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VALLEY TOY MAKER REWINDS TO PAST.

Byline: Brent Hopkins Staff Writer

The latest new things in the toy world have a familiar look to them.

A retro craze has been building in the industry for several years, bringing Strawberry Shortcake, Atari, My Little Pony and the Care Bears back to the toy aisle. Brands that brought in billions 20 years ago have risen again for another spin in front of consumers' eyes, hoping that the kids who once pushed them around will now push them into a new generation's hands.

Bob Solomon, chairman and chief executive officer of Woodland Hills-based Applause LLC. is the latest to climb in the way-back machine with the recent introduction of Dream Pets. The miniature toys, originally introduced in 1957 by Applause's R. Dakin & Co. subsidiary, have become a major focus for the plush-makers. Though only in stores for two weeks, he's already landed them in 25 countries with several million orders shipped, part of a plan that Solomon expects will last years.

``These were born in an era of hope and dreams,'' Solomon said, surrounded by scores of the velveteen figures. ``I hope these can make us rewind to a time when we were more inspired.''

The project seems to have inspired Solomon in an unusually personal way, as he's taken to writing biographies of each of the 24 creatures and handpicked which ones will find their way into the line. Originally popular from the 1950s to the early 1980s, the Dream Pets could one day become the basis of animated, publishing and music projects. Solomon's currently involved in talks to release a line of CDs with period music tied to the Dream Pets, whose original versions can command up to several hundred dollars in the collectible market.

While Solomon's investment in the retro-themed project is significant, he's far from alone in looking to the past for the toys of the future. Malibu-based Jakks Pacific has seen strong success with its TV Games line, a small, plug-in game system that re-creates titles of the 1980s like Pac-Man and Asteroids, and it invested even more heavily with this week's announcement that it plans to acquire Play Along, manufacturer of Cabbage Patch Kids and Care Bears. The 20-year time span between the toys' original introduction and now has created what Jay Foreman, CEO of Play Along, terms ``the magic period,'' that turns the original kids into parents themselves.

``They go in the store, they see Cabbage Patch Kids, they say, Oh my God, I had those as a kid, I remember when my mom got a black eye from the neighbor because I just had to have one of those,'' Foreman said. ``Now they think, I'll buy that for my kid, she'll understand it just like I did.''

The second time isn't always the charm, however, as reintroductions of He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have underperformed in recent years. The retro craze has also opened the toy world up to criticism for a lack of originality, with Foreman going so far to say that the industry hasn't created many better toys since the '80s.

``It speaks to how difficult it is to launch a new property,'' said Chris Byrne, a toy consultant in New York. ``With the cost of creating a blip on the child's radar screen so high, it's really a challenge. The retailers, who are the ultimate gatekeepers, are a little risk-averse, so they go with the brands that worked before.''

Jakks tried this tack with a twist for its TV Games, using the classic graphics and games of the Atari 2600 and Namco arcade machine, but with more modern packaging.

``It's taking the old technology of the games and blending it with today's tech to shrink it down to one small chip,'' said Anson Sowby, Jakks' director of marketing. ``It's the nostalgia, the good ol' days. Now video games are such a cool, in-thing and back then, it was a geekier, underground thing.''

Though his nostalgia comes in the form of a furry red bull the size of a grapefruit, rather than a circuit board, Solomon has bought into the retro feeling wholeheartedly. Just to get his hands on the original designs, all of which his company can reproduce exactly, he's even authorized his employees to pay any price to re-collect them on eBay.

``I'm invested here way beyond money,'' he said. ``These are transgenerational. They bring me a feeling I haven't felt in 20 years or more.''

Brent Hopkins, (818) 713-3738

brent.hopkins(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

9 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) Bob Solomon, CEO of Woodland Hills-based Applause LLC, shows some of the various Dream Pets that his company offers.

(2 -- color) DOLLY

(3 -- color) FLYING TIGER

(4 -- color) CLARABELLE

(5 -- color) HONOLULU HARRY

(6 -- color) ROQUEFORT

(7 -- color) HENRIEN HIPPO

(8 -- color) MIMI OCTOPUS

(9 -- color) HORSE BEAUTIFUL

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 23, 2004
Words:808
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