To help get you into the spirit of the season, this week we’re presenting MEL’s 2021 Holiday Toy Catalog! But instead of trying to sell you stuff like the department-store catalogs of yore, we’re offering up the little-known backstories to some of the greatest toys ever made. So take a break from your holiday shopping, grab some cocoa and be a kid again for a few minutes.
Not every toy is meant to be passed on to your children. While some dolls and action figures can stand the test of time if they’re properly maintained, others are meant to be melted, exploded or terrorized until their mysterious innards come oozing out of their body. Such is the case with Stretch Armstrong.
Debuting in 1976 from Kenner Products, Stretch Armstrong quickly became one of the most popular toys of the era. The muscular, underwear-clad gent was simply a man-shaped sack of rubber filled with gelled corn syrup, but the gimmick of stretching him to his limits was enough to catapult him to the top of every kid’s Christmas list (and to spawn numerous spin-off characters and knockoffs as well). By the early 1980s, Stretch’s popularity had faded, but that wouldn’t be the last of him — he made a comeback in the 1990s, and then another in the 2010s. In fact, in 2011, Stretch Armstrong was named as one of TIME magazine’s 100 Greatest Toys of All Time, ranking at number 67, just behind the Rubik’s Cube.
However, unlike other popular toy lines that have transcended generations like Transformers and G.I. Joe, Stretch never found success outside of being a toy. A movie about Stretch was greenlit after his 1990s revival, but over the next few decades, it became doomed, with several different screenplays and actors attached to it until plans ultimately fell apart. In 2017, a Netflix cartoon of Stretch promised to end this streak of bad luck, but the show only lasted a year.
But while Hollywood failed Stretch, YouTube has come to his rescue. In recent years, dozens upon dozens of videos have surfaced featuring people performing experiments on the toy, subjecting him to everything from liquid metal injections to death by meat grinder. Like the sadistic, Stretch Armstrong-tearing kids of the late 1970s, Gen Z has found all new ways to torture the toy.
What is it about Stretch Armstrong that invites such mistreatment? I reached out to his inventor, his number one fan and a few others involved in his legacy to ponder the question of his eternal suffering.
Stretch Armstrong’s Elastic Origins
Jesse D. Horowitz, inventor of Stretch Armstrong: Back in 1974, after finishing basic training in the National Guard, I was living on Long Island with my parents. I needed a job. I saw an ad in the New York Times for an industrial designer, and called for an interview. I had a background at General Motors, where you’d show up to work in a shirt and tie every day, so when I showed up for my interview, I wore a tie and jacket like I had at GM. But when I walked in, there was this tall guy with his feet up on the desk wearing a pair of boots and a long-sleeve turtleneck sweater. Immediately, I said to myself, “This is the guy I want to work for.”
His name was James Kuhn, but everyone called him “Jeep.” He was a vice president at Kenner. In those days, Kenner’s headquarters were in Cincinnati, and Jeep had been there, but he went to his boss — a guy named Bernie Loomis — and said he had to move to New York so his wife could pursue acting. Loomis didn’t want to lose Jeep, so he made him an offer to start a research-and-development team in New York City, which is when I came into the picture. He hired me, an engineer who I can’t quite remember the name of and a model maker named Richard Dobek.
People always ask where inventors get their ideas from, but it’s an impossible question to answer because you never really know. Inventors do keep idea books, though, and I started my Kenner idea book in March of 1974. When I got hired, I began coming up with ideas, and for idea number 80, from October 17, 1974, I wrote down, “Idea for stretchy doll — Tension Man.” Later on, we called him “Stretch Man,” and before it hit the market, it became “Stretch Armstrong” (I guess because Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon a few years earlier). I can’t remember who came up with that name, as it was fortysomething years ago. I’m 83 now — I’m a dinosaur!
Anyway, my original idea was that Tension Man was a circus trapeze artist, and that you’d attach the doll to a door jam. A child would then swing from the doll’s feet and the doll would stretch from the weight of the child. Of course, having a child swing from a doll attached to a door would be very dangerous, so Jeep told me to think about it more and develop the idea further.
