Saturday, 11 October 2008

Chatty Cathy

Today we take talking dolls for granted. Many younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers had such talking dolls as Baby Tender Love. Many younger Gen Xers grew up with Teddy Ruxpin. And as adults we have all had to put up with the various talking dolls of Elmo from Sesame Street. As hard as it may be for many of us under the age of fifty to believe, there was a time when there was no such thing as a talking doll. Most dolls were mute until 1959, when Mattel invented the first successful talking doll, Chatty Cathy.

There had been attempts at talking dolls before. Indeed, the first such attempt came not long after the invention of the phonograph. It was in 1890 that the Edison Phonograph Company came out with the first talking doll. Thomas Edison had first conceived the idea for a talking doll in 1877, but in the end it was inventor William W. Jacques of the Edison Phonograph Company who brought his idea to fruition. The doll talked through a record cylinder activated by a crank. The doll was prohibitively expensive for the time and ultimately less than 500 would be sold. After only a few weeks on the market, Edison's Talking Doll was discontinued.

In 1893 the Jumeau Company of France created Bebe Phonograph, a doll which used phonograph technology to say 35 words. First sold on the market in 1894, like Edison's Talking Doll, Bebe Phonograph proved prohibitively expensive and the Jumeau Company itself soon went out of business. It was around 1939 that Effanbee Doll Company introduced Talking Touselhead Lovums. Talking Touselhead Lovums also relied on phonograph technology. That Talking Touselhead Lovums is now largely forgotten shows how much of a hit this doll was...

It would be Mattel that would figure out a way to produce a talking doll that was also inexpensive. To talk Chatty Cathy relied upon a simple system of a phonograph needle, a tiny record, and a tiny turntable, all activated by a ring and a pull string which was in the doll's back. Any time you pulled the string, Chatty Cathy would say one of eleven phrases, from "Let’s have a party" to "Will you play with me." The doll's voice was provided by June Foray, the master voice artist who provided the voices for such characters as Granny from the Warner Brothers "Sylvester and Tweety" cartoons to Rocket J. Squirrel of Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. By today's standards Chatty Cathy's mechanism must seem primitive and her vocabulary incredibly small, but in 1960 it was revolutionary.

Chatty Cathy was introduced to the market in 1960. Inexpensive and innovative, Chatty Cathy proved to be a hit with little girls across the United States. The original version of the doll had blue eyes and blonde hair, although Mattel would introduce a brunette version in 1962 and an auburn haired version in 1963. Mattel would eventually produce two African American versions of the doll, one with pigtails and the other with a pageboy hairstyle. Mattel would also spin other dolls off from the original Chatty Cathy. They introduced Chatty Baby in 1962. They introduced Charmin' Chatty, Tiny Chatty Baby, and Tiny Chatty Brother in 1963. In 1965 they introduced Singin' Chatty. In 1963 Mattel would include seven more phrases in Chatty Cathy's vocabulary, making for a total of 18 phrases she could say.

Charmin' Chatty would introduce another innovation to the growing Chatty line of dolls. Unlike the original Chatty Cathy, the records which allowed her to talk could be changed. It came with five different, interchangeable records, each with twelve phrases. This gave Charmin' Chatty a vocabulary of 120 phrases, astronomical at that time for a talking doll. Despite this Charmin' Chatty would not prove as successful as the original Chatty Cathy, lasting only two years.

The first commercials for Chatty Cathy would air in 1960. Interestingly, some of the Chatty Cathy adverts would feature both Maureen McCormick and Eve Plumb years before they appeared together on The Brady Bunch. Even more interesting is the fact that Maureen McCormick would provide the voice for a redesign of the doll released in 1970. Footage from the very first Chatty Cathy commercial would later be included in a Geico ad from 2007.

The success of Chatty Cathy would also result in versions being produced in Canada by the Dee and Cee Toy Company and in the United Kingdom by Rosebud doll company. Both the Canadian and British versions of the doll spoke different phrases from the American version, and as would be expected had different accents as well. Mattel would buy Dee and Cee Toy Company in 1962, renaming the company Mattel Canada by 1964. Mattel would buy the Rosebud doll company in 1966.

The last year that the original Chatty Cathy and the Chatty line of dolls it had generated was produced was 1965. I am not sure why the original dolls were discontinued, but it could well have been that sales had dropped. By 1965 Mattel had glutted the market with talking dolls. In addition to the Chatty line (which included at least five dolls by 1965), there were talking dolls of such characters as Bugs Bunny and even Herman Munster. The Chatty Cathy technology would provide the basis for Mattel's successful line of See 'n' Say toys introduced in 1965. See 'n' Say is still being produced today, albeit the toys now rely on much more advanced technology.

Although the original Chatty Cathy was discontinued in 1965, the doll would be reintroduced in 1970. As mentioned previously, Maureen McCormick would provide the voice for this version of Chatty Cathy. The dolls would also differ a bit in the way they looked from the original. The 1970 version of the doll would not prove to be the hit that the original was, lasting only two years. In 1984 Mattel would introduce Chatty Patty, although they did not reintroduce the original Chatty Cathy. Again, Chatty Patty would not be a success. In 1998 and 2000 Mattel released special editions of Chatty Cathy, based on the Sixties dolls, primarily for the collectors market.

As a child I thought the Chatty Cathy dolls were rather creepy (actually, I still do...). Apparently some adults thought so too, not the least of whom were writers Jerry Sohl and Charles Beaumont. Sohl and Beamount (who was by then suffering from the symptoms of a terrible brain disease) plotted a story together, which Sohl then wrote as the famous "Living Doll" episode of The Twilight Zone. In the episode Telly Salavas plays Erich Streator, who takes offence to his stepdaughter's new doll, Talky Tina. Talky Tina in turn takes offence to him. Initially she said such things to him as "I don't think I like you," although as the episode unfolded Talky Tina would tell Erich, "I'm Talky Tina and I'm going to kill you." Of course, as might be expected, she fulfilled her promise to Erich. Not only was Talky Tina obviously based upon Chatty Cathy, but June Foray provided the voice for Talky Tina, just as she had for Chatty Cathy!

As one of the series' most frightening Twilight Zone episodes, "Living Doll" would become one of the show's best loved and most famous Twilight Zone stories. Talky Tina frequently makes such lists as "Scariest Television Characters" and "Scariest Dolls On Screen." She would provide the basis for segments of both The Simpsons episode "The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror III (which features a homicidal Crusty the Clown doll) and a Johnny Bravo episode. "Living Doll" may have also been one of the inspirations for the Child Play movies.

Chatty Cathy was one of the most successful toys of the Sixties. As the first successful talking doll, it not only paved the way for such toys as See 'n' Say and Talking Baby Tender Love, but for such interactive toys as Teddy Ruxpin and Amazing Amanda as well. The phrase "Chatty Cathy" would be introduced into the American vocabulary as slang for someone who is overly talkative. As mentioned earlier, footage from the original Chatty Cathy commercial was used in a 2007 Geico commercial. The doll's name would be used for Chicago indie rock band Chatty Cathy. And, of course, Chatty Cathy would provide the inspiration for Talky Tina of The Twilight Zone, who would not only become more famous than the original doll, but would have an even bigger impact on pop culture. Although only in actual production for a relatively short time (five years in the Sixties, two years in the Seventies, two years in the Naughts), Chatty Cathy is still remembered today.

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