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Blast-From-the-Past Toys

November 28, 2002

Forget for a moment the sins of the fathers. Concentrate on the toys of the fathers, and mothers, about to be visited on unsuspecting children honing wish lists to whisper in Santa's ear.

This holiday season will be about culling Christmas presents from the ghosts of Christmas past. Barbie got another face lift. GI Joe reenlisted. Care Bears and Tickle Me Elmo are plotting comebacks. Even the venerable Uno cards and Magic 8 Ball are back.

A year ago, holiday shopping carts were filled with comfort foods, scented candles and board games designed to bring families together. Sales of fireman and paramedic action dolls soared. Unseasonably warm weather couldn't dampen demand for fireplace logs among Americans trying to rekindle holiday spirit.

The season's retro toys come courtesy of a toy industry that failed in the annual mad dash to identify a gotta-have gizmo to set children nagging and parents frantically searching. Manufacturers are stealing a page from Hollywood and seeking shelter in sequels -- in effect, betting that "Citizen Kane's" Rosebud will blossom again for a new generation.

Magic 8 Ball eschews one-size-fits-all advice for the lovelorn and instead offers the octagonal wit and wisdom of Homer Simpson. Old-fashioned Uno cards wear Spiderman graphics. Barbie has doffed Rapunzel's wig. Lovable Elmo climbs back on the toy shelf as Chicken Dance Elmo.

It might sound like child's play, but toy sales are a $29-billion-a-year business, and the biggest season of the retail year officially begins Friday. Absent a Barney or Cabbage Patch doll to lead the charge, a grizzled GI, a dancing fur ball and other play-bin veterans are being forced into the breach.

The toy industry has revved up its marketing machine. Commercials during the Saturday morning cartoon shows shout "new and improved" in the hope that Play-Doh and battery-powered Star Wars light sabers will bridge the generation gap. Toy company executives, meanwhile, cross their fingers and offer desperate prayers that finicky children won't simply turn up their noses at yesterday.

Hollywood has made fortunes by going back to the future, so who's to say Davy Crockett coonskin caps won't soon be riding high on our heads? That said, there are valid reasons to leave the past in, well, the past. Are the arbiters of all things fashionable serious about returning shag carpet and fondue pots to the spotlight? Turn over that Magic 8 Ball and see what Homer has to say. "D'oh!"

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