Friday, March 25, 2011

A Love Affair of Polyvinyl Chloride

For the most part, let's be honest, plastic can be Evil.

Where it comes from, what it's made of, the toll it has taken and will take on our planet...most of which nobody fully understands or appreciates, is massive.

And yet, it is everywhere.

It is everything.

It is so interwoven into the essence of our society that if you were to snap your fingers and plastic suddenly disappeared from the surface of the Earth, MASS CHAOS would follow. Our universe might actually start to tear itself apart.

OK, maybe not like Fringe. But stuff would fall apart, that's for sure.

And yet, we do love it so.

We love it so much, we give it our kids every day. And we test the SHIT out of it too, making sure the Phthalates are within specifications set down by the CPSC and that the paint has the least amount of toxic elements possible.

OOPS. I'm don't know what the HELL that stuff means do you? Or even Polyvinyl Chloride? Sometimes I forget I'm not actually WORKING these days. Polyvinyl Chloride is commonly abbreviated PVC, and it is the third most produced plastic in the world.

It is commonly used in household items, construction and toys because it is cheap and because of its ability to be easily manipulated by plasticizers, or Phthalates (esters of Phthalate Acid). In other words, it can be softened with very little loss of structure. The problem is that those Phthalates can come out of the product, either by directly chewing on the item, like a baby would on a chew toy, or just in general, by a process called 'outgassing'.

I'm not kidding.

You ever hear of something called 'new car smell'? Well, that's not a good thing. Neither is the smell of that shower curtain you just replaced in the bathroom. That's the smell of the Phthalates in the PVC outgassing...releasing chemical gasses into the air, and studies show it isn't something that is good for you.

Some car manufacturers don't even USE PVC in their car interiors anymore. At all. But that's only as of 2007. Well, shit. I don't know about you, but that's pretty recent, huh? I haven't bought a new car since 2004.

Where am I going with this? Not anywhere you might expect, of course. I always start out zigging and end up zagging. It's how I ROLL. See, I used to work in the toy industry, so I was a Plastics Pimp.

I hope to be again in the future, too. Circumstances don't permit that right now, but I do still dream the dream. The last big job I had in it was working for Palisades Toys, I've talked about that before. Since then, I tried a stab at my own thing, which totally shit the bed, but some of the peeps from THAT old Creatus Maximus forum now hang out in a private Facebook Group.

Yesterday someone in there posts a link to a blog that blows my mind. And THAT'S what I'm zagging towards. You just need to be patient.

See, back at Palisades, the action figure line we were probably best known for was the stuff we did for Jim Henson's The Muppet Show. That line, which had 9 series of action figures, 5 playsets, some smaller figurines, some large scale figures and other miscellaneous items, was probably one of the things I am most proud of in my career.

Simply put...I loved almost every aspect of working on that stuff. And I can only say that about 3 or 4 product lines that I've worked on.

I was a fan of the show, which never hurts. The characters were diverse and there was a deep history and a rich tradition. The licensor and the people who worked there were passionate about their jobs. They loved the characters and yet they were open-minded enough to allow me to earn their respect and to allow me to go in directions they were not used to going with consumer product.

And then there was the fan base, particularly from websites like Muppet Central. Without whom I never, EVER, would have been able to accomplish anything. I was a fan, but not a SUPER fan, like I was with something like Star Wars. I didn't know The Muppet Show inside and out, upside down and backwards and forwards.

They did.

They kept me honest. They supported me. They gave me ideas. They kicked my ass when I needed it. But they gave their time and effort, never asking for anything in return except to have a voice, and in the end I hope they felt they had it, because I tried to make sure they did as much as I could and as often as I could.

I know sometimes they felt that some things were not the way they should have been, and sometimes they weren't. But even though often I would say 'Anything is possible!', the truth is that much of the time it wasn't. Schedule, budget, fuck-ups overseas at the factory, limitations in plastic many factors can result in not achieving the perfection you hope for, the perfection you strive for.

The fact is, nobody was a harsher critic of the outcome of the line than yours truly, even though I took many a hit over those few years on many a forum. But man, did I lose many an hour of sleep in those days.

Funny what I lose sleep over now compared to then.

