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.