in just those 6 months.

Teddy Ruxpin came out in September, 1985 and before that, there was concern on how to market this rare new toy. Forsee signed a deal with ABC to make two live-action Teddy Ruxpin specials. These were basically going to be two Saturday morning commercials to sell the bear in the same way Transformers would.

Turns out they wouldn’t need the show at all.

Worlds of Wonder sold a mind-boggling 41,000 Teddy’s in the first 30 days. This is pretty unheard of for a brand new toy and kids went nuts for it. This was a perfect storm for a toy manufacturer; the bear essentially doesn’t work without the tapes and since this was the hottest toy of the year parents were pretty much screwed and had to shell out a pretty steep $59-$79 for Teddy. And the cassettes came in at around $12.95 a pop.

Converted for inflation for today that would be around $160 for Teddy and almost $30 for the cassettes. No wonder I never got this for Christmas…

By the end of the year, Teddy Ruxpin had pulled in a staggering $93 million dollars. Not too shabby for a hybrid of Winnie The Pooh, Chuck E. Cheese, and Tolkien.

The Book & Cassette Stories

So here’s where some more weirdness happens; the stories. They cover a lot of pretty interesting stories and themes over those 60 releases. Here are some highlights:

  • Teddy and The Mudblups: Is being neat hard to do?
  • Grubby’s Romance: Falling in love is something special!
  • Grunge Music: Tap your feet to the beat (for real)
  • Autumn Adventure: Teddy and Grubby find out how fun Autumn can be
  • The Mushroom Forest: You can be anything you want to be (um…)
  • Anything In The Soup: Will the Anything’s end up in the grunge gumbo
  • Teddy Ruxpin Sings Love Songs: A special collection of Teddy’s favorites (I hope ‘Endless Love’ made the list..)
  • Teddy Ruxpin Visits The Dentist: Sponsered by Crest (it’s like he’s an Instagram model doing paid promotion now)

They keep going on from here but seems like they were taking a few lessons from Sid & Marty Kroft…

The Adventures Of Teddy Ruxpin

So the cartoon ran from 1986-1987 and they ended up making 65 episodes. I didn’t see too many of these but it wasn’t bad and a lot of people really loved this show. Based on the creative backstory a lot of time was put into making this more about the story than just about selling bears. They had already been successful and were able to be a bit more creative with the direction of the show.

The premise of the show is about Teddy leaving his homeland of Rilonia along with Grubby trying to find adventures. This is where they meet Newton Gimmick and they start looking for the treasure of Grundo and they accidentally find 6 crystals with different meanings and powers. Wait, so did they rip off the 5 rings from Lord of the Rings or did Marvel rip off Teddy Ruxpin with their infinity stones? People need to look deeper into this…

Anyhoo, the 6 crystals can enable the Monsters and Villains Orginanztion (MAVO) that can have complete rule over the land. There is a leader of MAVO called Quellor and he wants to make sure that an Illiop is never able to possess the crystals. Teddy is an Illiop in case you’ve forgotten and not a “bear” because that would just be crazy.

They also encounter Tweeg who is also trying to cause them problems and he’s a sort of troll who wants to join MAVO. He’s also considered a “grunge” so we’re not referring to the overrated music scene that came out of Seattle in the ‘90s.

All in all The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin were about creativity, adventure and wander through different lands. It was kind of like an upgraded Muppet Babies

The Downfall of Worlds Of Wonder

So everything is going along swimmingly. The toy is a huge monster hit for multiple Christmases, which doesn’t happen a lot, and the cartoon is connecting with a lot of kids. What could go wrong?

Quite a bit actually.

There were a few issues that faced Worlds Of Wonder, they were apparently not that quick on shipping out inventory so shelves in stores went empty more than they were full. There was also the onslaught of other talking based toys that started to flood the market. And they were cheaper.

There was also this issue: Worlds Of Wonder wasn’t just making Teddy Ruxpin, that would have been a waste and they needed a more extensive toy line. Due to the higher-end technology that made up Teddy Ruxpin they carried that over into making other high-tech toys. One of these toys was the now-familiar Lazer Tag. But tragedy would strike in 1987 when a 19-year-old was shot and killed near LA. He was carrying a $40 Lazer Tag gun that the police mistook for a real one.

There was some obvious bad press that started hurting their profits plus all the new talking toys that flooded the market making Teddy Ruxpin less unique. Did I mention that World Of Wonders was the original distributor for the first Nintendo? Well, they were and after all the bad press Nintendo wanted nothing to do with them.

With just four days before Christmas 1987, World Of Wonders filed for bankruptcy. They tried to discount Teddy down to $30 but it was too late. Teddy Ruxpin was dead.

The New Teddy Ruxpin?

Like with most brands and franchises if you give it enough time the interest comes back around. And it didn’t take that long at first. Worlds Of Wonder was officially kaput in 1991 and Teddy Ruxpin was picked up by Hasbro. He was redesigned and released under the Playskool line. This lasted until 1996 and Teddy was updated from cassettes to more of a cartridge format.

In 1998 YES! Entertainment brought Teddy back for the third time. They returned Teddy to his original size and went back to using the cassette tapes. They even introduced a “T.V Teddy” which was a pretty elaborate system that connected with VHS tapes and an RF transmitter to try and make Teddy more “interactive”. I had never heard of this version until researching everything but check this out:

honestly this thing scares the crap out of me

So spoiler alert, this version didn’t last and Teddy was introduced for a FOURTH time by BackPack toys. This time things went digital. They replaced the cassettes with actual digital cartridges and these are actually still able to be found and purchased.

And this brings us up to today. Wicked Cool Toys (which I imagine is out of Boston…) brought back Teddy in the fall of 2017. He looks a bit different this time though, he’s smaller and with blue eyes, and those eyes are also screens which can change through various graphics. This time there is no physical cartridge but he comes pre-programmed with 3 different stories and all the other stories can be purchased through a mobile app.

Will this be the last iteration of Teddy Ruxpin? Only time will tell.

Final Thoughts On Teddy Ruxpin

I’m pretty sure you had no idea of the depth that went behind this toy and character of Teddy Ruxpin. I definitely had NO idea about everything that went behind him. It’s a really interesting story for something that seemed such a simple and straightforward toy and idea.

I think Teddy Ruxpin will always be meaningful and find a place in pop culture through information like this or even the slight connection he had with the Ted movies.

So if you have one kicking around in the attic you might like to dust it off and take a trip down memory lane to see one of the most popular toys of the ‘80s, a massive success story, and then a very fast downfall.

Hopefully, it doesn’t come to life and try to kill you in your sleep…

If you’re wanting your own modern version of him just check out Teddy Ruxpin by Wicked Cool Toys

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