When you think about it, having a kid cuddle up every night with a replica of a roaring 300-pound, spine-rattling, teeth-baring omnivore was a marketing leap of faith from the get-go.
But it worked. And since then, a household rodent has launched a veritable entertainment empire, complete with theme parks. A tiger has been the spokes-animal for a kids’ cereal for more than 60 years. An amorous skunk has been a star for some 70 years.
So, just maybe, putting a huggable bear into a kid's bed on a cold winter night wasn't such a bad idea after all.
Bears — fake ones — have been invading American homes for more than 100 years now. The first teddy bear was inspired by a 1902 Washington Post cartoon featuring president Teddy Roosevelt and a little cub. A real bear.
The ol’ Rough Rider was hunting black bears in Mississippi at the time, which some might not realize. And the ending of the perhaps little-known story was not something you want to tell the kids at bedtime. It’s all detailed in a recent Post story.
Still, ol’ T.R. putting down his rifle and saving a beat-up, defenseless little bear in the wilds of the American South?
Awwwww. Give us something to hug already.
From the Post:
“No longer were wild animals something to be hated and feared. Instead, creatures should be protected in the wild and cuddled — in their inanimate, stuffed-animal forms — in our children’s beds. This anecdote fit right into the modern conservation crusade that started with Roosevelt: Animals were the underdogs now and it was our fault. “
So bears squeezed into beds next to kids and everybody was happy. Especially toy makers. And soon, as America’s entertainment options moved beyond radio, animals moved into mass-produced children’s books, moving pictures and television. Walking, talking, wise-cracking animated animals of every stripe were everywhere.
Mice. Tigers. Monkeys. Cats. Dogs. Ants. Lions. Road runners. Coyotes. Roosters. Rabbits. Horses. Pigs. Raccoons. Hedgehogs.
And always, of course, bears.
Black bears. Brown bears. Cola-guzzling polar bears. Honey-loving stuffed bears.
Some, like the original teddy bear, can trace their origins back to a real, live bear. Some are simply the product of imagination; of a novelist, a cartoonist, a marketer.
Here’s the backstory on five of the best-known fictional bears in American lore:
Winnie-the-Pooh — OK. He’s not American. English author A.A. Milne invented the somewhat dim — “he was a bear of very little brain” — but always well-intentioned Pooh for a story that appeared in a London newspaper in 1925. Milne inhabited his Pooh tales — which later grew to include two books and a Disney franchise — with all sorts of animals, including Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, a kangaroo and her child (Kanga and Roo), the perpetually depressed donkey Eeyore and a bouncy tiger named Tigger. (In Disney cartoons and movies, Tigger spelled that, “T-I-double guh-rrrr.”)
Pooh is a stuffed bear which, in effect, means he’s modeled after Roosevelt’s Mississippi black bear. But Pooh is named after Winnie (the shortened version of Winnipeg), a Canadian black bear in the London Zoo.
Winnie was such a favorite of one boy who visited the zoo that he named his stuffed bear Winnie. That boy? A.A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin. He’s the boy in the Pooh stories.
Yogi Bear (and Boo Boo) — These cartoon buddies are about as American as Teddy Roosevelt and big guns. Based on real bears, though, they’re not.
Still, they are based on more than someone’s wild imagination. Some have said Yogi and his little sidekick, who both live in the fictional Jellystone Park and love to poach “pic-a-nic” baskets from unsuspecting vacationers, were modeled after another American institution. To be sure, Yogi’s voice certainly sounded like Art Carney’s, who played Ed Norton in the classic 1950s sitcom, “The Honeymooners.”
A more apparent link for Yogi, though, was with Hall of Fame catcher Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, who played for the Yankees from 1946-63. The cartoon’s creators, Hanna-Barbera, denied that the bear was named for Berra, and at one point Berra sued the company for defamation, though he later withdrew the suit.
But the two names — c’mon, Yogi Bear and Yogi Berra? — were so intertwined that when the ballplayer died last year, the Associated Press actually mistyped his name in a bulletin:
Smokey Bear — Smokey is undoubtedly the most serious of fictional bears. The U.S. Forest Service picked him as its spokes-bear in 1944, and he’s now part of the longest running public service announcement in history.
You know: Only YOU can prevent forest fires.
Smokey started as a purely fictional bear, but the people running the PSA quickly found a real stand-in. The story goes that, on a spring day in 1950, a fire in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico swept through and endangered many rangers, soldiers, Native American crews and volunteers. And one small bear cub.
The bear was nursed back to health and eventually sent to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he lived for 26 years. In 1976, his remains were returned to New Mexico.
A couple of twists: The first fire prevention symbol, in 1944, was not a bear. The first poster featured a deer — “Bambi,” from the 1942 animated Disney film. And the correct name is Smokey Bear. His middle name used by some — “The” — was added for a 1952 song, but the forest service still refers to him as Smokey Bear or Smokey, despite the label on the video below.
Teddy Ruxpin — If you were around in the ‘80s, you remember this guy. He was groundbreaking. He was awe-inspiring. He was, honestly, a little spooky.
With his blinking eyes and moving mouth — all synched with a cassette tape (and later a digital tape) loaded into his back — Teddy Ruxpin would tell stories, becoming the world’s first animatronic toy. He had corresponding books to go with his audio tapes, he had other devices and other outfits and, in the late ‘80s, his own TV series.
Based on no living bear — ever — and with a last name that remains a mystery, Ruxpin hit some hard times over the years. But a company named Wicked Cool Toys plans to re-launch Teddy Ruxpin late next year. Hide the kids.
Baloo — Yes, we’re leaving out the Berenstain Bears, Gentle Ben, all of novelist John Irving’s bears, Paddington Bear, Fozzie Bear and, of course, Ted. All to give the nod to the creation of another English writer.
Our recollections of Baloo, the big “sloth” bear from Kipling’s, “The Jungle Book,” may now be limited to the 1967 animated Disney film. Kipling first imagined Baloo as a “sleepy brown bear who teaches the wolf cubs the Law of the Jungle: old Baloo, who can come and go where he pleases because he eats only nuts and roots and honey ..."
Disney, as Disney does, took Baloo and the fable of Mowgli, a young boy learning the ways of life in the jungle — a “man cub,” as Kipling dubbed him — and gave it the true Hollywood treatment. The book, which was darker than the film, was well received in its time and so, too, was the film, which was turned into a musical comedy.
All of it came straight from the mind of Kipling. Except for the Disney songs and comedy. And the Louis Prima scatting.