During the years we put the Muppet figure line out, we released 5 playsets. They were The Muppet Labs with Beaker, The Electric Mayhem Stage with Animal, The Swedish Kitchen with The Swedish Chef, Pigs in Space with First Mate Piggy and the Backstage Playset with Rowlf.

Two other Playsets were on the legitimate drawing board, and by that I mean they were actually in R & D stages. The Electric Mayhem Bus, technically a vehicle, and The Muppet Theatre. Both were in some form of conceptual development.

The EM Bus was getting reference gathered, and hell, we were even thinking of buying the bus itself because as luck would have it, it was being sold at the time. As it is, we were playing around with possibly cheating the scale to make it affordable to produce at that size.

The Theatre was something that was always in the back of our minds, and James Carroll, who contributed a TON to the line in a lot of different ways, had done a concept sketch that integrated that set and some of the other things we had been dreaming about adding in later if the line expanded.

Neither were made, and honestly the Backstage Playset BARELY got made.

The truth is, and this is just me guessing because I have never come right out and asked him, but I'll bet Mike Horn's decision to release that playset was probably based more on his loyalty to the work we'd put into it, his faith in his sales team that they could pull one out of a hat in the 4th quarter and his gratitude for what the fan base had been for the company than anything else.

Because from the onset? As the smaller retailers were dropping like flies and our overall sales numbers were dropping with them? Things did NOT look good for that set which was already hip-deep in massive prototype costs and tooling costs. I don't think anybody internally would have blamed Mike a bit if he had decided to cut bait, eat the costs up to that point and cancel the playset outright.

His decision to roll the dice and try for the hard six? Balls. But that's Horn. One of the reasons I respect him. I've never seen ANYBODY try harder to make something work. He doesn't give up until he has exhausted every last conceivable possibility. Period. End of sentence.

That's passion. I had it for the look and feel of the line as the Product Development Director and then as the VP. The fans had it for the product. The Jim Henson Company had it for their brand. Mike had it for his company.

Which is why I was so awestruck when I saw the work of Lance Cardinal, in his blog called Cardinal Designs, and his hand-made Muppet Theatre Playset. Because I haven't seen this level of passion in a while for something related to The Muppets, and it almost instantaneously took me back to those days.

The level of detail in his set is extraordinary. It is exceptional. And it is almost exactly how I imagined our next set would look-like, complete with fabric curtains and the interchangeable back-drops, though he took it to the next level and added lights, something I probably would not have messed around with. That adds a layer of budget and testing that I know we would have wanted to avoid, which is why we stayed away from that AND sound in all the previous sets.

But wow, seeing those pics really made me miss the old days. In a big way. But they are gone. LONG gone.

In fact, I thought about this last night at Toys'R'Us.

Last night, Jennifer, Carter and I went out to dinner. Every Thursday night now, we have a respite night. Not sure if I have mentioned that. Bennett spends the night with Jen's Mom, and we spend the evening with Carter by ourselves.

This is a good thing, and yet it isn't.

It is nice, and yet it also makes me very, very sad at the same time. I can't explain this very well, but at dinner at the restaurant I looked around at the other 'normal' families and felt like ours was 'broken' somehow. It felt...incomplete.

I wish I had adequate words to explain why, at a time when I should have been feeling happy, I had tears just on the edge of my eyes. AGAIN. I just wanted my other son to be able to be there with us. That's all. Simple as that. Our family was missing its Sal Manilla. Missing its Muppet Theatre. Only some people will get that Muppety reference.

Without Bennett there, it just isn't the same. And yet, we can't take Bennett there, because if we did, it would be CHAOS.

Later, as a treat for Carter because of how hard he is trying with his reactions to Bennett's aggression, we took him to TRU to pick something out. I took the opportunity to also look at some stuff that I might want to pick up, see if any of the TRU MiniMates sets were there, which of course they were not. They never are. Did find the Bioshock 2 Big Daddy Exclusive on Clearance and picked up one, feeling bad for Randy at NECA when I did so, knowing that it is gonna be biting him eventually and hoping that they are doing OK in this economy.

As always, I was so alarmed at the prices of the action figures. My God, it wasn't all that long ago that a Star Wars figure was under five bucks, and now they are almost EIGHT. And the DC Universe figures? Forget about it. FIFTEEN DOLLARS?!? Wow. Even the MiniMates have seen a price hike from $4.99 for a 2-pack to $5.99.

