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.
“Bonk ‘em! Bob ‘em! Wrestling Buddies are lookin’ for action!”
There aren’t many taglines from 30-year-old toy commercials that remain etched in my memory, but this soundbite from the original Wrestling Buddies commercial certainly is. After all, it wasn’t every day that my most beloved wrestling heroes — starting with Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and the dastardly “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, and then later extending to the Big Boss Man, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and the Legion of Doom — were immortalized in a form that enabled me to inflict a high-flying form of punishment upon them. Had they come out just three years prior, an actual likeness of Hulk Hogan could have taken the place of my poor stuffed Lorax as the recipient of every Macho Man flying elbow I unleashed while springing from one twin-sized bed to the next in the room I shared with my older brother.
Sadly, I never owned a Wrestling Buddy of my own — my parents had banned wrestling-related content in the house on account of their fears that it would encourage me to become violent — but pretty much every other male member of my generation did. They were, without a doubt, among the most popular toys of the early 1990s — sort of the Cabbage Patch Doll for boys of that era. They continue to stand the test of time today, too, making Time Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest toys ever created back in 2011, and recently inspiring a new line of nostalgic imitators from AEW, the WWE’s newest rival promotion.
Stefanie Eskander was the toy designer tasked with turning Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage soft. It was, in fact, her very first assignment at Tonka, the toy company that had a licensing agreement with Vince McMahon and the WWE. Not that long ago, I caught up with Eskander by phone to discuss her plush creations and learned how she was a total wrestling newb when she began the project, how she’d previously only really worked on “girl” toys and why it was just as important for boys to be able to cuddle with their Wrestling Buddies (which were originally called Super Champs) as it was for them to powerbomb them.
When did you first discover that you’d be working on the Wrestling Buddies line?
I have to take you back to December of 1989. I was working at Hasbro. I was kind of lured away from Hasbro by the man who was the vice president of marketing for boys’ toys at Tonka. He’d previously been at Playskool, and the two of us had a good relationship. On the 28th of December, I arrived in Minneapolis. I left my family behind — my husband and three kids — to sell our house and take care of everything. The very next day, my second day at work, I was called into a meeting for the boys’ team. They wanted to know if I’d like to take a shot at designing these new wrestling toys that they were working on.
Before I’d gotten there, they’d previously developed the idea of a generic, soft wrestling toy, and the boys’ marketing team and the design team were super excited. They hadn’t taken it through market testing, but they’d taken it home to their own kids. It was kind of this odd-looking, big pillow, lumpy wrestling guy, but the kids — the boys, particularly — knew just how to play with it. They didn’t need any instructions. They just grabbed it and wrestled around with it. It was hard to get the management team on board, though. They were lukewarm about it. They’d say, “I don’t know. It’s expensive. I’m not sure.” They had all of these excuses. Then they managed to acquire the WWF license. Once that happened, all systems were go.
And so, here they were — they’d just gotten the license, and the Toy Fair was just six weeks away. The Toy Fair is where toy companies introduce their new toys. It happens in the middle of February every year. So they called me into the meeting and asked me if I’d give it a shot. I guess they’d called on several other designers to submit sketches, but none of them had worked out. I sat down, and they threw a few magazines my way. They asked me to start with Hulk Hogan. I started with the general shape, which was very squatty, fat, amorphic, and not realistic at all. But oh my gosh, they loved it. So I was immediately assigned to do these other wrestlers. Within a week, I’d completed the artwork for the first four.
The ironic thing was, I’m primarily a girls’ toy designer. I do cute dolls, baby dolls and little cuddly animals. I’d worked on Jem, Maxie, My Beautiful Doll, MoonDreamers and Dolly Surprise. I did work on a short-lived Hasbro toy called Belly Buttons, which were these ugly faces that kind of looked like belly buttons that kids could clip on their waistbands and pants. They were supposed to be collectibles. I designed about eight of those as the only “girls’” designer working on them. But again, I was primarily a cute artist.
How were you able to get everything ready so quickly?
Immediately, I had to get to work to create the 3D prototype. We had a team of soft-goods people who developed fabric toys. The team had a fabulous soft-goods engineer named Pat. She created the physical patterns for the actual forms of the buddies, and her team would sew them up. They created piles of these white wrestling buddies, and I’d draw on them with a marker. We didn’t draw on them when they were flat and then sew them; we’d make the buddy toy, and I’d draw on top of them. That’s not how you’d do it in production, but that’s what we had to do on-the-fly for a prototype.
Did you have much direct interaction with Titan Sports, the former name of the WWE’s parent company, during the process?
