A Stretchy Past: Remembering Stretch Armstrong

Dan Kitwood, Getty Images
Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

One sure sign of a toy craze is annoyed toy store owners, and in 1976, there were plenty of them. The reason? The Kenner Company had introduced a novel 10-inch latex doll that never remained on shelves for more than a few minutes at a time.

He was Stretch Armstrong, and the $11 toy that made Kenner over $50 million in revenue had a secret: He was basically just a big sack of corn syrup.

Stretch Armstrong toys are put on display
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

Stretch came to market before Star Wars, He-Man, G.I. Joe, and other brands shrunk characters down to just a few inches to make their vehicles more affordable. Taken to his literal length, he may have been the largest action figure ever produced. By tugging on his arms, legs, and torso, the toy could expand to a Reed Richards-esque 4 feet long. Similar-sized toys may have had cloth outfits and cool accessories, but kids couldn't tie them into literal knots.

The idea for a stretchable toy was hatched at Kenner in 1974 by design director Jesse Horowitz, who shared a satellite office in New York with the company's vice president of research and development, James "Jeep" Kuhn. "My job was to come up with ideas," Horowitz tells Mental Floss. "Every week or two, he'd take a look and say, 'I like that one.'"

One of the sketches that caught Kuhn's eye was what Horowitz called "Stretch Man." It was a figure that kids could treat like taffy, contorting his limbs until they snapped back into place. Initially, the idea used coiled springs for a skeleton, but that was dismissed when concerns grew over the potential for kids to cut themselves on the metal.

"Jeep, being a chemical engineer, said, 'We could put some syrup in it instead," Horowitz says. "So we sent our secretary out to buy a bunch of Karo syrup at the local A&P. We cleaned out the shelves."

In the office, Kuhn, Horowitz, and a model maker named Richie Dubek boiled down the corn syrup until it was devoid of air and filled their sample latex molds. They showed it to Kenner president Bernie Loomis, who quickly signed off on the product.

For mass production, the company eventually settled on using a mold to create a latex “muscleman” without a head: His neck would be the filling station for a gooey infusion of corn syrup, which was cut with micron-sized bits of glass and wood particles to help increase his volume. After some experimentation, Kenner arrived at just the right viscosity of syrup that would let Stretch return to his regular proportions without harming his latex dermis.

The patent speculated that the process could be applied to everything from a sumo wrestler to a giraffe to a “shapely woman.” While Horowitz had considered making a sumo man, his prototype was too heavy and the idea was discarded. As for the woman, he says Kenner considered it, but not as a stretch figure. "They thought they could take the corn syrup and make a more realistic doll, since Bernie wanted to beat Barbie at the time," he says. "But it never went anywhere."

In the end, the company stuck with Stretch for their holiday 1976 debut. Supported by television spots, the toy was quickly cleaned off shelves, joining Pong games and Kenner’s own Bionic Woman figure as one of the biggest retail successes of the season—not to mention one of the largest consumers of corn syrup in the country.

In the event kids nicked Stretch, he came with 10 tiny bandages to re-seal his skin. Still, the force of play sometimes left him oozing his gelatinous red plasm, particularly around his neck, where his head had been affixed with an O-ring to close his syrup orifice.

Stretch sold steadily from 1976 to 1979, at which point the novelty seemed to wear off. Market saturation could have been one reason: In addition to Kenner’s Stretch Octopus, Stretch Monster, and Stretch X-Ray, the Mego Corporation allegedly took some manufacturing secrets from a disgruntled ex-Kenner employee and started issuing a line of Elastic superheroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman. Kenner sued for unfair competition, and a judge barred Mego from exporting factory technology to make the dolls. But it was a largely moot point as the toys' popularity was already well in decline.

Today, Stretch’s relatively fragile nature has made him a valuable aftermarket item. Armstrong dolls in a box that aren’t bleeding profusely from '70s wounds can fetch over $1000 on auction sites, with especially rare versions or prototypes worth more. Mego’s Batman knockoff, considered by some to be a holy grail of stretchable collecting, once sold for $15,000.

Horowitz keeps in touch with collectors, who are typically interested in his original sketches and molds. One of the earliest Stretch samples, however, didn't survive long enough to become a vintage collectible. "I remember taking one of the first samples home and putting it on our bookshelf," Horowitz says. "Because it was facing the window, the UV light just ate right through the latex and the red syrup came dripping down all over my wife's books. I was in the doghouse for a while after that."

The Big Squeeze: How Mr. Whipple Made Advertising History

Charmin toilet paper icon Mr. Whipple in 1999.
Charmin toilet paper icon Mr. Whipple in 1999.
Bob Riha, Jr., Getty Images

In the 1970s, a handful of famous faces dominated popular culture. There was scandalized former president Richard Nixon; the Reverend Billy Graham; daredevil Evel Knievel; and boxer Muhammad Ali, among others.

Dick Wilson had a face, not a name, that might have come close to being equally recognizable. The English actor was known to millions of Americans as Mr. Whipple, the nervous grocer who spent 21 years and more than 500 commercials pleading with fictional customers to please "don't squeeze the Charmin."

