Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 29, 2022

Septuagenarian spud

A special someone is celebrating the big 7- 0 tomorrow ... although it isn't really a birthday, but more like an anniversary. And although everyone from my generation calls him Mr., I'm not certain any gender designation is fitting as "his" body is little more than a head.

I'm speaking, of course, about that ubiquitous tuber, Mr. Potato Head. And the anniversary? On April 30, 1952, he was introduced to the world on the "Jackie Gleason Show" - starring a man with whom he shared a somewhat similar shape. Mr. Potato Head thus became the first toy to be advertised on television.

According to the Idaho Potato Museum, Mr. PH wasn't born, but invented. And the event didn't occur in Idaho's famous spud country, but in New York!

The year was 1949. George Lerner, 27, using potatoes from his mother�s garden, added fruits and veggies to make facial features, and voila - dolls for his younger sisters!

Lerner approached toy companies with his idea, but, alas, they rejected it. With people having to ration food during World War II, it was considered irresponsible to waste fruits and vegetables to make toys.

The story is widely reported that Lerner sold his idea to a cereal company for $5,000. In place of the fruits and veggies, plastic parts were included as premiums in the cereal boxes. But Lerner wasn�t ready to give up on his odd-looking offspring and so approached Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld. They had a small school supply and toy business called Hassenfeld Brothers, today known as Hasbro. They paid the cereal company $2,000 to stop distribution and bought the rights for $5,000.

Whether true or not, on May 1, 1952, Mr. Potato Head kits went into production. They contained hands, feet, ears, two mouths, two pairs of eyes, four noses, three hats, eyeglasses, a pipe, and eight felt pieces for "facial" hair. Buyers were expected to provide their own spud or other vegetable of their choosing to stick the pieces on. More than one million of the 98-cent kits were sold the first year.

But Mr. Potato Head was lonely, so Mrs. Potato Head joined him in 1953, followed by their children, Brother Spud and Sister Yam. Accessories were added, such as a car, a boat trailer, a kitchen set, a stroller, and pets - called Spud-ettes.

But all was not happy in Happy Valley. Moms and dads began complaining about rotting vegetables in their kids' closets. And there were concerns about the sharp plastic ends. So in 1964, a plastic potato "body" was included in the kits.

Nephew Michael found photos online of the original kit that used a potato and the first version that used a plastic body. He called both "nightmare fuel" for kids. I laughed and had to agree. The illustration of the plastic body kit showed a wild-eyed spud that looked a bit like a Zombie.

Michael and his brother Paul as well as their children had Mr. Potato Head toys. Paul's wife Rachel said she loved them and found it "endlessly funny to put their arms where their ears should be."

Mr. Potato Head was so ubiquitous that I FEEL my siblings and I must have had him when we were growing up, but neither sister Gaila nor brother Dave recalls that we did. All three of us remember having something similar - the Cootie game. It had a body, head, eyes, six legs, antennae and a coiled proboscis that assembled into something like an overgrown insect. But it was a game, unlike Mr. Potato Head, which invited creativity.

Of course, with the popular spud featured prominently in all the "Toy Story" movies I saw when our daughters were little, I probably just imagined we had the popular kit.

I asked husband Art if he had one as a kid. He said if he had, it would have entertained him for about two minutes. According to his mother, he was taking lamps and other electrical items apart and putting them back together by the time he was 3, so sticking plastic parts onto a potato wouldn't have amused him much. For that matter, Donna, a Depression-era housewife, would have considered it a waste of a perfectly good potato.

Doing some additional �digging� - yes, I meant to say that - I discovered:

* In 1985, Mr. PH received four votes in the mayor's election in Boise, Idaho - the "most votes for Mr. Potato Head in a political campaign" as verified by Guinness World Records.

* In 1987, the popular tuber became "Spokespud" for the annual Great American Smokeout and surrendered his pipe to Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in Washington, D.C.

* In 1995, he was featured in a leading role in the Disney/Pixar animated feature "Toy Story," with the voice provided by comedian Don Rickles. Potato Head returned in "Toy Story 2" in 1999 and "Toy Story 3" in 2010. Rickles died in 2017, but his voice lived on in 2019's "Toy Story 4," using previously recorded material. "Toy Story 4" was dedicated to Rickles's memory.

* The spud was the inspiration for "Star Wars"-themed characters Darth Tater, Spud Trooper, R2-POTATOO, and Luke Fry Walker, not to mention Taters of the Lost Ark and more.

* "The Simpsons" 25th anniversary in 2014 featured a Homer Simpson Mr. Potato Head.

Hasbro has always tried to keep up with the times. One way it has done that was by introducing in 2020 a sustainable version made from a plastic derived from sugarcane. Another was to recognize what we have all known from the beginning, by adding family members with no specific gender.

So tomorrow, this baby boomer will lift a glass of cheer to another baby boomer and declare, "This spud�s for you!"

Top-left: An early Mr. Potato Head kit. Although he has a partner, the use of various fruits and vegetables is encouraged; lower-left: Mr. Potato Head is no longer the odd-ball fellow down the street, but has now become a typical suburban dweller with a boat; top-center; Star-Wars nerd Mariya with Darth Tater in her right hand and Spud Trooper in her left; top-right: an original box that contained a Cootie game; bottom-right: a Nov. 27, 1952 toy advertisement in the Salem, Oregon Capital Journal for the original kit. (Top-left and bottom left images from a Google image search; top-right from etsy.com and the lower-right from Newspapers.com)

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