I scrapped the idea about attaching it to a door and started thinking about a doll that just stretched instead. I did a bunch of sketches and ended up with two toys. One was an all-American kind of guy, and the other was a sumo wrestler. Jeep liked them, and as we got talking, we thought that the doll would have to have vinyl skin in order to stretch. Originally, one of us thought about putting springs inside, but that would have ripped the vinyl. Jeep, though — he was a chemical engineer. He said, “Let me try to figure something out.”
While we were trying to figure out what to put in the dolls, I began sculpting a model for what would become Stretch Armstrong, as well as the sumo guy. I gave the sculptures to Richie [Dobek], and he made molds out of them. Jeep and I then took those molds to a latex factory in New Jersey, and they made a bunch of skins for us to pour all sorts of substances into to see what would work.
Jeep kept messing around with stuff, and eventually, we settled on Karo syrup (I kept having to send my secretary out to the A&P on Third Avenue to buy more Karo syrup). Eventually, we boiled it down to the right consistency where it was solid but still stretched just perfectly. I also sculpted a head to put on it. By that time, we dropped the sumo guy because he was too thick — he would have been more than 10 pounds!
Once the all-American guy doll was together, Jeep and I flew out to Cincinnati to show it to Bernie Loomis. I was worried that he wouldn’t like it because the doll was so heavy, but Bernie Loomis fell in love with it and said, “Let’s develop it!” That’s how the whole thing started.
Stretched to the Limit: Reaching the Heights of Popularity
Tony Galla, founder of Stretch Armstrong World: I first got a Stretch Armstrong at nine years old. I was there right when they started in 1976, and I remember everything about them. After a few days or weeks of pulling on it, it would get a hole in it, and we’d take it back to the store and tell them it was defective so they’d replace it. I also remember exactly how they smelled because the toy had a very distinct smell.
I didn’t realize until much later how important Stretch Armstrong was to me, but he had a big impact on my childhood, especially with Christmas. I knew by the size of the box what was in there. It was also heavier than most toys, and you could hear the styrofoam creaking inside the box. Stretch Armstrong really made Christmas exciting in the 1970s.
Morning News, excerpt from “Stretch Armstrong, Muscleman Doll, Most-Requested Toy for Boys,” December 15, 1977: The Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman have been done in by the likes of Stretch Armstrong. A survey of Santas at Sears, Roebuck and Co. stores across the country shows [that] Stretch Armstrong, a muscleman doll that can be stretched and returns to its original shape, was the most requested toy among boys who made pilgrimages to Santa.
Horowitz: Stretch Armstrong became such a big character that we did other characters and creatures too. We did aliens and monsters. I also have a sketch from March 30, 1976 for the Stretch Octopus.
Bert Quaghebeur, host of Ed’s Retro Geek Out! on YouTube: Other companies also got into stretching toys. Mego made Stretch Batman and Hulk, but Kenner ended up suing over those, which made some of them super rare and valuable.
Galla: There were a lot of stretching toys out there in the late 1970s, but they faded away within a few years. The last of the Kenner Stretch series was the Stretch Serpent, and that flopped in 1978. By 1980, it was all pretty much over.
Stretch Returns: His 1990s Revival and Failed Career in Hollywood
Quaghebeur: I was first introduced to Stretch Armstrong when Cap Toys revived him in the 1990s. I live in Belgium, and we had a Double Dare-like show where every week, they gave away a Stretch Armstrong. I wanted one of those so badly, but I never got one until years later.
When they brought him back, Stretch Armstong had more of a story to him. He was like a surfer or skater guy in cutoff clothes. He also had a dog named Fetch Armstrong and an enemy named Vac-Man. The 1990s was also when they tried to make a Stretch Armstrong movie.