Born in Preston, England, on July 30, 1916, Wilson grew up in Ontario, where he worked as a radio announcer as a teenager, and attended the Ontario College of Art and Design majoring in sculpture. (He would also later serve in the Canadian Air Force during World War II.) Wilson, who was the son of two performers—his father was a vaudeville attraction and his mother a singer—designed scenery for a dance school after graduating and got compensated in the form of dance lessons. Those skills led to Wilson becoming a comedic acrobatic performer on the vaudeville circuit, which led to acting.

The MVP of TP

When Wilson got the call to audition for a toilet paper commercial in 1964, he had already built up a long career in stage, film, and television, including one-off appearances on everything from Bewitched to McHale’s Navy. The call for the commercial came from Wilson's agent, about whom the actor joked he had put on a missing persons list due to the lack of communication.

Toilet paper mascots were, of course, nothing new. As far back as the 1920s, brands like Scott and Charmin had used a variety of figures on packaging that had positive connotations—things like babies, angels, and puppies. Scott had Mr. Thirsty Fibre, a gentleman in a top hat who seemed downright ornery. Charmin, introduced by the Hoberg Paper Company in 1928, used a woman’s silhouette and later a baby to endorse their buttock wipe. (An employee described the pattern on the roll as "charming," leading to its name.)

These mascots were necessary in a time when being explicit about the quality of toilet paper was virtually forbidden. Until 1890, magazines wouldn’t even accept ads for toilet tissue. That year, The Atlantic agreed to print a photo of a package but didn’t allow any advertising copy to accompany it. And prior to 1975, television commercials weren’t allowed use of the phrase toilet paper. It was “bathroom tissue.”

This was the world Wilson found himself in when he beat out 33 would-be Whipples to become the face of the ad campaign. The character was named after George Whipple, a public relations director for ad agency Benton & Bowles, on the premise that no one else could sue Charmin parent company Procter & Gamble, which bought Charmin in 1957, for using their name.

The Big Squeeze

In the world depicted in the ads, Mr. Whipple was a grocer who appeared to have a great deal of anxiety over customers—typically giddy housewives—who couldn’t resist squeezing the Charmin products.

The premise was devised by Benton & Bowles copywriter John Chervokas, who said he was inspired by shoppers who squeezed fruit to evaluate its firmness before buying. Chervokas also wrote Mr. Whipple’s signature plea, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin.”

But squeeze it they did, across 504 ads total from 1964 to 1985. The punchline was that even Mr. Whipple himself could not resist Charmin’s softness, and often gave in to the temptation to squeeze when no one was looking.

The spots were formulaic by necessity. “What are you going to say about toilet paper?” Wilson once asked. “I think we handle it the best way we can.”

A legend is born

In an industry where human mascots can have a high turnover rate—we’re looking at you, Dell Dude—two decades is a notable achievement. Wilson himself considered it a cushy job, once noting that it took just 16 days out of the year. Charmin also provided him with a monthly shipment of toilet paper.

In return, Wilson swore loyalty to Procter & Gamble, refusing to appear in any other commercials or endorse any other products. He also faithfully followed a morals clause in order to protect the character; "I can't be seen coming out of a porn parlor,” Wilson told the Chicago Tribune in 1985.

Wilson appeared sporadically after his retirement in 1985, returning for a series of ad spots in 1999 to celebrate a new, more absorbent version of Charmin. That led to a Lifetime Achievement Award, given to him by the company in 2000, though the ceremony was delayed after a Screen Actors Guild strike complicated things. (Wilson showed up at a rally with the line, “Please don’t squeeze the actors.”)

That same year, the Charmin bear was introduced. Wilson died at age 91 in 2007. While he probably never imagined he would become nationally known for endorsing toilet paper, he maintained a sense of humor about it. When queried about his career squeezing rolls, he enjoyed pointing out where he shot his very first commercial: in Flushing, New York.

He's Also a Client: The Saga of Sy Sperling's Hair Club

Upper Playground, YouTube
Upper Playground, YouTube

Divorced, depressed, and with his midsection growing, Sy Sperling stood in front of a mirror at his home in Long Island in the late 1960s and adjusted his hair. It wasn’t his hair, exactly, but a toupee purchased for the express purpose of obscuring his prematurely shiny crown.

Though he was only 26, Sperling had been losing his hair for years. Now that he was newly single, he felt self-conscious about his receding hairline, believing it would diminish his chances with the opposite sex. He tried combing tufts of hair from the side over to the front. He tried the toupee, which looked like a road-flattened beaver. He tried weaving, which knitted human locks to his existing strands; the first time he shampooed it, it collapsed into a ball of knotted hair.

Like many pioneering spirits before him, Sperling imagined that there had to be a better way—a solution to regaining his lost self-confidence and living the life he desired.

