America is a series of scams. That’s the only conclusion to come to after watching HBO Max’s documentary Beanie Mania, directed by Yemisi Brookes, which explores the brand of capitalism unique to the United States as filtered through the Beanie Baby frenzy of the late 1990s: get rich quick schemes, exploitation of workers, tax evasion, the Internet, charismatic leaders, an economy of Fake Business, maniacal greedy psychosis, and the denial of the inevitable bust in a highly speculative market. As fans of all things fanatical, your faithful co-founder Emily Colucci and contributor Alexandria Deters got together for a conversation about the documentary, Beanie Babies, and schemes:
Emily Colucci: While Beanie Babies are amusing in that many of us in the late 20th century believed little bears, kitties, and purple platypi would make us millionaires, how different is the Beanie Baby craze from some other American grifts, such as subprime mortgages or the completely unregulated art market? In particular, Beanie Mania made me think of the newest scheme, NFTs (non-fungible tokens, for the uninitiated). At least in the case of Beanies, you are left with a cute doll; NFTs are simply expensive receipts. I recently went down a rabbit hole about the Bored Ape Yacht Club, as well as the Gutter Cat Gang (and their siblings, Gutter Pigeons and Gutter Rats). Eminem and Dave Chappelle both purchased apes for nearly a half-million each. But, the tweet that sent me through the spiral was this:
To paraphrase what comedian Tim Dillon once said on his podcast: The American economy is doing great and I don’t want to hear you say otherwise. Do you see a connection between the economy of Beanie Mania and some of our current grifts? Does the fact that I relate Beanie Babies to the American economy of 2022 spell doom for our future?
Alexandria Deters: Maybe! Of course, I saw the connection. How could one not? A complete financial bubble, created by group delusion, over something that has no real purpose, but has a financial value—in fact, such a financial value, that it is an investment. But, come on, even in the documentary, the ‘fake’ Beanie Babies were basically regular Beanie Babies. In reality, these differences don’t matter.
I don’t think it means our economy is doomed. It might feel that way for a while. If anything, the documentary reminds me of how economies, in general, go through cycles and that markets have trends. NFTs and products from Supreme are our current Beanie Babies. They will fall out of style eventually and just like Beanie Babies, they may come back into fashion too.
The real question is: what are Beanie collectors collecting now?
EC: That’s a very good question and one that’s not really answered, especially for the group of white women– Mary Beth Sobolewski, Becky Phillips, Joni Hirsch-Blackman—around whom the documentary centers. These ladies from Naperville, a suburb outside of Chicago, were the ones to really drive the craze, as well as Beanie authenticator Peggy Gallagher and the creator of the iconic “It’s a Beanie Rap” Jeannine Twardus. At one point, an infographic explains that the Naperville neighbors “started collecting in 1996 and that year Ty Inc. sales shot up by 1000%.” Interestingly, most of these women were professionals, working at fairly prominent jobs with, for instance, IBM or the FBI, that left in order to raise a family as full-time moms. It’s as if they poured all their excess energy into collecting Beanie Babies, usurping the joy of small stuffed animals from their children to make it into a scam with obsessive binders of info about Beanies. What did you think about how the documentary portrayed the women that drove the craze?
AD: I think it was a super, SUPER accurate portrayal. I remember collecting Beanie Babies and eventually hearing about how some were really valuable. I had a friend who had the Princess Diana bear in a special display case high up on a shelf in her room. I also remember going through the drive-thru to collect all the McDonald’s Beanies with my best friend in elementary school, Emma, her mom, and my mom. We’d go to multiple McDonald’s locations to try to get the newest ones.
As an 8-year-old, I could not drive, nor did I understand investments. I just cared about getting the cute new Beanie and playing with it. And most importantly, I remember being given them as gifts. Now, who bought the Beanie Babies? Who drove hours to different stores in the area trying to find the newest ones? Not me, that’s for sure! I mean heck, a mom (Mary Beth) whose kids were the ones originally collecting Beanie Babies started an entire Beanie Baby magazine! So wild!
Speaking of accuracy, one of the things I’ve noticed with HBO documentaries in the past couple of years is that they are putting a very shiny gloss on the entire decade of the 1990s. In Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, as well as Beanie Mania, they describe the 1990s as a decade of innocence, excess, and not a lot of violence—basically, the opposite of our current reality—that was shattered by 9/11. It is true that our current reality is very different and the world and the United States as a whole were changed and have continued to change since 9/11. However, the 1990s wasn’t all roses and there was for sure violence. Waco, JonBenét Ramsey’s murder, Heaven’s Gate, the continuation of Apartheid in South Africa, Columbine, the list goes on.
