I was sorry to learn tonight that inventor and television producer Ken Forsse has passed away at the age of 77 due to natural causes.
Ken is probably best known as the creator of the popular `80s talking teddy bear Teddy Ruxpin, but he had a passionate interest in puppetry throughout much of his life, especially animatronics.
Ken began his career in his teens, designing latex puppets for a series of unsold TV pilots in Burbank, California during the late 1950s. After completing a stint in the army in 1962, he wanted to create his own puppet show and slowly began developing the concept that would eventually become Teddy Ruxpin.
Over the next two decades Ken tinkered with various ideas for puppets and talking toys while working at a variety of entertainment companies in California, including Sid & Marty Krofft’s and Disney Imagineering. He became enamored with audio-animatronics technology during this period and eventually formed a company called AlchemyII in his garage to further develop his concepts.
One of AlchemyII’s first inventions was a Teddy Ruxpin-esque walk-around animatronic teddy bear with animated features that synced to a prerecorded voice track. After executives at Disney saw the bear in action they commissioned AlchemyII to create full body animatronic costumes for the live action TV series Welcome to Pooh Corner and Dumbo’s Circus:
It was around this time that Ken licensed the design for Teddy Ruxpin to a toy company called Worlds of Wonder for mass production:
The toy used a simplified version of AlchemyII’s audio-animatronic system to sync Teddy Ruxpin’s animated features to playback back from a cassette deck built into his back. By inserting interchangeable story cassettes children could make Teddy “read” different books out loud to them. The innovative toy – nothing quite like it had ever been made before – was an instant hit with children.
Teddy Ruxpin quickly became the best selling toy in North America and the success enabled Ken to realize his dream, producing a live action TV special called The Adventures Of Teddy Ruxpin:
Unlike the later, better-known Teddy Ruxpin animated series, this special utilized AlchemyII’s puppets and full body animatronic costumes, as Ken explained in a 1999 interview:
After the initial success of the talking toy, we were able to sell a one-hour special to ABC. At that point, the costume animation technology was our preferred choice for a Teddy Ruxpin Television production.
The Alchemy staff, which had grown to 200 people at that point, did an amazing job in producing the series. The settings, props and miniatures were works of art. The audio tracks were created first…animation programing signals were recorded on separate tracks and transmitted to each character costume. Each night the programing was done for the following days shooting. There were duplicates of each costume because of the hard use they received. Many of the actors inside the costumes were little people.
The Special allowed us to build many of the costumes and settings that could have also been used on a series. However, the production proved to be too expensive to be sustained as a syndicated series.
When a live action Teddy Ruxpin series proved unfeasible, an animated series was commissioned instead. A total of 65 episodes were made with only limited involvement from Ken and AlchemyII. The series remains available on DVD today and still enjoys a small, but very passionate fanbase.
Unfortunately, a series of poor financial decisions forced Worlds of Wonder to file for bankruptcy in 1988. All of its assets (including the rights to Teddy) were liquidated and production of the toys was temporarily brought to a halt. A series of companies have since brought out several new versions over the past twenty-five years that have been well-received, but Teddy’s never quite reached the heights of popularity that he once had.
Despite Teddy’s inevitable decline in popularity, I think that the joy that talking bear brought to so many children combined with the spirit of imagination that brought him to life remains a fine and fitting tribute to his innovative creator.
Rest in peace Ken. We’ll dream with you tonight.
*With special thanks to Sarah Acosta for passing along the news of Ken’s passing
26/3/14 Update: It was nice to see that NBC has picked this story up and shared some additional information as well as some memories of Ken from his wife Jan. A number of International news outlets are also covering the story now.