In the coming years, Sperling and his second wife, a hairstylist, would perfect an existing approach with irresistible marketing that provided a solution for millions of follicle-deprived individuals everywhere. And much of that success came from Sperling admitting that he was not just the president. He was also a client.

 

Baldness “cures” date back to the most ancient civilizations. Egyptians used hippopotamus and crocodile fat as hair growth stimulants. In Rome, burning donkey genitals and mixing the ashes with urine was believed to help grow luscious locks. Various concoctions involving poop were believed to work, too.

In more enlightened times, thinning hair could be addressed with transplantation surgery. In 1939, a Japanese dermatologist extracted hair-bearing skin and replanted it by punching a small hole on sites affected by burn injuries. This practice was mirrored by Norman Orentreich, a New York dermatologist who successfully planted hairs into a patient with male pattern baldness in the 1950s. Orentreich was the first person to observe that hairs on the sides of the head were largely resistant to shedding and would therefore remain in place when transplanted to the top or front of the head.

For decades, this was a crude surgical practice, giving rise to a number of patients who had hair sparsely transplanted and created a reputation for heads that appeared to be implanted with “plugs.” It wasn’t until the 1990s that transplants could be more densely packed, offering a convincing restoration of the hairline.

For Sperling, who was born in 1942 and in his 20s when his hair loss became apparent, invasive surgery that was still years away from being refined wasn’t an option. After his sister admonished him to “do something” about the thinning hair that was causing him such grief, he went to a hairstylist who recommended weaving. While somewhat effective, this only seemed practical if hair was remaining on top. Toupees were out, as Sperling had a particular concern over solutions that could fall off or become dislodged during more intimate moments.

"If you're dating and going to be having special moments, how do you explain, 'I got to take my hair off now?'" he asked.

Even with its drawbacks, weaving seemed like the best option. After learning the technique from his stylist, Sperling left his job in swimming pool sales and opened his own salon on New York City's Madison Avenue in 1968. Using $10,000 in capital from credit cards, he leased a vacant business that already had barber-style chairs. Soon, he and his new wife, Amy—who, it turned out, was indifferent to his hair shortage—perfected a technique in which they used a nylon mesh fitted to the scalp. The net-like fabric allowed the head to breathe and for hairs to grow out from under it. It also acted as a base for human hair strands to be woven on top and secured with a polymer adhesive. The entire “system” was secured to the client by weaving the mesh into the hair on the sides. The result was a relatively natural-looking addition that would remain in place through showering, exercising, and—key for Sperling—sexual activity.

The approach took off, enticing New Yorkers and celebrities alike. (Sperling later insisted Jimi Hendrix came in for a fitting in 1969.) Sperling’s business grew steadily throughout the 1970s, but by 1979, sales were leveling off. The problem was that even though he had happy customers, they were reticent to tell friends about their hair-replacement efforts, so word-of-mouth was not reliable. That’s when Sperling decided to advertise.

 

Sperling’s business, then known as the Hair Club for Men, debuted on national television in 1982. One early campaign featured testimonials from actual customers, but the response was minimal. Producers had shot a second spot featuring Sperling himself and considered it as a back-up plan in case the first approach failed. The infomercial aired late at night, when advertising time was cheapest.

Though Sperling was no trained actor or orator, he was genuine. “I’m not just the president,” he said. “I’m also a client.”

When it aired, the reaction was immediate. The Hair Club got 10,000 calls in a month. Interested parties received a brochure discussing various hair-system options and why Sperling’s approach worked. By 1991, there were 40 franchise locations, where clients paid between $2000 and $3500 for a custom mesh that used colored and textured hair to match their natural growth. A maintenance appointment every two months cost $65.

By 1993, the commercial was airing 400 times a day, costing Sperling $12 million annually in advertising expenses. But it was drawing up to $100 million annually in sales. In admitting what most men wouldn't, Sperling engendered trust—and profit.

 

Later, the Hair Club for Men would undergo several cosmetic alterations to its business model. Sperling moved away from strip-mall locations for his clinics and into commercial office spaces to help provide discretion. He even used initials—HCM—on signage to promote privacy.

The “For Men” was dropped as more women suffering from hair loss due to genetics or illness came looking for assistance. Sperling also provided assistance to kids with cancer diagnoses. Through it all, he sold something more than polymers and mesh: Hair Club trafficked in confidence and self-esteem. He allowed reporters to tug on his own hair as a demonstration of quality. It would barely move. "Not bad, eh?" he asked a Spy journalist in 1991. "It really is an amazing transformation."

The hair stayed in place, but Sperling didn’t. In 2000, he sold Hair Club for $45 million to a group of investors who turned around and sold it in 2005 to the Regis hair company for $210 million. Today, Hair Club still offers solutions similar to what Sperling marketed, as well as proven topical treatments like Rogaine (minoxidil), laser combs purported to stimulate growth, and transplantation surgery.

Sperling had an impressive 15-year non-compete clause for the initial sale and spent time in Vancouver and Florida until his death at age 78 in February 2020. Photographs of Sperling in his later years showed that the septuagenarian still had a full head of hair.

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