It reminds me of how for years—and still today—people have idealized the 1950s, saying it was this innocent, wonderful time when in reality, that’s not true. Why do you think we are starting to romanticize the 1990s so much? Why do you think every documentary lately feels the need to frame itself around 9/11, even when it’s not relevant to the story at hand? Or more exact, why are documentaries falling into the same trope of using a white middle-class version of reality for everyone?
EC: You’re right about this idealization of the 1990s that’s quickly happening and also its connection to a white middle-class perspective. The 1990s wasn’t all fun and games if you were a part of communities that were being torn apart by mass incarceration due to the 1994 Crime Bill or being decimated by HIV/AIDS! It’s funny how these documentaries are peddling narrow perspective-driven inaccuracies, especially since HBO tries to lean woke.
Your comparison to the ahistorical yearning for the decade when America was Great—the 1950s—seems particularly appropriate. It makes me think of how The Villages, that uncanny Florida retirement community, is built to appeal to the Boomers’ nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s, a Disneyfied version of an era that never really existed. It makes me wonder: when our generation retires to Florida’s largest retirement community, will it be revamped for our own 1990s romanticization? I kind of like the idea of grunge, 1990s rap, and nu-metal being played over bridge games and water exercises in the community pool! But perhaps that’s my own aging millennial brain…
Regardless, I think this new take on the 1990s, as well as the use of 9/11 as a national rupture, has to do with our own perspective today, as well as just the human impulse to romanticize the past. Whether rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly), the 1990s seems quaint through the chaos of the present, even though a lot of what we find tumultuous now—pandemics, domestic terrorism, Trump, etc.—was also happening then. Now, I do think the country was less divided, the economy was stronger, and certain parts of the population felt a sense of safety in contrast to a post-9/11 world and in even bigger contrast to today. Yet, that still doesn’t excuse the lazy contextualization of the Beanie Baby craze in terms of relative 1990s security.
To me, the Beanie frenzy seems like another pump and dump scheme in a country with a long history of scams. The late 1990s just happened to be the Beanie era. I thought it was interesting that Sondra and Leon Schlossberg, the father/daughter Beanie lover duo with a major collection in Fayetteville, North Carolina towards the end of the film, made a distinction between “Beanie Baby gamblers” and collectors like themselves. In some respects, this is similar in the art world. Some collectors use art as an investment and a type of currency, while others actually care about the work. I also really liked Mary Beth’s quote, which seems so quintessentially American: “The collector’s mentality is that you can never have enough and that is very dangerous.” Do you think the collector mentality is dangerous?
AD: As a person who loves to collect, I hope not! I do believe there is a fine line between collecting, hoarding, and shopping addiction. The kids that were shown in the film liked and collected Beanie Babies, but they weren’t jumping out of moving cars to get an exclusive one like their parents! The moms shown in Beanie Mania acted more like addicts than collectors. Most of them, as you said, were bored, stay-at-home moms wasting away in suburbia, and when they discovered Beanie Babies, well, hot damn! They finally felt a thrill again and they were off chasing that new Beanie Baby high. And like most things that are cool, parents ruined it and by 2003, it was over.
Saying that, I, for sure, still collected Beanie Babies after 1999 when Ty Inc. announced they were “retiring” all of them. I also feel like I must say I collected Beanie Babies, but it was a kid-kind of collecting mentality. I didn’t want them all; I just wanted the ones I thought were super cool! I was still collecting and buying, though, until at least 2003. When was the last time you remember wanting to buy a Beanie Baby? Or better yet, when did you think, “Wow, these are lame”?
EC: My memory is like a cheese grater, full of holes, so I don’t really remember exactly when I got off the Beanie Baby train. At the time the craze began, I was probably in middle school (late elementary school, for me, was the Pog era, speaking of another consumerist mania) so I just naturally grew out of wanting stuffed toys rather than got sick of the Beanie craze. I did have a pile of Beanies and vividly remember the craze at its peak. My cousin, James, was really into getting the exclusive ones and putting them into cases. Me, not so much.
