December 09, 2023


            American Greetings had a hit with their line of Strawberry Shortcake dolls in the early 1980s; selling plenty of the fruity-smelling toys themselves as well as tie-in merchandise like stickers, lunchboxes, and anything else they could slap the characters’ images on. But what was next?

The original 10: Tenderheart Bear, Cheer Bear, Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Wish Bear, Good Luck Bear, Friend Bear, Love-a-Lot Bear, Grumpy Bear and Funshine Bear.

            Jack Chojnacki and Ralph Shaffer, co-presidents of American Greetings’ character development division, Those Characters From Cleveland (currently known as Cloudco Entertainment), strategized with their toy-manufacturing partner, Kenner, over that very thing. Kenner wanted to expand from the plastic toy market into the plush one; in particular, with their own kind of teddy bears as they made up 40% of the plush market. TCFC, however, had the unenviable task of trying to figure out how they could make their own distinctive version of a toy that had been around for 80 years by that point. Artist Elena Kucharik was commissioned to do some preliminary sketches of the bear characters. Another artist, Dave Polter, was hired to do work on a card line that used symbols to convey emotions; universal symbols understood by parents and kids alike such as hearts and rainbows. Shaffer then was struck with the inspiration to put those symbols onto the bears, turning them into a representation of human emotions that could help parents talk to their kids about them.

The original 10 Care Bears around Care-A-Lot.

            The characters’ designs went through constant revisions as they tried to finalize their ultimate looks, with Linda Denham, Linda Edwards, Muriel Fahrion, Tom Schneider and Clark Wiley all playing a role in their design. Designer Sue Trentel, who was responsible for bringing Strawberry Shortcake to life, was again tasked with turning the drawings into actual plushies. The end result was 10 bears of different colors representing 10 different emotions: Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Cheer Bear, Friend Bear, Funshine Bear, Good Luck Bear, Love-a-Lot Bear, Tenderheart Bear, Wish Bear, and, to balance out all the sweetness, Grumpy Bear. Each one had a distinctive symbol known as Belly Badges on their tummies depicting their role or specialty, heart-shaped noses, and a heart-shaped brand on their backs to mark them as officially part of the line. Edwards came up with the name “Care Bears” during a naming session. Lore was established that the Care Bears resided in the town of Care-a-Lot (a play on Camelot) within the cloud-based Kingdom of Caring, which featured rainbows and architecture comprised of or adorned with hearts and stars. The Care Bears would journey down to Earth to complete missions of caring, typically by using their Care Bear Stare: an ability to project a glittery beam of energy from their tummy symbols that can subdue an enemy’s evil or heal people and objects.

Merchandising bonanza.

            With American Greetings’ CEO Morry Weiss’ blessing, Chojnacki embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign for the Care Bears. Aside from the dolls and greeting cards themselves, thousands of licensed products were set up to launch simultaneously with a potential plan for animated adaptations. With 26 licensees on board, it made it easier to get stores interested in carrying the bears.

Kenner's Care Bear offerings.

            After 2 years and millions of dollars, Care Bears were introduced to investors in 1982 and to the public at Toy Fair in New York City. A one-night-only play centered around the characters was produced, which had Strawberry Shortcake introduce the Care Bears to the world. The line’s official launch came in February of 1983 as stuffed toys tended to sell better around Easter time. And sell they did, rapidly moving off shelves along with their associated merchandise and greeting cards. As part of the line’s promotion, an animated special was commissioned from Atkinson Film-Arts studio called The Care Bears in the Land Without Feelings, which adapted the Parker Brothers book Caring is What Counts. The special saw a young boy named Kevin (Justin Cammy) running away to the Land Without Feelings when his family decides to move, and mad scientist Professor Coldheart (Les Lye) turns him into a goblin slave.

The Care Bear Cousins: Swift Heart Rabbit, Proud Heart Cat, Lotsa Heart Elephant, Gentle Heart Lamb, Brave Heart Lion, Cozy Heart Penguin, Playful Heart Monkey, Bight Heart Raccoon, Loyal Heart Dog and Treat Heart Pig.

            In 1984, a spin-off line was introduced called the Care Bear Cousins, featuring animals besides bears and the Care Cousin Call instead of the Care Bear Stare.  A second special followed, called The Care Bears Battle the Freeze Machine, which introduced new characters Baby Hugs (Noreen Young), Baby Tugs, their caretaker Grams Bear, and Coldheart’s sidekick, Frostbite (Bob Dermer). This special had a new kid, Paul (Dominic Bradford), who wanted revenge on his bullies and ended up being tricked by Coldheart into fixing his Careless Ray Contraption, which he intended to use to freeze every kid in town. It won an award for Best Children’s Program at the National ACTRA Awards.

            Since the line’s conception, ideas for a feature film had been in the works. American Greetings chose Nelvana, on the verge of bankruptcy due to the failure of their 1983 film Rock & Rule, to work on the film based on the Strawberry Shortcake specials they had previously done for them and their experience making a feature (even if it ended in disaster). The Care Bears Movie became one of the first to be based on an established toy line. Written by Peter Sauder and directed by Arna Selznick, the film was released on March 29, 1985 and marked the animated debut of the Care Bear Cousins. The story saw the Care Bears team up with a couple of orphans to stop an evil spirit (Jackie Burroughs) from destroying all happiness in the world. Despite negative reviews, the film went on to gross $34 million against a $2 million budget, making it a success.

A Playful Heart Monkey greeting card.

            With everything riding along smoothly, it was time to take the next step and turn the Care Bears into a television sensation…

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