The Strange Cabbage Patch Craze

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Troubled Coleco is cashing in big on the year's hottest toy

So what are we to think about the great Cabbage Patch Kids madness of 1983? What are we to think of a homely, vinyl-faced cloth doll that has become such an object of desire to so many people that 5,000 of them staged a near riot last week at Hills Department Store in Charleston, W. Va.? Manager Scott Belcher could provide no explanation. He could only describe a Christmas crowd becoming a Christmas mob: "They knocked over the display table. People were grabbing at each other, pushing and shoving. It got ugly."

What are we to think of a woman's suffering a broken leg when another crowd of 1,000 turned violent after waiting eight hours to get into a Zayre store in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.? Departmental Manager William Shigo could provide no explanation either. He armed himself with a baseball bat to defend his position behind the counter. Said he: "Get back, you're breaking my legs."

Perhaps America can survive only so long without losing its head over a new fad, and then something or other has to be seized upon, advertised, yearned for, bought and sold. Coleco Industries' surprised president, Arnold C. Greenberg, who manufactures the Cabbage Patch Kids, does not have much of an explanation for his stunning success either. His version: "The fact that the child can literally have a unique, loving, bonding experience separates it from other dolls." But Greenberg, who has been criticized for his extreme optimism, also likes to say: "We really create the market. We create the demand itself."

Quite a creation. Coleco, which introduced the Cabbage Patch Kids last February, expects to sell 2.5 million of them this year, which would be a record for any doll in its first year. Nobody knows how many more Coleco could have sold had it not been caught unprepared by its own success. The company says it is chartering planes to bring in 200,000 more dolls a week from factories in Hong Kong. And faced with a false-advertising charge by the consumer affairs department of New York's Nassau County, which accuses Coleco of "harassing" children by advertising dolls that are not available, the manufacturer has temporarily suspended its advertising.

The dolls have actually been around for years. Back in 1977 a Georgia artist named Xavier Roberts, now 28, began to turn out handmade cloth models that he insisted on calling "little people," each different from all others. Roberts invented a syrupy ritual for selling the dolls. They were not made but "delivered" and "adopted" at a former medical clinic in Cleveland, Ga. His employees had to wear nurse's white uniforms, and each prospective "parent" had to raise a right hand and vow undying love. Roberts has sold 250,000 dolls, many to adults for themselves, at prices ranging from $125 to $1,000. But the national madness began only when Roberts' Original Appalachian Artworks Inc. negotiated a licensing agreement with Coleco. The Coleco computers began churning out $25 models in Asian plants, giving each a slightly different face. Says Roberts: "I'm just amazed. Sometimes I just stand there watching, and no one knows that I'm the one who started it all."

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