Producers: Dan Goodman and Brian Hunt Director: Andrew Jenks Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Xavier Roberts, Della Tolhurst, Roger Schlaifer, Al Kahn, Martha Nelson Thomas, Mara Thomas and Seth Thomas, Jonathan Alexandratos, Connie Chung, Gary Cross, Guy Mendes, Joe Prosey, Pat Prosey, Alan Stout, Jack Wheat and Lisa Williams Distributor: Abramorama
The Cabbage Patch Kids phenomenon struck American toy retailers in 1983, but as this engaging documentary reveals, it was years in the making. Director Andrew Jenks (who, presumably wrote the narration read by Neil Patrick Harris in a typically droll tone) and his editing staff headed by Joseph Vele have put together the story, weaving together archival footage, newly-shot interviews and some imaginative graphics, in a way that addresses not just this particular case but issues of capitalism, marketing and consumerism in more general terms. They also cover the legal issues that arose over rights to the design of the “dolls”—a word the man who made a fortune with them would never use.
That man is Xavier Roberts, whom Jenks persuaded to give his first interview in more than two decades for the film. That conversation with Roberts, a genial, grey-bearded man in a cowboy hat along seated beside Della Tolhurst, who served as president of his company Original Appalachian Artworks, is the centerpiece of the documentary’s first hour, though the excerpts from it are surrounded by clips from interviews with others—most notably Roger Schlaifer, who had purchased worldwide licensing rights on the dolls, and Al Kahn, marketing director of Coleco, the toy company that secured rights to manufacture and sell them in 1982. There’s also a smattering of contemporary news reports on the mania that occurred in stores as shoppers vied with one another to get hands on one of the dolls company advertising had primed children to want for Christmas, and other tidbits—like an interview with Joe and Pat Prosey, who proudly display their collection of thousands of the plush “kids,” and Alan Stout, who remembers being at a store when a melee broke out so fiercely that the manager went to unusual lengths to regain control.
Much is made of the marketing savvy of Roberts, a poor boy who wanted to be the new Walt Disney. He actually began making “Little People,” as he called his one-of-a-kind fabric creations, in 1977. But he didn’t “sell” them; he required customers to “adopt” them. And he fashioned what he called Babyland General Hospital in Cleveland, Georgia, where babies were born in a cabbage patch and those said to be unwell were treated with doses of medicines called TLC and Imagicillin.. Each was also given a name and signed on the bottom by Roberts before being handed over to his or her “parents.” Roberts himself walked the hallways of the “hospital” in a white doctor’s smock and wearing a stethoscope.
All the gimmicks turned the dolls, renamed the Cabbage Patch Kids by Coleco, into a phenomenon that fueled the shopping mania of late 1983, which was only exacerbated when shortages in manufacturing and stocking them—Jenks goes through the process of making each one distinctive, a groundbreaking technique—were announced. Coleco actually stopped advertising them, which, ironically, only increased the public appetite.
The first hour of the picture is basically a paean to entrepreneurship and marketing strategy, with Roberts and Tolhurst genial self-promoters and recollections by commentators like Connie Chung and experts on the history of toys offering added color. There’s also discussion of the inevitable knock-offs and parodies (remember the Garbage Pail Kids–they even got their own terrible movie?). Lawsuits followed.
But more serious litigation arises in the final half-hour. It becomes apparent that similar one-of-a-kind fabric dolls called Doll Babies sewn by a Kentucky woman named Martha Nelson Thomas were sold at a crafts shop run by Roberts earlier in the 1970s. Though she died in 2013 and is seen here only in archival footage, Jenks provides interviews with her friend Guy Mendes, her children Mara and Seth, and her lawyer Jack Wheat to explain how she brought suit against Roberts, who admits that he learned a great deal from her but insists that his dolls differed from hers. He and Tolhurst also point out that the manufacturing process they used was a complete innovation, and that they held a copyright on the brand—a protection Thomas had never sought. The case dragged on for four years and resulted in a settlement—for a sum, it’s implied, that was very modest compared to the profits the Cabbage Patch Kids brought in. Meanwhile Coleco went bankrupt when its early home computer, called ADAM, proved a bust. The Kids passed through various corporate hands and are still on store shelves today, though not with a 1983 level of popularity.
“Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids” is technically pretty rudimentary, but Jenks’s documentary is an amiable study of Cabbage Patch Kids mania as something that would be replicated in future years—a memorable event in itself, but one that’s also revealing about American mercantile culture in a wider sense.