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In 1981, little girls throughout America were snapping up Strawberry Shortcake dolls, lunchboxes, stickers and anything else they could find. American Greetings and its character development division, Those Characters From Cleveland, had a big, delicious hit. But could they do it again? Those Characters co-presidents Jack Chojnacki and Ralph Shaffer strategized with American Greetings’ toy partner, Kenner, in New York City. The company known for its Star Wars action figures wanted to get into the plush business with a line of teddy bears. So young cartoonist Dave Polter and artist Elena Kucharik were enlisted to help turn a stuffed toy that’s been around since the early 1900s into a huggable expression of emotions.

Shaffer Forty percent of the plush market was teddy bears, so [Kenner] wanted to try something with bears. We came back to Cleveland and, immediately, it was mental fatigue: What in the heck are we going to do that’s different? 

Polter I was 24 and freelancing, trying to establish myself as a cartoonist. I wanted to be the next Charles Schulz. Ralph gave me an interview and then gave me an assignment to work on a card line that used symbols to convey emotions — things like hearts and rainbows. I was hired full time at American Greetings that April.

Shaffer You need a lot of designs to launch a new card line. We could only think of so many symbols, and then we ran out of gas. We had done all this research, and I had all this artwork on symbolism lying on my desk. It’d been three months since our meeting with Kenner, and I was still trying to come up with something. 

Kucharik I got a phone call back in 1981 when I was freelancing for American Greetings. They needed some preliminary sketching and drawings. I was living in Connecticut by then, and I remember faxing the first pencil sketches. 

Shaffer I’m sitting here looking at a simple pencil sketch of a bear and thinking, What in the hell am I going to do with the bears? Something in my head just took those graphics and flopped them over on the bear’s stomach. I drew that heart on that bear. Boom! The clouds opened up and the sun shined.  

Chojnacki Those symbols meant the same things to kids and to moms. Mothers and kids all knew what a heart stood for and what a rainbow stood for.

Shaffer All of a sudden we had this little creature that represented human emotions. It helped parents talk to their kids about their emotions, and friendship and love. The whole formula for Care Bears could be written on a half a piece of paper. Once you have the formula, the whole thing falls into place. 

Kucharik We went back and forth with changes for a while, making the bears shorter and pudgier. Finally, they said, “We have the bears.” 

Shaffer We had a plush department with five expert designers all working on prototypes. We did hundreds of prototypes. They were working under a genius plush designer, Sue Trentel. You could give her a piece of artwork, and she could translate it into a three-dimensional plush design. She was just magic. 

Shaffer The end result almost mirrored the original pencil sketch. We sort of copied the Steiff bear — [the first stuffed bear with movable arms and legs, which took its name from President Theodore Roosevelt] — by putting a heart-shaped button on the backside of the bears to make them official Care Bears. We also got a patent, which is rare and hard to do. The patent was for the application of putting graphics on a bear’s stomach. Nobody had ever done that before. 

Polter Their appeal went up and down the age range. They look really young, but at the same time, you could have them say almost anything. You could have them be funny. Bears are the ultimate anthropomorphic character. 

Shaffer We had a naming session. Everybody just started kicking around names like crazy — Tubbies, Messenger Bears, you name it. Lin Edwards, who was Dave’s boss, just looked at me and says, “Care Bears.” Oh God, the clouds parted and the sun shone again. 

Polter But the details were changing all the time. The very first name for Tenderheart Bear was as simple as Love Bear. But Love Bear wasn’t going to clear legal because you can’t trademark it. Then we thought, We can put them in a castle. They can go out and do missions of caring.

Shaffer We had 10 bears, each a different color, representing 10 different emotions — Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Cheer Bear, Friend Bear, Funshine Bear, Good Luck Bear, Love-a-Lot Bear, Tenderheart Bear and Wish Bear. As I’m sitting there, looking at all these saccharine honey-sweet teddy bears, I said, “We need a relief in this bunch. Let’s do a counter bear to all this sweetness. Let’s do a Grumpy Bear.”

Chojnacki We finally had that magic meeting when Kenner saw the bears. 

Shaffer They loved it right away. It was an undeniable concept. 


Still Kenner and American Greetings needed a sales and marketing strategy. In the past, a new character was released and then, if it became popular, other products and maybe even a movie or TV show would follow. Backed by American Greetings CEO Morry Weiss, Chojnacki had a much bigger plan. Care Bears would launch simultaneously with thousands of licensed products, including books, bedding, children’s clothing, housewares and more. 

Shaffer We didn’t just build a character; we approached it like a D-Day invasion. We lined everybody up to license the thing at the same time. It took us two years in development to get to that launch date.

