Two decades before smartphones and tablets absorbed Americans with virtual social interaction, the plush bear Teddy Ruxpin arrived in 1985 for $70 as a portable, huggable pal that warbled songs such as “My Friend” and “Come Dream With Me.”
The toy, which moved in sync with the stories and songs on cassette tapes played in its back, became a hit of the holiday season. It generated $93 million in sales in its first year, spurred an animated TV series and triggered a flurry of animatronic imitators before the phenomenon ran its course.
In her book “Toys and American Culture,” author Sharon Scott described Teddy Ruxpin creator Ken Forsse as “the father of animatronic toys,” who influenced toy robotics for years to come.
Forsse, 77, died March 19 at his home in Laguna Woods, Calif. The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Jan Forsse.
Devoted to children’s entertainment and education, Ken Forsse spent much of his early career at the Walt Disney Co. He became an animator and model builder who specialized in the figures that move to music at Disney theme park rides.
Forsse grew adept at the mechanics and technology behind the ride characters, and he worked with puppeteers and television producers Sid and Marty Krofft. Inspired by his time with Disney and the Kroffts, he and a four-person team of technical engineers and costume designers worked on what became Teddy Ruxpin.
Forsse helped develop a technology that used audiotape to control functions for movement as well as sound. Signals encoded on the audiotape caused voltage changes that made the motors inside the toy move.
“As one of the first technological innovations for kids, it was something personal,” said Phil Baron, the voice of Teddy Ruxpin for all English-language recordings and shows. “Television is really a very passive activity; it’s a consumer activity. Teddy would prompt children to participate, to sing along and to have really a personal relationship.”
The company formed as Alchemy II in Forsse’s garage in Granada Hills, Calif., in 1982. After being turned down by several toy makers, Alchemy II licensed Teddy Ruxpin to Worlds of Wonder, which handled the marketing and manufacturing.
Commercials for the toy emphasized the difference between Teddy Ruxpin and its primary competitor, AG Bear, which could talk but not sing or tell stories.
Forsse wrote lyrics to dozens of Teddy Ruxpin songs and, as it became a commercial juggernaut, he was deeply involved in TV specials and an animated series called “The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin,” which aired from 1987 to 1988. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children named Teddy Ruxpin its national spokesman in 1985.
Worlds of Wonder licensed animatronic toys Mother Goose and Hector the Ugly Duckling, and other toymakers used Alchemy II’s technology for talking Snoopy and Mickey Mouse toys. Amid market saturation and internal financial problems, Worlds of Wonder filed for bankruptcy just before Christmas in 1987.
The Playskool subsidiary of Hasbro took over marketing and licensing Teddy Ruxpin in 1991. In 2005, the bear was rereleased for its 20th anniversary by Hong Kong company BackPack Toys International. The new version came with three books and used digital song “cartridges” instead of analog cassettes.
Forsse went on to license other toys and children’s entertainment, including “The Amazing Chewdini,” a game to free a hollow mouse from a plastic hunk of cheese, made by Binary Arts; and Z WindUps’ plastic walking monkey, Mona.
In recent years, Teddy Ruxpin’s wholesome sincerity became a target for unauthorized parodies in which the bear’s mouth moves to a dubbed voice. The toy appeared in the 2011 horror film “Paranormal Activity 3″ and in a sketch on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show featuring popular toys from the 1980s who’ve fallen on hard times and discuss their addictions with “Celebrity Rehab” host Drew Pinsky.
Earl Kenneth Forsse was born Sept. 17, 1936, in Bellwood, Neb., and raised in Burbank, Calif. He served in the Army from 1959 to 1962.
His first wife, the former Wendy Fuson, died in 1984. Survivors include his wife of 26 years, Jan Hornbeck Forsse of Laguna Woods; two children from his first marriage, Theresa Eversole of Colorado Springs, Colo., and Christopher Forsse of Sedona, Ariz.; and three grandchildren.
Forsse’s colleagues praised his creativity and push for innovation, and he spoke about those qualities in a 1999 interview with Josh Isaacson, his fan-turned-friend who runs the Teddy Ruxpin Online Facebook page and Twitter feed.
“If I had to describe what I do in a single word, it would be invention,” he said. “Whether inventing the text of a story, inventing the look of a character or inventing a patented technology, the process is very much the same.”