Ken Forsse—who both delighted and terrified a generation with his most famous invention, Teddy Ruxpin—has died. Forsse suffered from congestive heart failure, dying at the age of 77.
As a creator of puppets and sets, Forsse worked in the early days of television for Sid and Marty Krofft, as well as on a handful of pilots that were never picked up—though these would provide the inspiration and necessary connections for what would later become Teddy Ruxpin. According to an interview he gave in 1999, Forsse first developed the Teddy Ruxpin concept in the late 1950s, in its most embryonic stages, as Simeon Greep, a puppet show that was to be based on the monkeys currently being used as test pilots in the space program.
Over the next few years, that idea evolved into Teddy Ruxpin, and to a point in 1964 when Forsse and author Budd Bankson attempted to create a crude version of what would become Tweeg’s Tower—home of troll antagonist Jack W. Tweeg—in Forsse’s home, nearly starting a fire out of hot, melting vinyl. But it wasn’t until nearly two decades later that Forsse would fully realize the world and characters he’d spent years creating in his head, or his original dream of a mechanical puppet that could exist as a whole, animated figure, rather than being articulated by hand.
In the early 1980s, Forsse founded AlchemyII, where he developed the animatronic puppet technology he first applied to characters on the Disney Channel’s Welcome To Pooh Corner and Dumbo’s Circus. By 1984, that technology and Forsse’s backlog of stories finally collided in Teddy Ruxpin, the first “electronic plush” toy—a doll whose mouth and eyes moved in sync with cassettes that were played in his back, creating the illusion that he was reading tales of his adventures aloud. Upon its release by Worlds Of Wonder in 1985, Teddy—along with his companions, such as worm-pal Grubby—became the best-selling toy of 1985 and 1986, prompting desperate parents to ravage stores two Christmases in a row looking for that damned talking bear.
Over the years, dozens of official cassettes were produced for Teddy Ruxpin to read to his child owners. (Dozens more unofficial cassettes were shoved into him by older relatives, to upset his child owners. For example, my cousin is still scarred from her encounter with Teddy singing Eazy-E’s Eazy Duz It.) Teddy’s popularity flourished in the mid to late ’80s with fast-food tie-ins, an Ice Capades tour, and even PSAs co-starring other fads of the era, like Corey Feldman.
It also yielded the live-action The Adventures Of Teddy Ruxpin special, a pilot for a series that never came to fruition—possibly after children test audiences saw it, then ran screaming to their mothers. Like everything you half-remember, it lives now on YouTube.
Teddy had better luck with the more traditionally animated The Adventures Of Teddy Ruxpin in 1987. The short-lived series’ run lasted 65 episodes, ending in something of a cliffhanger when a planned second set was not produced. Throughout, Forsse remained as heavily involved in the TV specials as he was in all aspects of Teddy, developing countless stories and, by Forsse’s estimation, writing the lyrics for more than 80 songs, including Teddy’s theme, “Come Dream With Me Tonight.”
Right at the apex of Teddy’s success, Worlds Of Wonder—beset by poor financial planning, junk bonds, and the ’87 stock market crash—declared bankruptcy and liquidated itself, putting the future of Teddy Ruxpin in peril. ”Worlds Of Wonder never really appreciated the gift they had been given,” Forsse later said. “It’s obvious, even now, that Teddy Ruxpin had become a good friend to children and would have sustained for a long time if handled more wisely.”
Fortunately, Hasbro recognized his value and picked up Teddy to distribute through its Playskool line, until 1996. It was the first of three resurrections Teddy Ruxpin would experience, as he was passed around to different toy companies—the most recent being in 2006, when Backpack Toys attempted to bring him into the 21st century with digital cartridges. While he’s currently no longer being produced, Forsse’s creation lives on through collectors, in the fond memories of children of the ’80s, bizarre art installations, and in the occasional nightmare.