One mid-December afternoon in 1986, my friend Joan and I were happily tootling around Baltimore County in her Honda, visiting the sagging-jowls-extended-guts, jam-packed malls to buy some Christmas presents. During the trip, I told her how our friend Alan was going nuts because he couldn’t find a Cabbage Patch Kid doll for his five-year-old daughter. I tried to slough it off at work—easy for me in ’86, since I didn’t have children yet—and Alan looked at me, uncharacteristically speechless, before saying, “You don’t understand. This is the IT toy of the season and it’s all Lucy can talk about, how she can’t wait for Hanukah when she’ll get her toy. I’ve even gone to D.C. and every store is sold out. I’m in a bind!”
Ten years later, the most popular rip-off, pardon me, present, for kids was a Tickle Me Elmo plush toy, and there were similar bouts of panic among our friends in Manhattan who, like my wife and me, were trying to accumulate enough stuff to put under the tree. It was a pure coincidence but in late-summer of 1996, Melissa was browsing at an uptown bookstore and, upon leaving with a couple of books and magazines, saw an Elmo in the display window of a store, and impulsively (it was August) bought it since we she knew our two-year-old son Booker would be beyond tickled if Santa saw fit to climb down the chimney—we didn’t have a chimney in our loft, which took some circuitous/double-talk subterfuge to explain to the boys—and put Elmo in a prime spot. Much to our surprise, when the Elmo shortage occurred that fall there was cabbage-patch-like pandemonium, and when Melissa, not understanding the predicament, casually mentioned to a friend, “Huh, I got an Elmo last summer, there were loads of them.” It didn’t rupture the friendship—the country, if not New York City, wasn’t yet entirely familiar with Donald Trump and how that could cause havoc among people who should know better—but she kept her lips zipped after that unintended faux-pas. (Off topic, but it’s fascinating—like the fall of The Wall in 1989—to watch Western world governments upended because of the Israel/Hamas/Gaza events. After Geert Wilders, what’s next? A snap election in the UK, with a kook taking over? Macron replaced by Le Pen in France? Leo Varadkar on the way out in Ireland? And, not that it matters, Justin Trudeau sent to political purgatory in Canada? It goes without saying that it’s all because of Trump.)
According to a Wall Street Journal article last Friday toy retailers aren’t ringing bells this holiday season, as sales are down, and there’s no extra-fabulous gift that just must be acquired before Christmas Eve. Reporters Harriet Torry and Ben Glickman provide an anecdote: “This holiday season is off to a slow start for Wildings Toy Boutique in Phoenix, which sells classic toy dollhouses and wooden cars and accessories. The store has been trying to drum up customer interest with experiences, including Santa visits and family photo shoots in front of a Christmas-tree backdrop outside the store.”
Not to kick a merchant when he or she is down, but “Santa visits” are as old as a 1952 copy of Time that you can buy for a quarter at flea markets or on the street, and, at least to me, in no-snow Phoenix the Christmas tree-backdrop is also a strange one (but I endorse it!). I’d guess the most obvious suggestion—not that I’d know—is for every toy store in the country to devote half their aisles to Barbie and Ken dolls—pure, rude, anatomically-correct, extra-anatomically correct—because since the blockbuster movie this summer, that just has to be the hit. Or maybe one of those Cillian Murphy toys that has the Oppenheimer star’s eyes exploding.
The picture above, taken at my Uncle Pete’s house in Queens, is your young author gamely putting on an astronaut’s helmet (maybe foreshadowing The Urban Spaceman), feigning delight, and chucking it in the attic—accessible only by ladder—as soon as our family returned to Huntington. That’s not a knock on Pete and Aunt Peggy—gifts for kids are a crapshoot, and it’s very possible that what my parents bought for cousins Steve, Phil and Bernadette were dismissed as duds—and in that era space-age paraphernalia was as popular as Elmo a few decades later, but if there was any hand-wringing about a shortage of toys it escaped me. You got what you got and it was cool: for me, one memorable year, a new baseball mitt, sled, a sweatshirt I legitimately liked and bag of caramels. Along with Dad making breakfast—the annual ritual of hand-pressed waffles with as much syrup as we wanted, bacon and sausages—there were a lot of tidings and joy at 123 La Rue Drive.
Take a look at the clues and figure out the year: Summer Holiday, starring Cliff Richard, opens in London; double-agent Kim Philby takes leave of Beirut; Winston Churchill becomes an honorary citizen of the United States; Quentin Tarantino is born and Yasuijrō Ozu dies; Christine Keeler is arrested, and later convicted, for perjury; John Fowles’ The Collector is published; John Ford's film Donovan's Reef is released; David Thewlis is born and Guy Burgess dies; William Faulkner’s The Reivers wins the fiction Pulitzer; The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” is #4 on the year-end Billboard charts (George Harrison paid rapt attention); and the New York City newspaper strike ends after 114 days.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023