Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Little People at 50

Well my March was full of March Madness, though not the NCAA kind—just the crazy writing lots of scripts kind. But that does mean that I completely missed writing about last week’s fiftieth anniversary for Fisher-Price’s Little People, even though I was perfectly aware of it. Apologies to Eddy and Freddy and all the rest, and happy birthday.

Fisher-Price launched the brand on March 21, 1959, so last Saturday launched a yearlong celebration for the company. For instance, as with anniversaries of Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids and others, you can buy retro Little People toys harking back to earlier designs; Emily Claire Afan of KidScreen informs me you can get a retrofitted 1968 Play ‘n Go Farm, seen below, for $17.49, or a remake of the 1971 School House for the same price.

I never realized before that it was Little People branded, but I grew up on this barn, with the silo (and without the large rooftop lettering). In fact my parents still have it—the doors still moo when you open them—and Loretta and my nieces and nephews like to play with it whenever we’re there. The Fisher-Price website capitalizes on the nostalgia angle:

“Do you remember? Take a trip back to the farm with your little one. Join some of your favorite childhood friends as they celebrate their 50th birthday with a commemorative play set designed to look like the farm you remember. Even the figures look like they used to! It’s all to help remind you that ‘it’s great to be little.™’”

The cynical among us could dismiss that as a cheap gimmick, but when I stopped to think about it I realized that it really is a remarkable toy and it does represent a positive step in comparison with most things out there today. I’m now in the middle of Dade Hayes’ Anytime Playdate (finally) and am continually struck by the fact kids are growing older younger, so that it’s now gotten to the point that toys are peaking at age four or five and after that kids are using iPods and GPS and BlueTooth things. (I was leading some four-year-olds in painting landscapes last Friday night and one of Loretta’s friends claimed she had seen Mount McKinley before on GoogleEarth, a striking term coming from her little lips.) So the point there is that stepping back in time, unplugging, and using Lincoln logs, pixie sticks, and toy farm animals that don’t contain any silicon can be a good experience for modern kids. I’m constantly explaining that I’m not a technophobe, but I do think there’s incredible virtue in including non-electronic toys in kids’ entertainment diet.

So that’s my plug. We also had the three-car circus train, with a ton of fun animals, and I spent innumerable hours playing with them. So perhaps the nostalgia is showing. But it has been an incredibly successful brand. Afan also wrote that over 1.5 billion Little People figures have sold in those fifty years, which is an enormous number but in its way not surprising (again, there are dozens in my parents’ house and Loretta has four of the modern incarnation in her closet, complete with the musical school bus. It’s that shift between the original, small wooden toys (who were noticeably nearly all adults, at least in my experience) with the modern large variety on shelves today that most interests me. As a kid I had 100% brand awareness of Fisher-Price—to me it meant high-quality, fun toys—but I had 0% awareness that those were “Little People”—in fact I didn’t learn that until I started writing this post. My first cognizant introduction to Little People as a brand was in a French version of the more recent cartoons that a Polish-French family loaned us when Loretta was about a year old. She didn’t get to watch much of it because we were limiting her television intake at that age, but I watched quite a bit to listen to the accents. I later saw it in English, got introduced to the toys, and made a connection with it with Loretta, although it hasn’t flooded our home. I love the new cartoons—anything still stop-motion is a winner in my book, and Freddy the frog is done quite brilliantly—and would personally like to see a lot more of them beyond the dozen or so I have watched, although as a parent raised on He-Man and G.I. Joe I am aware of the implications of cartoons based on preexisting commercial products.

Here’s the opening song sung (in English) by the great Aaron Neville, with a sample episode afterwards: “Michael and the Corn Field.” It helps to know that Michael has some magic powers; I’m not sure why but it works great stylistically. He can talk; he just chooses to be reticent here. Also, Sonya Lee can talk to animals. Also, I love Farmer Jed’s English voice; that actor makes it all worth it.

There are a lot more video recommendations on that episode’s YouTube page.

Returning our thoughts to the anniversary itself, Fisher Price has a webpage devoted exclusively to it. It has a great timeline of the toys’ progression, offers on some of those vintage-esque toys, notices of events—which in the next few weeks appear to be mostly at zoos everywhere from San Diego to Toledo—and some more online offers. Taking a step back to the main Little People website gives you more games and activities and other features.

If you’re really going to get into the history, then I’ve found no better source than this taxonomic portion of the website This Old Toy. The info and the pictures here are truly amazing. These folks are also—or primarily—an Atlanta-based retailer and repairer, and their homepage is here. There’s great stuff here I haven’t even touched on in this post, like the methods of dating your figures, a history of their styles and components, information on logos, generic knock-offs, and onward and onward. Plan on a half hour at least, and thanks to all the researchers and webmasters there on a job well done. 

(I loved this dog, by the way.)

And on and on and on… Here’s to fifty more years!

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