I personally made five trips to Stamford, Connecticut where Titan Sports was. In those days, there were no digital cameras or email, and you couldn’t really fax color artwork. We’d either send mail or hand-deliver drawings and samples for their approval. They had to approve everything, which is pretty typical of a licensing arrangement. We couldn’t take liberties with the Ultimate Warrior’s outfit if we preferred one color over another. It had to be specific to the colors the wrestlers were wearing at the moment.
How did you feel going into the Toy Fair?
Our team was really, really enthusiastic. We were fully on board, and it was a really exciting project. But our reception at the Toy Fair was modest; it wasn’t a blockbuster like we’d hoped. It was still good enough that we proceeded. I think the marketing team was optimistic but not enthusiastic about the reception. They were still enthusiastic about the product, though.
The toys would have been released in the late summer and early fall. It took that long to get them produced, which is still a very short amount of time. They became a huge hit. They were flying off the shelves, much to the surprise of everybody. We were hopeful that they’d be a success, but I don’t think we fully realized that it would be such a hot toy. Between the Toy Fair and the release of the toys, there was a lot of nervousness about how they’d be received. Sales were “meh” at first, but then they started flying off the shelves.
By the fourth quarter, when Wrestling Buddies were massively released, they were a huge hit. By December, the St. Paul Dispatch came to our office, took our pictures and put us on the front page of the business section.
To the best of my knowledge, there hadn’t really been a plush toy specifically marketed toward young boys that they’d been encouraged to jump on and beat up. Did you get the sense that you were designing something unprecedented?
Yes and no. It seems to me that there had been a plush Batman that had realistic proportions. It was a soft 18-inch doll. The only other thing I can think of that was designed for boys like that was by AM Toys, which was My Pet Monster. That wasn’t necessarily meant to wrestle with, but it was a big, soft monster. It was a cuddly thing for boys, but it was still a monster.
As far as wrestling with a toy, I don’t recall anything else. We knew that we were doing something unusual because the guys who championed it — the head of marketing and some of the other marketing guys — were so enthusiastic about it. It seemed like such a novel idea to them that there would be this soft toy that kids could just roll around the floor with. It was like having a pillow fight with a face on it, and kids love pillow fights. It was a natural play pattern, and I don’t know why it hadn’t been capitalized on before. There were other pillow toys, but nothing specifically like Wrestling Buddies.
Did you ever have an opportunity to meet any of the wrestlers whose Wrestling Buddies likenesses you designed?
I met Macho Man. He worked with the Zubaz pants company that made zebra-striped pants. They were in the same building that Tonka was in, and Macho Man would come in all the time for business meetings. I remember meeting him in the elevator, and I still have the photo he signed for me with his autograph.
Did you have any familiarity with professional wrestling before you were asked to design the Wrestling Buddies?
Just vaguely. I knew who Hulk Hogan was, but I don’t think there was anyone alive at the time who didn’t know who Hulk Hogan was. My younger son became a huge wrestling fan later on, but he was very little back then. Last year, as a surprise for my birthday, he got a Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddies tattoo. Someone told me that he’d met Hulk Hogan, and that Hogan said he really felt touched that his likeness had been included as one of the Wrestling Buddies. Of all the toys that had been made of him, there was something about the Wrestling Buddies likeness that was very significant to him, more so than a lot of the other toy versions of him. It made my week to hear that.
One of the reasons he might have felt touched that his likeness was used is the fact that you’re taking a real human being — Hulk Hogan in this instance — and reimagining him as the equivalent of a teddy bear who protects kids at night. I could see that being especially endearing to him.
I’ve had a 40-year career in toy design, and 95 percent of it has been in traditional girls’ toys. I know we talk about these things now in a gender-free way, but that’s how the toy industry has been for generations: There were boys’ toy designers and girls’ toy designers. I always understood that girls had an emotional attachment to their toys, because we understood that girls were more nurturing, and they were more interested in social interactions, and they loved fashion. There were very specific ways that girls preferred to play with their toys. On the other hand, boys were rougher, a lot more action-driven and less emotional about toys.
However, boys have emotional needs just like girls do. Boys don’t want their friends to know they take a teddy bear to sleep with them when they’re seven years old. That’s just deemed as uncool. But what little boy wouldn’t want a Wrestling Buddy that he can smack his friend around with and then take to bed that night? You put your wrestling action figure on the shelf or in your toy box, but a Wrestling Buddy could sit on your bed and you could cuddle with it. So it was an emotional attachment as well as a fun action-play experience. The Wrestling Buddies had hit an emotional note in the world of wrestling toys that other action figures couldn’t hit.