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Talking teddy comes out of hibernation

Teddy Ruxpin, the object of holiday shopping safaris and children's affection for one year in the 1980s, is back. This time, he's digital.

By RODNEY THRASH
Published June 30, 2005


Quick. Drop whatever you're doing, children of the 1980s. Now!

Teddy Ruxpin, the talking teddy bear that sent herds of parents and grandparents into a shopping frenzy during the Christmas 1985 season, will go on sale in less than 24 hours.

"They were like the Cabbage Patch dolls," said Mel Henter, 54, of St. Petersburg. "Everyone had to have them."

In case you missed the first go-round, Teddy Ruxpin was touted as the world's first animated talking toy.

"It was ahead of its time," said Christy McNeal, 24, of St. Petersburg. "There was nothing else like it. There were stuffed animals that moved and did little things. But there was nothing that talked to you and you talked back to it."

Children popped cassette tapes in the 20-inch bear's back, and its eyes, mouth and nose moved in synch as it sang, told stories and asked millions of children to be its friend. All told, 7-million bears were sold.

But like the Cabbage Patch Kids before it and Tickle Me Elmo after it, Teddy Ruxpin vanished, a one-hit Christmas wonder.

The children who begged, pleaded and groveled for one of the $70 bears are now in their 20s. Some of their parents qualify for membership in the AARP.

BackPack Toys, which resurrected Teddy Ruxpin from toy purgatory, is banking on the nostalgia of these demographics to sell the digitally enhanced Teddy Ruxpin, marketing director Helen Hames said.

The bear has shed its cassette recorder and a few pounds. Now it has MP3 technology.

Starting Friday, the New Hampshire toymaker will begin taking preorders online at www.teddyruxpin.com Advertisements will hit the airwaves and print publications in September. That's when Teddy Ruxpin will hit the shelves of 2,000 Target stores nationwide.

With its online rebirth hours away, we caught up with some of the 20-somethings who had the original Teddy Ruxpin and a parent so desperate to repair her children's much-used bear, she personally wrote the original manufacturer - and us.

* * *

The relationship between kid and bear runs deep when you are 5 years old and an only child.

"He was a friend," said McNeal, who owns the Corner Antique Mall Inc. on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg. "Probably my best friend. For at least a year. Until the next Christmas."

She and Teddy Ruxpin talked. About what, she cannot recall. But talk, they did.

"Of course, he was just talking to me and not anybody else," McNeal said. "It was a one-on-one conversation.

"I can visualize him sitting there moving his mouth and me sitting there bopping along and talking back to it. At 5, that's when you start to really develop memories that you carry with you through your whole life. That was probably one of the very first toys that I remember without pictures and without stories."

She doesn't know where Teddy Ruxpin is now. She moved from Indianapolis to St. Petersburg when she was 10.

"Unfortunately, when we moved down here I had to get rid of some toys," McNeal said. "He was one of the things that went."

There were other toys. Barbies. Cabbage Patch Kids.

"Nothing," McNeal said, "made me smile and giggle."

Not like Teddy Ruxpin.

* * *

It wasn't just that his eyes blinked or his mouth and nose moved.

What Elizabeth Henter, 22, said she remembers most is "being with Grandma and Grandpa while we were playing with it. It gave us more of an opportunity to spend time with them."

She cherishes memories like those, perhaps a little more now. Eighteen months ago, her grandfather died. And at 93, her grandmother lives in an assisted living facility, not the St. Petersburg home where Elizabeth and older sister Emley Henter, 24, used to jockey for time with Teddy Ruxpin.

"They had it there," said Elizabeth, who will be a senior at Milligan College in Tennessee in the fall.

"In a mini children's room," mom Mel Henter said.

It was there that Elizabeth and Emley would sit in their rocking chair and watch Teddy Ruxpin cartoons with the real thing at their side.

It was there that Grandpa Ted and Grandma Emley would read and sing along with Teddy Ruxpin books and tapes.

"At night, they would put the tape in and he would read us the story," said Emley, also a college senior at Tulane University in Louisiana.

"You got more from it," Elizabeth said. "It wasn't a teacher. It was a bear. It was your friend."

And today, it connects Elizabeth and Emley to their past.

* * *

Mel Henter tried everything.

She wrote to World of Wonders, the manufacturer of the original Teddy Ruxpin.

When that did not work, Henter contacted us.

Mrs. T. C. Henter of St. Petersburg has an old and much-used Teddy Ruxpin in need of repair. Letters written to the manufacturer, Worlds of Wonder, have been returned, so where can she have Teddy repaired, folks? St. Petersburg Times, November 13, 1993

She never got a reply.

About all Henter remembers is that she bought the Teddy Ruxpin for her eldest daughters eight years before her newspaper plea. She doesn't remember where she bought it or how many stores she had to go to before she actually found one. She barely remembers the letter she wrote to the St. Petersburg Times.

"That was a long time, you know," Henter said. "You're asking me to dig deep into my memory."

This much she does remember: If not for Teddy Ruxpin, she may have never gotten through with laundry or other household chores.

"When the kids were real little, it occupied their time," she said. "It'd keep them busy."

Would she consider buying the updated Teddy Ruxpin for her daughters now? As a keepsake?

"At their age," she said, laughing, "I'd tell them to buy it themselves."

- Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com He still has his Teddy Ruxpin. It's collecting dust in his parents' garage.

[Last modified June 29, 2005, 08:45:24]


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