Thomas Golianopoulos, writer at The Hollywood Reporter, excerpt from “Mel Gibson, Taylor Lautner and the 20-Year Effort to Make a ‘Stretch Armstrong’ Movie,” July 13, 2019: Stretch Armstrong is one of those mythical properties that’s languished in development for what seems like forever. In its various incarnations, it’s been a Disney family comedy, a spy movie, a teen movie and a superhero movie. Nearly two decades after it was first announced, [a Stretch Armstrong movie] remains in development. What went wrong?
Brigham Taylor, Disney executive, excerpt from “Mel Gibson, Taylor Lautner and the 20-Year Effort to Make a ‘Stretch Armstrong’ Movie”: The thing we could never solve was to find a thematic quality to attach to the character that sort of mirrored this physical ability. Every superhero, there’s a thematic quality to their ability, and it raises certain questions. For one reason or another, we could never crack that, and I think that therefore at no point did we think we had the movie.
Doug Draizin, producer, excerpt from “Mel Gibson, Taylor Lautner and the 20-Year Effort to Make a ‘Stretch Armstrong’ Movie”: The biggest problem was that it wasn’t a superhero movie. There was no origin on Stretch. It’s just a title.
Horowitz: Maybe they just never found the right guy to play Stretch. They should have done it with Dolph Lundgren.
Quaghebeur: I mean, he’s just a gimmicky toy; he doesn’t have a backstory. He’s only wearing underwear.
Victor Cook, executive producer and supervising director of Netflix’s Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters: I think Stretch Armstrong has struggled in Hollywood because, within pop culture history, when we hear the name “Stretch Armstrong,” our collective memory is of that original toy. There was never a story or lore — it wasn’t a character. The nostalgia that name evokes is for an object — like a frisbee — which was the challenge we faced when it came to the Netflix series.
I got involved with Stretch Armstrong through another superhero TV series I made. For Sony, I co-developed The Spectacular Spider-Man. Hasbro liked the action and animation style of that show and wanted it injected into a new animated TV show that would star Stretch Armstrong as a superhero character. I was intrigued, since the original toy was a blank slate in terms of personality, backstory and world-building. This would be an opportunity to create a brand new series from the ground up, so I accepted Hasbro’s offer to co-develop Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters and oversee the series.
I really wasn’t aware of the past attempts to bring Stretch to the screen until after I started on the show. The previous development shown to me was mostly live-action movie ideas, and I could see from the earlier work that they hadn’t cracked the character or the story. For us, part of cracking the code was Hasbro’s decision to make a TV series rather than a movie, which gives more time for an audience to get to know new concepts, characters and lore.
Creatively, the series met my expectations. It’s the superhero universe with the characters we wanted to create and the story we wanted to tell. The writing, acting, design and storyboards were top-notch. The fans that found Stretch Armstrong and The Flex Fighters were very passionate about their fondness for the show, and have let me and my crewmates know about it on social media. It would’ve been fun if the series continued a little longer, as the cliffhanger in our last episode was the start of more stories we had in mind to tell.
Galla: Stretch Armstrong has had a few really memorable movie moments, though. He has a great scene in Detroit Rock City, and in the Ben Stiller movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, there’s a fantastic scene with Stretch Armstrong. For that movie, they bought two Stretch Armstrong dolls off me, so when you watch that movie, you’re seeing my Stretch Armstrong toys.
A Limber Legacy: From ‘Stretch Armstrong World’ to YouTube’s Favorite Test Subject
Galla: I got back into Stretch Armstrong as a collector in 2006. I had gone through a divorce a few years earlier, and I guess you start looking back on things. I was thinking about my favorite Christmas toys as a kid, so I thought about Stretch Armstrong and wondered if I could find one. I punched it in on eBay, and sure enough, I found one and bought it.
When I got it in the mail, that feeling came back to me from when I was a kid, and I was hooked. I started looking into all of these other stretch toys that were made and began buying up whatever I could. I did a ton of auctions on eBay and I won them all because I made sure that I did. The most I ever paid was $10,000 for a Batman one. It’s particularly valuable because the Mego stretch toys had a window box, and the UV rays would degrade the toys over time, unlike the Stretch Armstrong box which didn’t have a window.
