x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A man for all seasonings

As he enters his seventh decade, Mr Potato Head's appeal shows no sign of fading and he is even expected to enjoy a resurgence as a toy during the credit crunch.


He is an American icon. Film star, family man, anti-cancer campaigner, art critic, TV host, presidential honoree, sanctions-buster, campaigner for female suffrage, and - of course - a wholesome and tasty vitamin C-packed comestible. Mr Potato Head, first conceived 60 years ago this year, is one of the enduring faces of Anglo-American childhood. And as he enters his seventh decade, the veteran toy still shows no signs of turning green and growing unwelcome sprouts.

It was this week reported that the toy superstore Hamleys, based in London but recently expanded to the Dubai Mall, is anticipating that the credit crunch will return anxious shoppers to trusted classics, rather than flashy new toys, this Christmas. Already they are seeing a boost in sales for the retro-looking "Time Capsule Barbie", the Slinky - a simple metal spring that has been tumbling over itself for 60 years - and, of course, Mr Potato Head himself.

The popularity of the Dh49 (US$13) toy is expected to be given a further fillip by this summer's 3-D re-releases of Toy Story and Toy Story 2. With his return to the silver screen in next summer's Toy Story 3, he will crown a career that has seen a humble, silly-eared spud beamed around the world. As well as being one of the longest-lasting toys in manufacturing history, Mr Potato Head is also a landmark in the history of "pester power". He bears the distinction of having been the first toy advertised on television.

Mr Potato Head's life began in humble circumstances, however: in the Brooklyn back yard of toy inventor George Lerner, who in 1949 hit on the idea of sticking bits of fruit onto a potato to make a "funny face man". In the post-war austerity years, Lerner started trying to pitch his invention - then, just a bag of stick-on noses, ears, eyes and mouths - to toy manufacturers. He struggled to find acceptance, eventually selling a firm that made breakfast cereal the right to include his toy in their packets as a giveaway.

In 1951, though, he persuaded the company that was to become the toy giant Hasbro to buy the rights to the toy from the cereal company. On April 30, 1952, the first Mr Potato Head Funny Face Kit ? "Any Fruit or Vegetable Makes a Funny Face Man" ? went on sale for 98 cents. The original playset contained hands, feet, ears, two alternative mouths and sets of eyes, four noses, three hats, spectacles and a pipe. Eight felt shapes stood in for facial hair. The first year saw Hasbro sell more than a million playsets.

Mr Potato Head - in the simple dignity of his original conception - retains the boilerplate look of 1950s American suburbia: the tidy moustache, the hat, the spectacles, the large ears and nose of the middle-aged, middle-American burgher. As McCarthyism gripped America, and Eisenhower warned of the "falling domino" effect of Communism, Mr Potato Head embodied the steadying values of American middle-class materialism, acquiring cars, boat trailers, and new kitchens with the release of successive playsets.

Until 1987, when Mr Potato Head gave up smoking, he was often to be found chewing ruminatively on the stem of a pipe. Over the course of his long history - it's notable that only now is Mr Potato Head actually the age he appears to be - he has fallen victim to the expansion of regulations into every aspect of life. His use-your-own potato body was a cause of controversy from the beginning. In the aftermath of rationing, on the grounds that food was not for playing with, it had been an obstacle to toy manufacturers. But in 1964, it went altogether.

Forced by government regulations to make the push-pins that fixed his features to his head blunter - thus making them near-impossible for a child to push into a potato ? Hasbro decided to include a ready-made potato-shaped plastic body with the set, with pre-drilled holes for the features to stick into. 1973 saw the size of the stick-on parts double in response to further safety concerns ? and with them the size of Mr Potato Head's potato head, now not a potato.

In the 1980s, in response to increased awareness of the dangers of cancer of the potato, he surrendered his pipe to the US Surgeon General at a formal event in Washington, DC. He thereafter campaigned against tobacco with the zeal of a convert, becoming official "spokespud" for the Great American Smokeout. In 1992 he received an award from the President's Council for Physical Fitness. In 1996, Mr and Mrs Potato Head joined the League of Women Voters and campaigned to get the female vote out in the Clinton-Dole election. Clinton became the first Democratic president to be re-elected since Franklin Roosevelt. He was also the first president in history to have been elected without winning the male vote.

Mr Potato Head now stands at the head of a whole dynasty. With his wife, Mrs Potato Head (married, 1953), he was at first parent to Brother Spud and Sister Yam. This no-legged 1950s nuclear family gave way in due course to a whole extended family of potato-headed products. Mr Potato Head is a palimpsest. As adaptable and protean an American icon as the hamburger or the baseball cap, this simple creature has been reinvented countless times as the culture has changed around him.

In 1968, with the "Mr Potato Head On The Moon" playset, Mr Potato Head beat his countryman Neil Armstrong to Tranquillity Base by a year. He has been a princess, a pop star, a surgeon, a pirate, a construction worker, a policeman, an explorer, a celebrity chef, a mermaid and a clown - not to mention, if you buy the "Sassy Spud" accessories pack, a Sex and The City-style tuber-about-town. The hip-hop artist Jayceon Terrell Taylor, best known by his stage name The Game, even released a song called "Mr Potato Head" as part of his ongoing feud with a rival rapper, G-Unit. Sample lyrics: "I made you! Yes I made you! Mr Potato Head, I made you! I made you! I made you! Mr Potato Head, I made you!"

Mr Potato Head has never been out of production in the six decades of his life as a toy. The decisive incident in recent memory, though - and one that brought him to a whole new generation of fans, was his scene-stealing part in Pixar's 1995 animated classic Toy Story. Mr Potato Head ? in classic 1950s-style array - appeared as a lugubrious, accident-prone character with a sardonic sense of humour. He was capable of laughing at himself - rearranging his features at random, he exclaimed: "Look! I'm a Picasso!" - but he also evinced a poignant sense of thwarted longing when, watching his owner open a birthday present, he muttered urgently: "Mrs Potato Head, Mrs Potato Head, Mrs Potato Head... hey! I can dream, can't I?"

His dreams came true in the sequel. Toy Story 2 saw Mrs Potato Head's silver screen debut - where she equipped her husband for the film's crucial rescue mission by packing his "angry eyes" and a spare pair of feet into his rear storage compartment. At the end of the film, the Potato Heads adopt a trio of three-eyed squeezy space aliens that have become attached to Mr Potato Head during his adventures.

In the aftermath of Toy Story films, Mr Potato Head enjoyed a massive resurgence of popularity. In 2000 he was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame. Under the umbrella of the huge toy company Hasbro, endorsements of other major Hollywood international marketing franchises have, inevitably, followed. Although Mr Potato Head's resemblance to the footballer Wayne Rooney has often been noted, the two have no formal affiliation. Mr Potato Head lent his image, however, to another footballer, Gary Lineker, who appeared in Potato Head form on an advertisement for Walker's crisps.

It is now possible to buy an intrepid, fedora-sporting Mr Potato Head, themed after Indiana Jones and the "Taters of the Lost Ark" ("press and release the fedora to hear three different short segments from the Indiana Jones theme song"). Star Wars potato heads include "Darth Tater", "Spud Trooper" and "Artoo-Potatoo" figures. A Marvel-comic themed "Spider-Spud", too, has joined the roster - as has the Transformers-themed "Bumble Spud". Collect the lot.

None of these variants on the theme has contained any potato since 1964. Mr Potato Head, it is impossible not to reflect, has travelled a long way since first George Lerner pinned a couple of grapes to a spud and called them "funny face man". *The National