Kucharik I did most of the finished art for the style manual, which was given to all licensees. I worked like 24/7 on that for the first couple years. In the beginning of the guide there is a double-page spread of the Care Bear alphabet. Next came the story of the Care Bears. After that, each bear had a page showing them in full color from a front view, with pencil sketches from the side and three-quarter views and the Pantone matching system color assigned to that bear. Facing each of those pages was a description of the bear with more pencil sketches, including the tummy symbols.

Chojnacki There were 26 licensees that all went to market together and each of them had anywhere from 10 to a thousand products. Once the retailer saw that 26 of his leading suppliers were on board, he got pretty excited about it and committed space and advertising. We had Wal-Mart, Kmart, Target, Woolworth, Toys R Us and many more. 

Shaffer Jack had a tough job. I don’t know how he ever did it. He negotiated hundreds of deals on these programs. There was endless squabbling over percentages with licensees. 

Chojnacki Whenever we stumbled — and we did — we picked ourselves back up and just kept going and going and going. We just couldn’t have it not happen. 

Kucharik My girls were 6 and 9 then. They always saw mom sitting at the drawing board, that’s for sure. It’s amazing when I think about the amount of work that I did. 

Shaffer We gave the manual to licensees, and it was their choice whether we did the art or they used their own artist. But they had to send in the artwork for our approval. We had a bulldog director, Tom Schneider — I loved the guy; he’s passed away — who was responsible for keeping that look going. 

Chojnacki Tom was just an enormously capable visual genius. He had to look at and approve every product by every licensee. 

Shaffer We’d have panicked licensees putting their art directors on airplanes and flying them in. We’d have to sort of put them through school. 

Chojnacki We needed Care Bears underwear to have the same look as Care Bears sheets. That gave us consistency of image and made it hard to do knockoffs.

After two years and millions of dollars, Care Bears were privately introduced to investors in 1982 and then to the world at the 1983 Toy Fair in New York City, where a Broadway-style play was planned to celebrate the launch. By then, Morry Weiss’ son and current co-CEO, Jeff, was in college at Yeshiva University in New York City and had been working summers at Those Characters From Cleveland. One month later, the bears hit shelves nationwide and the first Care Bears television show aired.

Shaffer Bernie Loomis, the president of Kenner, had his office up in New York, and he had these connections with the theater. He proposed we mount a play. I think it cost a million dollars. Everything cost a million dollars. It was a one-shot deal. One night. 

Jeff Weiss It was one of the most unusual events on Broadway. They scored a full musical production, and it really helped energize the next couple of years. The play was like nothing I’d ever seen. 

Shaffer The licensees loved it. We loved it, because they saw what we were doing and how big it was. We had 750 people there. The concept was that Strawberry Shortcake introduced Care Bears to the world.

Chojnacki One day, there was no Care Bears and, the next day, everyone thought Care Bears had been forever. 

Shaffer We launched in March, because we knew Easter is a good time for stuffed toys. We couldn’t keep them on the shelves. We also did 16 running feet of Care Bear cards in the stores. In the first year, we sold $40 million worth of greeting cards.

Chojnacki Kenner was so hungry for product that they told their manufacturer in Taiwan that if he could make another million Care Bears in the first year, they would buy him a top of the line Mercedes. We made that boy really rich.

Shaffer But the minute you come out with something, the wolf pack is all over, copying to get a piece of that action. 

Chojnacki No one who copied us really understood what we’d done. They thought, Oh, we’ll just come out with bears, and they’ll be successful. It’s really important to note the incredible detail — the little tuft of hair, the logo, the footpads and noses were hearts. 


You know the story. Product rises, peaks and then gathers dust in your child’s closet. That’s not what happened with Care Bears. By Christmas 1983, they were still a pot of gold at the end of a Cheer Bear rainbow.

Polter The lead story on the CBS Evening News on Christmas Eve 1983 was about the Care Bears and how they were making coleslaw out of the competition. 

Shaffer If you’re going to do a new product, you have to be like a warrior. You have to be fearless. You have to go forward with your thoughts and ideas and damn the torpedoes. That’s the only way you’ll ever do anything that’s new and creative. 

Polter American Greetings probably backed this one more than any other property. They supported it with consumer advertising, something they rarely did — a million dollars of advertising. I was young and probably at least a good year and a half away from the realization that if we did this wrong, people could lose their jobs.

The first Care Bears movie, which told the story of a young brother and sister who had lost their trust in humanity, was released in 1985. It raked in $34 million worldwide. Those Characters From Cleveland had secured a place as a creative powerhouse, but the search for the next hit was on. As incentive, Shaffer offered blank checks for creative retreats.

