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Hip Head Games: On the Bobble

December 27, 2007 By:
Diana Aydin, JE Feature
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For the holidays two years ago, Alicia Arinella and her sister put their father, Dennis Arinella, in a box that was approximately "1 foot by 6 inches and 3 inches thick." Inside the box was an ophthalmologist, geared to represent their dad's career; strawberry-rhubarb pie, his favorite dessert; and a shovel, because he does a lot of yard work.

But when the box was opened, it wasn't Arinella's father that emerged from the depths of the container. Instead, Dennis Arinella pulled out a 6-inch action figure made to look exactly like him, down to his characteristic "hair helmet."

"There was a moment where he opened it and it was at first like, 'oh,' " said Arinella. "And then there was a pause and he just started laughing. It looks exactly like my father!"

The personalized figure is part of a generation of toys that puts ordinary people's faces on dolls, bobbleheads and action figures. These are the MeToys, iToys and YouToys, a response to the personalization trend that has hit other media like videos (YouTube) and video games (Nintendo Wii's Miis).

The action figure Arinella ordered for her father was created by artist Russell Tucker, owner of the Greenpoint, N.Y.-based Highly Flammable Toys, a company that makes personalized action figures.

"I was really more interested in making kind of real-life people ... portraits," said Tucker. "Because I just think it's more interesting, and even stranger to celebrate the normal and the obvious -- the T-shirt and the jeans or the denim jacket. That interests me more than a purple cape and boots."

And these products are hardly just toys; for the most part, they're meant to be collected, not played with. Instead, they're a modern-day form of portrait making, with designers like Tucker creating art for patrons. Rather than sit for a portrait, their customers send in photographs so that toy designers can sculpt minute details into the plastic faces of the dolls.

And because they are one-of-a-kind items, personalized toys are pricey and can take more than a month to create. The standard price for one of Tucker's figures is $700, and bobbleheads can range in price anywhere from $75 to hundreds of dollars, depending on the level of customization.

"We all grow up really liking to play with toys, whether it's Barbie or Star Wars figures or Transformers," noted Arinella. "We like playing with them, and to be playing with something in our image is just the coolest thing ever."

While mass production of personalized bobbleheads for sports teams and companies isn't new, the personalization of individual bobbleheads seems to be an early 2000s trend, according to Darby Rosenfeld, one of the founders of Whoopass Enterprises, which creates personalized bobbleheads. "I don't think it really existed before then," said Rosenfeld. "But certainly you could get a large order of yourself made, if you're willing to buy thousands."

But personalized dolls -- like the "Just Like You" dolls that American Girl introduced in 1995 -- aren't really new. In one way or another, children have always made dolls personal, whether in the names they gave or the stories they created around them, according to Jill Gorman, curator of the Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art, based in Bellevue, Wash.

"As far as dolls go that resemble individual people or personalities, portrait-type dolls go back as far back as dolls go," said Gorman. "People always made figures. Far back as we can tell, people have made figures to represent -- not necessarily represent a specific person -- but to represent humanity in some way."

And the trend of personalization is cyclical when it comes to toys, declared Gorman.

"That's a trend today, but it goes back in time, too. As far as the Victorian era ... at first, the dolls were very idealized-looking, very pretty, dolly face-type dolls," she said. "And then there was a movement to make them look realistic-looking and to look like real children."

Now, figures that look like a local mailman or boss are part of a new trend.

"People are really picking up on it," said Bryan Guise, who owns the bobblehead company It's You Small.

Guise designed the Dwight Schrute bobblehead from "The Office," which debuted on the TV show in February 2006. It was one of the more well-known personalized bobbleheads.

"Because more guys are into toys, more guys are into action figures," claimed Tucker. "I'm making figures of fathers and boyfriends and husbands and brothers and bosses."

Still, some people do buy personalized toys for themselves. But will more and more Americans order personalized toys in the future?

"I'm sure if you go into the future 20 years from now, it'll be a common [thing] to have a doll of yourself made at one point," said Guise.

Guise's vision, however, is not shared by everyone in the toy industry, especially because of the high costs and long production time of personalized toys.

If such toys are going to make it onto the shelves of mainstream toy stores, they will likely be more generic, according to Tucker. Customers would have the choice of a few different hair colors, body types and other physical characteristics.

What Tucker is talking about is already a reality. About four or five years ago, HeroBuilders.com, a Web site that sells personalized action figures, added a service that allows people to put together a general action figure with a number of personalized options -- from shoes to eye color for under $50, according to Emil Vicale, founder of the site.

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