Even standard, vintage Stretch Armstrongs go for a couple thousand dollars, and that’s because so few of them survived the 1970s. Most kids played with them until they tore them and then they threw them away. That’s what’s so unique about Stretch versus other vintage toys — they just don’t exist anymore. I’d say 99 percent of them were thrown away within the first few weeks.
Around this time, I also created the website Stretch Armstrong World, which kind of became a hub for fans. Before my site, there really was nothing online about Stretch, but when I started putting his history up, he started showing up all over the place again.
The craziest thing that happened to me from Stretch Armstrong World was when I got a random email one day from a guy who used to work at Kenner. He told me that, while they were making Stretch Armstrong toys back in the 1970s, a couple of guys on the factory line made a Stretch Armstrong with an extra appendage. Then upper management found out about it, and they ordered them to destroy the molds right away. I mean, can you imagine if those things got out and kids opened up that Stretch Armstrong on Christmas morning? Can you imagine the lawsuits they would have gotten?
Anyway, he told me that the molds were destroyed, but that two of these Stretch toys made it out of the factory, and that he had one. Of course, I had to have it, so I bought it off him for a few grand. When I got it in the mail, I was amazed by how perfect it was. There wasn’t even a seam around where the pecker is. It was really lifelike. When I posted about it, people went crazy for it. Even today, I still get emails about it, but I auctioned it off a few years ago for $5,000.
In the last few years, I haven’t quite kept up with the website as much, but I know that they began releasing Stretch Armstrong again in 2016, both a smaller version and a larger one. That’s when people started to experiment with Stretch Armstrong on YouTube, doing all kinds of crazy things to him.
Marcus Jones, aka “King Reptar,” host of ADHD’s World on YouTube: We’ve done just about everything one can imagine when it comes to the abuse of Stretch Armstrong. We’ve hit him with sledgehammers, axes, bats, swords and various other melee weapons. Then, realizing that wasn’t enough, we turned it up. We froze him with liquid nitrogen, set him on fire, electrocuted him, dropped him off a 30,000-foot bridge, shot him out of an air cannon and made a full suit of armor out of him. I also ran him over. I even towed a car with him.
Listing all this out may sound like I have some deep hatred for Stretch Armstrong, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I truly love how simplistic yet incredible the design is. It truly is limitless.
I think the reason why people like to experiment with Stretch is because, at first, the toy seems rather weak. The squishy texture sends the signal to your brain that it’s soft. Yet the chiseled, masculine, almost-aggressive-looking face is asking you to challenge him.
Galla: The fact that Stretch is a human figure that looks kind of real made kids say, “What can we do to this guy?” I also think it was a toy that a kid could take his frustrations out on. Maybe a kid had a bad day because his mom yelled at him, well here’s Stretch Armstrong to take it out on.
Quaghebeur: All of these things happen to Stretch because the marketing was like a challenge. “See how far you can stretch it!” made kids want to tear Stretch to the limit. But unlike some other toys, Stretch really delivered on the promise of the marketing. He stretched impressively far, and that’s what made him a toy icon. It’s just too bad that he’s a toy with sort of an expiration date on it — once you’ve torn it, he was done.
Chris Bensch, vice president of collections at the Strong Museum of Play, home of the National Toy Hall of Fame: Stretch Armstrong is a fan-favorite toy, and there are still people attached to him decades after they owned one. It’s such a unique design, and it’s one of the toys that we at the Strong Museum categorize as having “inherent vice.” Just the way he was designed causes him to self-destruct.
I also think kids love to mistreat their toys, and Stretch Armstrong was a toy that was perfectly designed to mistreat. You stretch him, you beat him up — he feeds right into that abusive toy play that lots of kids love. If anything, just by his design, Stretch Armstrong was asking for it.