I understand all the reasons why, believe me. More than you know. It also makes me appreciate those 'good old days' even more than I already do, because they are NOT coming back. To put a figure like this...

...out today? The retail on it would have to be $20.00, and who would pay that? I can't think of anyone. That retail price is based on all the old numbers, too, of cost and quantity produced and such, plugged into a spreadsheet we used to have.

The Muppets line would be one and done if it were released today in that format, and that's a fact.

Since Palisades there has been some Muppets product that has been made, some Disney stuff I believe. I've even heard rumors of new Muppets product on the horizon possibly. I don't expect it to look anything like the Palisades stuff. Nor SHOULD it.

It can't.

Well, that's not entirely true. There is ONE way you could continue that formula, even using Sesame Street characters, in that same style with that same level of sophistication and detail, and still make money.

But I'm not gonna write about it here. Isn't there something about giving away the milk or the cow or something like that? Well, in this case it would be a Muppet Cow, Maria (if you're reading this), but you know what I mean.

But I promise, if Jennifer ever wins the lottery I will definitely show you that it CAN happen. ;)


OH...and by the way...those Muppet figures were ALL made back in the early part of the 2000's, before the new, more stringent guidelines. If ANY of you have young kids NOT let them chew on that shit...seriously.

This stuff is age-graded for a reason.

OK, NOW I'm done.


  1. Hey Ken,

    Great post.... looking at that theater set last night made me wish I had one of the Backstage Playsets.... tear.

    Who knew when I purchased my first Palisades Muppet, Fozzie Bear, that it would lead me down a road of toy collecting I don't think I would have ever gone down. I have met some amazing people, yourself included, that I wouldn't have met. I started going to conventions because of Palisades and wanting to get the show exclusives. That one simple Muppet has changed my life entirely. A good thing? My wallet and bank account might not think so, but I am def a better person because of it.

    Thanks again for doing what you did with the Muppet line. I really do appreciate it.


  2. I really enjoyed this one, Ken. I even stuck with you. When you "zigged" in your story, I "zigged" and then we both "zagged" back together. Good stuff. Fantastic refrences. It's interesting to hear that you think these figures would be around the $20 mark these days. I like it when you talk about the good 'ol days. I'd like it evne more if you sent me that damned Big Bird proto as a Christmas present!
    Anyway, I read your blogs all the time but never commented on them. Just wanted you to know I was still here.


  3. LOVE

    I would buy that theater set in a heartbeat. It is so astoundingly beautiful.

    I've been considering selling quite a few of my collectibles. But Muppets will remain with me. Always.

  4. Ken,

    That was an amazing post. To anyone that knows me they know how much I love Palisades Muppet line. There never has been any toy collecting experience, before or since, that has meant so much to me. The friends I met, the toys I bought, the discussions on the Palisades boards... it is almost indescribable how great the entire experience was and still is when I think of those days or look at the Muppet toys.

    My experience started with just one figure, Bunsen. Well I thought I was only getting one figure haha. From that moment on I was hooked and my adventure started right then and there. I often think of those days with great affection.

    The Muppet line came along at just the right time for me and no toy collecting will ever compare to how special this one is.

    Thanks to you Ken and everyone who was at Palisades. It meant the world to me.

    - Shane (bats1990)

  5. My son would adore what you do -- he's a big fan of sets of things -- plastic characters, etc.

    As for PVC's, after sixteen years of using standard sippee cups, Sophie is now drinking from Nalgene's sippy cup. I'm hoping that damage will be contained.

  6. I'd pay 20 bucks and still think it was a bargain!!! But yeah it's a harder sell.

    I got an email from the guy Lance who made the theatre set...he spent over $500 bucks making it!!! That's love. Awesome...

  7. Love this article, Im really honored to be associated.Thank you for the positive comments. I know my passion and commitment to making magic will never end. I hope our paths cross some day..maybe we can start phase 2 of the muppets collection;)
    Lance Cardinal

  8. It is sad. It seems like all the best toys never get made. For every product I've got to market I have a dozen which died in R&D hell.


