According to popular belief, Black Friday first emerged in Philadelphia during the 1960s. It was coined by members of the police department to depict the frenzy that ensued when large numbers of suburban residents crowded the city center for shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. This tradition in America grew to immense levels in the 1980s, as news coverage showed grainy and alarming scenes of people pushing and shoving each other during the holiday weekend.
These enthusiastic consumers were eager to purchase Atari gaming systems, Swatch watches, and Cabbage Patch Kids, the soft dolls with small eyes and the signature of a man named Xavier Roberts on their bottoms. The documentary Billion Dollar Babies, directed by Andrew Jenks and narrated by 80s child actor and Doogie Howser, M.D. star Neil Patrick Harris, depicts a unique chapter in recent history, showcasing a time when children were obsessed with unattractive, dimpled toys that made Raggedy Ann dolls seem like supermodels in comparison.
However, the Cabbage Patch Kids had a certain allure, as they each had unique features and came with adoption documents. According to Jenks, the use of technology in the factories ensured that every doll was one-of-a-kind. Additionally, the dolls had a delicate appearance that made owners want to take care of and protect them.
Jenks’s movie takes viewers on a nostalgic journey through the Reagan era and delves into the history and impact of a popular and eccentric toy. Jenks expressed his desire to avoid a simple retelling of the Cabbage Patch Kids’ story by conducting interviews with a diverse group of individuals, including designers, doll enthusiasts, and even Connie Chung, whose news coverage played a role in the toy’s popularity.
Born in 1986, a few years too late to experience the Cabbage Patch insanity firsthand, Jenks has only the dimmest of recollections of Cabbage Patch mania. But when the production company Believe Entertainment approached him about signing on as a director for a film focused on the toy, one that would be an addition to the brainy-nostalgia shelf that includes works about Beanie Babies, BlackBerries and Barbie, he saw an opportunity to tell a story of egregious American hustle and hype.
The interest of the speaker was sparked by the chaos and conflicts surrounding Cabbage Patch Kids. Further investigation revealed a darker side to the world of these dolls. The creator of the popular craze, a 21-year-old art student named Roberts from Georgia, was heavily indebted to a soft-spoken folk artist named Martha Nelson Thomas from Kentucky. Her Little People dolls bore a striking resemblance to the ones that would later appear on cereal boxes and postage stamps and even inspire a skit on Saturday Night Live. Roberts had previously met Thomas at a folk art fair and had paid her for her work, but when his own copycat brand became successful, he was involved in a legal battle over intellectual property rights. He also took legal action against the Garbage Pail Kids, claiming that their chubby faces were too similar to his own product.
Jenks searched through old high school yearbooks to locate Roberts, and was eventually able to find some of his former classmates. After much effort, he was able to meet with Roberts in person. According to Jenks, Roberts had not given an interview in 25 years and was somewhat of a mysterious figure, with rumors circulating that he lived in France. However, it turned out that Roberts was still in the United States, living in a mansion complete with a waterslide connecting a jacuzzi to an indoor pool on a lower floor. He agreed to an extensive interview, during which he acknowledged the significant role Thomas played in his success. He appears to be at ease with the fact that he took her idea and adapted it for the time period of the Reagan administration.
Roberts was not only a skilled artist and entrepreneur, but also a skilled storyteller. The dolls he sold were not simply created in a factory and sold at Toys R Us. According to the legend of Cabbage Patch, a group of BunnyBees – winged creatures with bunny ears – flew over a patch of cabbages and enchanted them with magical crystals. As the cabbages grew, fully formed babies emerged from the leaves.
At Baby Land General Hospital, a Disney-themed attraction in Georgia, children under the Cabbage Patch spell can watch as staff dressed as doctors and nurses deliver babies. (The doll hospital is still operational.) There was a set of rules, with the top one being not to refer to the babies as “dolls” but rather as “babies”.
After Roberts purchased the rights to her invention from Thomas, he enhanced it with an intriguing narrative and marketing. In just a few years, he managed to sell 20 million units, valued at $1.2 billion, as Harris shares with viewers in astonishment.
Reworded: Harris grew up during the Cabbage Patch era and was known to former doll owners as child doctor Doogie Howser. Jenks believed his subversive nature would be a good fit for the project. The director explained, “I wanted a narrator who would enhance the story without overwhelming it. Some narrators make it all about themselves, but Harris was focused on moving the story forward.”
Jenks believes that the Cabbage Patch craze exemplifies the irrational principles of supply and demand. He stated, “It’s a classic example of Econ 101, where scarcity drives hunger and fear.” This fear of scarcity ultimately led to the riots that erupted as shoppers competed to purchase the dolls at any price.
Thomas had no interest in wealth. Her companions were the dolls. In 2013, she passed away from ovarian cancer and at her funeral, her Little People took the front seats.
In the movie, Roberts openly acknowledges that he learned the basics from her. According to Jenks, half of the audience believes he outright stole the idea while the other half sees it as inspiration, typical in the world of art. Roberts does not appear to be bothered by the events that led to his wealth. He simply states that he got the idea from her, paid her for it, and together they created a fantastic work. He takes pride in their collaboration.
The film “Billion Dollar Babies” will be released in US theaters on November 24th and in the UK at a later time.