Many of you know I'm a toy designer. I've been designing girls toys for almost 30 years, and have worked for most of the major toy manufacturers. Today I design for Toys R Us. But what few know, is that the most successful toy I ever designed was the WWF Wrestling Buddies for Tonka, a boy's toy. There's a story here, so I'll try to tell it in as short a version as I can.
Back in November 1989, we were living in Rhode Island, where I was designing dolls for Hasbro and Playskool. I was part of the team that designed Jem, Maxie, Moondreamers, Dolly Surprise, and many others. But we were unhappy living there- and I was starting to put out feelers for other opportunities. I got a call from an old Playskool friend, John Lindsay, who had recently relocated to Minneapolis, where he was the Vice President of Boy's Toy Marketing at Tonka. John asked me to consider joining Tonka as a doll designer, and so, just a few weeks later, a couple of days after Christmas 1989, I found myself in the bitter cold of a Minneapolis winter, a newly minted Tonka Toy Designer. At that time, Tonka had several successful girl's toy lines: Hollywood Dolls, Bathing Beauties, Pound Puppies, and the brand new Cupcake Dolls. But I had a surprise in store. The day after arriving, I was pulled into a meeting of the boys toy group- they had been developing a line of soft boys 'dolls'- a rough 'n tumble buddy that boys could wrestle and throw and kick and punch... large pillow-like dolls that were themed as wrestlers. They had just acquired the WWF license- the World Wrestling Federation. What a coup! No longer would these funny looking pillow-like 'buddies' be generic, now they could look like all of the top wrestlers: Hulk Hogan, Macho Man, Jake the Snake, et al. The WWF was one of the most popular entertainment/sports properties, and now they wanted to literally put a face onto these figures.
They wanted ME to design them. Wow! I had absolutely no knowledge of the world of wrestling, I knew who Hulk Hogan was, but that was about it. And besides, I was the Queen of Cute! The Princess of Pink! I loved all things sweet and cuddly and cute and girly, and they wanted ME to capture the essence of the Hulkster on fabric? But as an illustrator, who had drawn far stranger things than wrestlers, I was game. They had tried a variety of artists and designers on the project, but no one seemed to work out.
The basic form was pretty well established. A big nebulous shaped head, with squatty body, curled arms, and very short, chunky legs. Not a lot to work with. But the Buddy was meant to be like a pillow, so it had to have a lot of surface area for little boys to cuddle, and smash over the heads of their little brothers.
I felt strongly that the graphics for the Buddies needed to be very cartoony, because of the stylized bodies. So, I set down with some photos of Hulk Hogan, and a sketch book, and began to draw. It didn't take long to capture the likeness of the Hulkster in line. (Later, Pat Sandin, the soft goods engineer created the form of the Buddy with dimensional nose, feet, and strategically placed seams to make everything look just right). The marketing team LOVED my drawings!
(You'll notice I'm calling the figures Buddies. That's to avoid calling them dolls. Boys hate it when you call their Wrestling Buddies dolls!)
Next, I needed to create the other three wrestlers that had been selected: the Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage the Macho King, and Ted DiBiase, the Million Dollar Man. So, with WWF magazines in hand, I sketched and colored and erased, and soon came up with likenesses of the wrestlers. As soon as the WWF (meaning the famous Vince McMahon) approved the designs, we needed to go into high gear, because the Buddies were going to be shown at the New York Toy Fair, just a month away!
I have memories of sitting each night in my hotel room (Bruce and the kids were still in Rhode Island), a pile of markers on the bed, white buddies on the floor and table, and coloring coloring coloring away.
Although we had a team of helpers to do the coloring, the finishing work was done by me: white highlights in the eyes, the words "Hulk Rules" on Hulk's head bandana, white 'glitter' on the Million Dollar Man's green suit.
|One of the first ads, all of the prototypes are our hand-drawn models.|
|From an article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in December of 1990, I'm on the right, holding one of the pre-WWF buddies, Pat Sandin is on the left, John Lindsay in front.|
|My autographed photo of Macho King (RIP)|
Of course, my doll design continued, I worked hard on the Cupcake line of dolls, and also worked on a few other doll lines. But I would periodically foray into the world of wrestling, and later, Marvel comics, when I designed Spiderman and Incredible Hulk Buddies. A highlight of that venture was traveling to New York to Marvel headquarters for design approval, and meeting Stan Lee, who autographed a large X-men poster for my older son Ian. He still has it, framed, in his son's bedroom.
So, that's the story of the Wrestling Buddies, and how I came to design one of Time Magazine's Top 100 Toys of All Time.
|Original color drawings for WWF approval of the Legion of Doom tag team|
|My original drawing for Big Boss Man. The final version had sunglasses, and NO chest hair!|