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In 'Toon : Adults have yet to outgrow their love for Mickey, Bugs, Tweety. They aren't afraid to show it, either.


Richard Yelen is proud of his Woody Woodpecker tie. If someone comments on it, he's likely to hop around on one foot, holding up his pant leg to show off his Foghorn Leghorn socks. Yet Yelen is no child. He's a grown-up.

"You'd think our primary market would be kids," says Peter Starrett, president of Warner Bros. World Wide Marketing.

Or adults buying for kids.

But the sellers of clothing emblazoned with cartoon and TV characters--primarily Warner Bros., Disney and Sesame Street stores--have had to rethink their marketing plans lately to keep up with the demand from adults who wear the kid stuff themselves.

When the first of 23 Warner Bros. Studio Stores opened in the Beverly Center less than two years ago, the mix of adult and children's clothing ran 50-50. Silk-screened T-shirts with Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, Tweety and Sylvester were plentiful in all sizes.

Today, the "merchandise has changed dramatically," Starrett says. "Now the apparel is slated 80% to adults and 20% to kids. We increased the adult mix to reflect what people were buying."

The racks of Disney's 186 U.S. stores are also dominated by adult sizes: 101 jeans (Disney's version of the classic five-pocket jeans, embroidered with Dalmatian puppies on the rear), baseball shirts, sweats, chambray shirts, white cotton dress shirts, nightshirts and athletic shorts crawling with Goofy, Mickey, Minnie, Belle and Beast.

Even in Sesame Street stores, where merchandise targets 2- to 5-year-olds, there is a special corner of adult apparel featuring Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Bert and Ernie. Clothing sales are growing each month at the chain's 18 stores, says Cheryl Chung of the South Coast Plaza outlet in Costa Mesa.

Although the companies will not divulge sales figures, industry analysts speculate the Disney stores alone garner sales of $600 per square foot of retail space or about $300 million a year.

Why do so many adults want to wear Bugs shirts and Goofy shorts?

Greg Burson wore a green wool bomber-style jacket with Bugs Bunny appliques to a recent gathering of animation enthusiasts. "These clothes represent a good time to folks who live in a world that may not be as wonderful as when they were good buddies with Bugs and Yogi Bear," he says. As the actor who does the rascally rabbit's voice, Burson is quite tight with Bugs.

"The characters represent our childhood and fun feelings," says Yelen, director of marketing for Ventura County Cablevision.

Linda Simensky, a New Yorker and supervising producer of animation for Nickelodeon, is simply crazy about cartoons. "I bought my first (cartoon) shirt in the mid-'80s" she says, adding that she now has several appliqued with Warner Bros. characters, which she bought in Los Angeles. "There isn't a Warner Bros. store in New York yet," she laments.

Some people just love the attention their little shirt friends attract, says Debbie Bohnett, marketing director for the Disney Stores. "People have found if they wear this clothing, it makes them more approachable and their clothes will become the topic of conversation."

Character clothes tend to be casual: T-shirts, sweat shirts, athletic shorts, jeans, bomber jackets and baseball caps.

"There is no reason to be involved in silhouettes or fabrications from Europe. We need the kind of style you find in a regional mall," Warner Bros.' Starrett says of emphasis on play clothes.

Baseball-style shirts with matching shorts--not exactly hot fashion--are the most popular items in Disney and Warner Bros. stores. Knee-length baggy shorts made of fleece, chambray shirts and baseball caps are also big sellers.

Most of the sportswear is male-patterned, meaning not sexy, form-fitting or even very feminine. But then, most of these characters are guys: Bugs, Tweety, Mickey, Goofy, Big Bird all have the Y chromosome. (What of Miss Piggy? She of the lavender gloves and porcine pearls is solely owned by the Jim Henson estate and isn't featured in the Sesame Street stores.)

The merchandise may be silly, but the dangling price tags are quite righteous.

Chambray shirts with embroidered characters peeking out from the front placket sell for $38 at Warner Bros. and $42 at Disney. Baseball caps are $14 at Sesame Street, Warner Bros. and Disney. Single-pocket Ts with embroidered characters emerging from the pocket sell for $20 at Sesame Street, $22 at Disney and Warner Bros.

Character fanatics, or, shall we say, the faithful, have favorites that drive sales and add to the merchandise mix.

As one might expect, Mickey Mouse reigns supreme at the Disney Stores; his M logo baseball cap, $14, is the bestseller. Bugs Bunny is tops at Warner Bros. Studio Stores, but Tasmanian Devil, or Taz as he is called in the biz, is in the No. 2 spot. His ferocious temper and insatiable appetite seem to appeal to men. "It's a macho thing," Starrett says.

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