Two decades ago, toy inventor Ron Dubren heard giggles coming from a playground. It was a bunch of kids tickling one other. Inspired, Dubren created Tickles the Chimp. Tickles didn’t make it very far, but after Tyco Preschool combined Dubren’s invention with a Sesame Street licensing deal, the toy became Tickle Me Elmo—so popular that the million units Tyco shipped to stores that December scarcely touched demand.
“There’s no question that in 1996, Tickle Me Elmo shot Elmo to his stardom,” confirms Scott Chambers, who oversees licensing for Sesame Street, home of the little red monster with 5.5 million Facebook followers. “And if you look at the part he plays in [all] our licensed characters, he plays the lead.”
Indeed, Tickle Me Elmo—whose national debut was on Rosie O’Donnell’s TV show that year—was only the beginning. As millions of parents scour the web and scurry off to Walmart to find holiday toys for their tots, all paths lead to where they’ve led for a quarter century now: straight to the Elmo shelf.
One of this year’s must-have toys is Love to Hug Elmo, which picked up the mantle from Big Hugs Elmo, Chicken Dance Elmo and Hokey Pokey Elmo. Thanks to the beauty of licensing, there’s literally an Elmo for every season.
“He’s a rock star and a perennial,” said Maura Regan, president of trade group Licensing International. “Other characters come and go, but there’s something about that furry red guy who stays with kids throughout their lives.”
And Elmo—the “real” Elmo—really has been there for that long.
The Sesame people maintain that Elmo is a 3-year-old monster, but the truth is he’s 40. The Muppet that would become Elmo was born in 1979 as a sketch by designer Caroly Wilcox. The fuzzy creature would occasionally turn up on Sesame Street with the gravelly adult voice that puppeteer Richard Hunt had given him. But only after Hunt turned him over to colleague Kevin Clash in 1985 did Elmo emerge as the giggly, effervescent critter we know him to be today. (Clash left Sesame Street in 2012 amid allegations he had relationships with underage boys. Elmo’s new caretaker Ryan Dillon has kept Elmo in the spotlight.)
Elmo’s longevity as a toy, then, has everything to do with Elmo’s longevity as TV star. And while it’s true that kids love Elmo for his infectious charm and tittering laugh, retail experts will tell you that it’s nostalgia that’s driving the sales. After all, it’s not preschoolers who plunk down 22 bucks for an Elmo; it’s their parents.
These days, says Global Toy Experts founder Richard Gottlieb, “you’re getting that first iteration of Elmo for parents who were children when Elmo came out, and now they want to reengage that experience.” Brad Bedwell, Walmart’s senior buyer for preschool toys, thinks the spell has been around even longer. “Grandparents can remember watching Sesame Street with their kids and it drums up that feeling of nostalgia,” he said. “Elmo is a way to share similar experiences with their grandchildren.”
And since the Elmo lineup includes plush toys that don’t make any noise, you don’t have to tickle him if you don’t want to.