Imagine if one of Disney’s Country Bears tired of pick-up trucks, hoedowns, and the sleepy town life, and skipped off to college where he took a few speech classes, studied English, music, caring and sharing, and you’ve just imagined Teddy Ruxpin, the first cybernetic stuffed animal. Let’s take a look back, shall we?
Before Teddy Ruxpin, stuffed animals were cuddly, sweet, and like the pages of one’s diary, silent as the grave. You could toss them around, wrestle with them, or use them as a pillow. You could rip off their heads and sew them back on and they’d never tattle on you. They could join you for a cup of tea, providing you with undivided attention as you divulged your best guarded secrets. But they never shared their secrets with you and all the cool things they could teach you were forever beyond your grasp.
Children seem fascinated by anthropomorphic creations, whether it’s to adore them or run from them crying. Those who love them wait with bated breath for the animatronics sing-a-long at Chuck-E-Cheese. They drive their parents crazy insisting on a second ride through Disneyland’s It’s a Small World and The Country Bear Jamboree (before the ride’s tragic – yes, tragic! – closing in 2001). Ken Forsee, an engineer who worked to develop theme attractions for Disney, was especially aware of the need for a plush bear that could entertain its human playmates. He wanted to invent an electronic speaking toy animal that would teach good values to kids, and with the help of partners Larry Larsen and John Davis, Forsee was able to realize his dream with the creation of Teddy Ruxpin, released by Worlds of Wonder in 1985.
This triumph of technology used cassette tapes (and later on, electronic cartridges) which made it possible for the toy to speak, sing, and tell stories to its young owners. Utilizing the same technology used in the animatronics at Disneyland, Teddy’s electronic eyes and mouth move in perfect synchronization with the voices on the tape. The innovativeness of a stuffed bear that was also an electronic learning tool made Teddy Ruxpin one of the biggest success stories of the 1980′s.
Let us bask in their ingenuity for a moment: A teddy bear that could sit still and be quiet and listen to all of your childish rambling but who, when activated by a magic cassette tape, could look at you, laugh with you, teach and entertain you; A teddy bear who later starred in his very own TV show and remained your BFFE because that’s what any loyal friend would do; A teddy bear whose only fault was his persistent refusal to lip synch to Def Leopard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me when you wanted him to DJ roller-skating birthday parties.
Over time, forty different tape/storybook combos were invented for the mechanized bear, including titles like “Teddy Ruxpin’s Birthday” and “Wooly and the Giant Snowzos”, all of which were elaborately produced and included music and several voice actors to help bring the tale to life. In 1987, thanks to the enormous popularity of the toy and accompanying stories, Teddy was given his own cartoon series, The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin, which aired September of 1987 and ended in May of 1988. Despite its brief run, the series eventually became a bestseller on videocassette. Each episode begins with the electronic Teddy Ruxpin toy explaining the premise of the cartoon. In these shorts, Teddy exhibits various human talents, like cooking soup and knitting – what a tender, multifaceted soul!
The success of Teddy Ruxpin led the creation of another talking toy named Grubby, the caterpillar-like creature known as Teddy’s best friend. A special cord connected Grubby to Teddy so that the caterpillar could speak his own voice parts in such stories as “Grubby’s Romance” and “Double Grubby”. Other talking Ruxpin character toys were developed, but none ever made it to market.
In 1989, Playskool bought the license to make the toys, which were diminished in size and utilized tiny cartridges instead of cassette tapes. Yes! Entertainment made the latest version from 1998-1999, and though he was smaller yet, he was still the scholarly sing-along Country Bear escapee so many of us fell in love with as kids.
If you have warm and cuddly memories (or otherwise) of spending quality time with this technologically advanced bear, we do hope you’ll take a moment to share them in our comments section, as we tip our collective hats to Teddy Ruxpin, the best furry robot friend a kid could ever have.