  9. The Muppet line remains my all time favorite action figure line. No other toy line shows the kind of love you guys pried into that set. I recently took my muppet collection (and Pink Panther even) out and displayed them again. Posted them on FB and friends have been raving about it.

    I kinda think if social networking was around during Palisades' time, you guys would have been much more successful. This was the kind of line you shared and built communities around!

    One thing I also remember about this line, the interaction with the fans. Ken and Mike were on the message boards, actively hearing us out. No one in the industry has matched their level of sincerity either.

    Thanks for this line, guys. In a perfect world, Palisades would still be around, and you'd be the top dog of the industry. That company and its people are sorely missed.

    By the way, I would pay $30 for a Palisades level action figure today. Without even wincing.

  10. LOL...Joe, you would almost HAVE to pay 30 bucks, at today's factory prices on plastic. We did not have a thick margin (probably why we aren't around anymore), and so yeah...a 30 would be the only way a figure like that, at that low a run, could happen.

    Thanks for the kind words. Means a lot.

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  12. Hi Ken!

    I have been a big fan of your Muppet figures and I consider them to be the most precious Muppet merchandise ever made. I was just wondering... did you ever do any concept art for the planned figures for series 10 to 14? I saw some of your illustrations on deviantArt and was wondering if you considered posting some of your designs for the unmade stuff. I would love to see more of what could have been.



  13. Most of the stuff from any Series 10-14 was just random, scattered ideas. A few straggler sketches were done here and there and they've been posted places before online, but never in a single source like the deviantART page, which by itself is a mess since I never went back to organize it in a so long.

    But hey, thanks for the compliment on the Muppets stuff. That's very cool. Appreciate it.

  14. Hey Ken!

    Would you ever consider posting some of your original illustrations from the Muppet line? There is barely anything online. Even the Muppet wiki (which is one of the most comprehensive wikis out there) comes out short. I'm very interested in seeing how closely your art translated into the final figures. You could really tell that a lot of love went into the line, and to this day and I've always been curious about the behind-the-scenes stuff.


    p.s. I don't know if you still remember me... I used to submit those really detailed photoshop images whenever you had a Muppet contest on the forums.

  15. Hi Ivan,

    I remember. I don't post a lot anymore. Been meaning to get back to it, need to work some stuff out first, but been meaning to.

    If I were to show some of that stuff, I think you might be shocked how little actual drawing there was. There was some, but since the puppets were the best source of reference, the drawings were merely guides, pointers so to speak...the real instruction to any sculptor was to follow the puppets. And there was a lot of art direction along the way. Not just by me, but by some very dedicated supporters who volunteered their time and knowledge who I met from places like Muppet Central who would offer advice and creative direction on a lot of the sculpts in progress.

    The process itself was as unique as a lot of the projects we did at Palisades. I can't in my career say that I've ever had an experience like some of those, working so closely with a fan base on projects. It was and still is one of the things I miss the most about that work.

    I'll keep your suggestion in mind if and when I can get this blog resurrected!

  16. Will keep an eye out on for updates!

    Thanks, Ken!


  17. So if you win the lottery, there will be a rebirth of the Muppet/Sesame Street line??? SOMEONE GET THIS MAN A TICKET!!

  18. Yes, if I ever did win the lottery, my first order of business would be to try and get the license for the Muppets so I can release Sal Manilla.

    Only then will the nightmares stop.

  19. I know this is an old blog post, but I was recently looking at the unmade Palisades figures and it made me sad. This line was simply amazing and while I love it, my heart sinks knowing what could have been. I would gladly fork over hundreds of dollars for that theater set. I wonder if today’s 3D printers would help cut down production costs at all? My dream is still that someone comes back to finish this line. I know Randy Bowen wants to attempt a comeback with Marvel statues so I hold out hope someone comes back to this line.

    1. Hi Adam,
      Sorry for the super late response. I had some issues with where Comments were going for moderation, and only just realized the error! You know what? I think the line feels very complete. Would I have liked to re-do some of the figures? Of course, I look at some and modern updates would be great. But the Diamond Select figures are pretty good. Not the same scale or style, but a lot of good things happening there, particularly in the likeness area. There certainly was SO much more available reference today than back in 2001-2005, especially on the Internet.

      Thanks for commenting. I appreciate it!


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