Shaffer We set up groups of five to seven people. They would decide where they wanted to go — anywhere in the United States. Then they could sit back and kick around ideas for three days. New stuff. New ideas.

Chojnacki Tom Schneider came in one day with two over-the-calf socks.

Shaffer He walked into my office and said he was folding these socks and got this idea for a new plush line. I said, “Oh yeah? OK, Tom, go ahead. Work it out.” And everybody could do that — even a secretary if she had an idea. 


Schneider returned a month later with a prototype for Popples, plush animals with bright fur and long tails that folded into a colorful ball. In 1986, they were licensed to Mattel and eclipsed $40 million in plush sales the first year. 

Shaffer At the same time that we were looking for new ideas, we were developing characters and plot lines for the movie. Dave was the best in the world to tackle that type of assignment. He was the wizard. When The Care Bears Movie came out, Disney people were talking about how they were being beaten by people who were really new to this game.

Chojnacki By this point, we had 1,000 licensees worldwide from Asia to Africa. 

Shaffer You could license some of the weirdest things: kids’ suspenders and shoelaces. You name it, and they’d slap a character on it and go for the juvenile market. 


And, still, the bears kept going. In the first five years, Care Bears merchandise racked up $2 billion in retail sales. The characters were relaunched in 2002 and 2013. Over the years, the bears began doing aerobics. Share Bear’s tummy symbol was changed from a milkshake with two straws to two lollipops that were crossed (because sharing a shake could spread germs). A new villain named Grizzle was introduced. Care Bears have appeared in six feature-length movies and in more than 100 hours of television. The 8-year-old children who begged for the bears that first December are now 41 years old.

Polter They have retro appeal. Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake became the cool things to wear. They had a huge second life that is still ongoing.

Steve Presser, owner of Big Fun in Cleveland Heights I remember a woman walking into my store with her daughter, who was 4. The girl knew every character’s name. That’s very common in our industry, where parents pass along an affinity for a toy to their kids. You have a whole generation that was brought up on them that is trying to recapture their childhood. People still have a warm spot in their hearts for them. What makes Care Bears special is that they were the first ones with individual colors and associated names. That made you want to collect them. 

Chojnacki Most licensing today is launched by movies. Ours was based on greeting cards, and the cards just went on and on and on. The return on the investment made in Care Bears was over 1,000 percent.

Polter Ralph used to say we had to have million dollar ideas. He meant it literally. We had a very successful run with products like Madballs, Lady LovelyLocks and My Pet Monster. But none of the others have been as evergreen as Care Bears. 

Shaffer We were like this merry band of renegades. I just loved it.

Chojnacki I think we knew there was an essence there that was an important essence. We were in that kind of a business. We all felt good about it. 

Shaffer Bernie Loomis had a fabulous saying that stuck with me all of these years. He said, “Great concepts do not die of old age. They’re killed by mismanagement.” If you get something in the wrong hands, I guarantee you they will screw it up. That’s why we did the manuals. It was a road map that had to be followed.

Weiss Care Bears are every bit as relevant as when they were first launched. Certain things kind of take you back and slow you down. If you look at everything — from the spectacular illustrations to the stories to the design — we probably did this better than anyone else in the world. 

birthdaybearBirthday Bears

To celebrate Care Bears turning 35, American Greetings has planned a year of festivities. Look for the Year of the Hug tour in April and for a limited-edition Rainbow Heart Bear (with purple glitter fur) to be introduced this fall. American Greetings is also collaborating with students from the Cleveland Institute of Art on a series of YouTube shorts. New Care Bears merchandise will be rolled out throughout the year at retailers such as Land of Nod, Dylan’s Candy Bar, SpiritHoods and more. 


Those Characters From Cleveland

After the success of Strawberry Shortcake, American Greetings CEO Morry Weiss picked Jack Chojnacki and Ralph Shaffer to lead a separate character development subsidiary, but it had not yet been named. “We were on the West Coast making some sales calls,” Chojnacki remembers. “And we would hear the receptionist saying, ‘Those guys from Cleveland are here.’ That’s how we got the idea: Those Characters From Cleveland. We told Morry our idea at a meeting late one night and he said, ‘You guys are nuts. You can’t have a name like that. I’ll tell you what, I’m going to ask our CFO.’ He called in Henry Lowenthal, knowing he would back him up, but Henry said, ‘I think it’s a really great idea.’ Morry Weiss, who is genius and rarely missed on getting his way, said, ‘OK, you guys got me.’ ”