I am a little sad I missed out on the most chaotic part of the Beanie insanity, though: death-defying Beanie collecting! One of the best scenes in the documentary had to be the footage of people stopping their cars on a highway after a truck accidentally spilled the McDonald’s Happy Meal Beanie toys. Frantically grabbing up fast food dolls, these idiots risked their lives. Do you think it was worth it? Would have stopped your car for a mini-Beanie flamingo?
AD: As a child said that was asked on a news report from that time: “No.” And what did he think of those people that were? “Insane.”
On a more serious note, I know a few people who have been hit by cars, and my BFF’s ex-boyfriend died when he was hit by a car when trying to cross a highway after his car broke down. Humans vs. cars never work! Too much risk, too scary, not worth it! But, if I was a stay-at-home mom in 1996, who knows? I probably would have.
EC: I can’t see lowering myself to Beanie suicidal behavior either. But I’m not all that opposed to Beanie homicidal behavior! There’s a quick clip in Beanie Mania about someone who was hit in the head with a sledgehammer over a Beanie Baby. What Beanie Baby would you hit someone in the head with a sledgehammer over? I pick the Princess Di bear!
AD: Dammit, Emily! That’s my pick too! Obviously, we will have to fight over it. But instead of a normal fight, I have a Pokémon duel proposal. We each get to pick one of the Beanie moms to fight for us and whoever wins gets the Princess Di Beanie. I choose Jeannine Twardus, the redhead that went into debt. She still owns Beanie Babies so I think she would fight for a Princess Di.
EC: Oh man, she’s a good pick! She could battle it out while doing her “Beanie Rap.” Well, now that Jeannine’s taken, I’ll go with Beanie authenticator Peggy Gallagher who never even had kids that were interested in Beanies in the first place! Her Beanie psychosis, squirreling her Beanie purchases in her closet to hide her obsession from her husband, came from within and it still endures to this day since she is currently continuing to authenticate Beanies! However, I am a bit torn since Mary Beth is responsible for my favorite quote in the film, describing the dolls’ “very expressive eyes.” They’re little black buttons! That’s a level of crazy I can get behind!
A fighter we haven’t yet talked about is Ty Warner himself, the founder of Ty Inc. and creator of the Beanies. Warner is referred to in the documentary as akin to the Wizard of Oz, as well as Willy Wonka. He seems like a strange, elusive, tax-evading figure who would wander into toy stores donning a fur coat and a top hat. What we do know of him is that he is highly litigious, even suing some of the Beanie zealots who dared use the Beanie Baby name in their fanzines. He is also greedy and exploitative. The documentary highlights one longtime employee, Lina Trivedi, who came up with the idea of individual poems for each doll, wrote 87 of them, and suggested Ty Inc. look into this thing called “The Internet.” After years at the company, she was only making $12 an hour. Since we’re both obsessive about cults, I couldn’t help but think of other lawsuit-happy, exploitative, and charismatic leaders who screwed over underlings: L. Ron Hubbard, Donald Trump, etc. What do you think about how Ty Warner was portrayed?
AD: Interesting thought. I can see where you get the relationship with cults. The problem is even after the documentary, we still don’t know much about the company’s inner-workings in the past or the present. There were only a few people interviewed in Beanie Mania that even knew Ty, let alone know him now. That was a major gap in the documentary. The company and its history could have been its own documentary as this delved more into the phenomenon. Beanie Mania would have been stronger if it focused solely on the craze and historicized it in terms of other toy fads. For instance, did any of the moms go crazy for other toys like Cabbage Patch Kids? Beanie Babies weren’t the only toy craze in history.
For Ty, though, he sounds like a very charismatic figure–the fact that Lina did all those poems without walking out just proves that. I wish they would have found people that worked with him at the other toy companies where he was employed when he was younger so we could have a better understanding of him. It would have been fascinating to get someone on record who works at Ty Inc. now! But I think the film wanted to portray him as explicitly that: a mysterious, genius toy figure who also…totally missed the ball with the Internet!
Thinking of that, Ty wasn’t the only person to think the Internet was a fad. A lot of companies did, as well as our own government! Why do you think so many people didn’t take the Internet seriously? The Heaven’s Gate website perhaps?
EC: I wish Heaven’s Gate’s rabid enthusiasm for the Internet turned all the normies off! People probably thought the Internet was a fad in the same way some people think (hope) crypto or the Metaverse are fads. Sometimes it’s hard to predict what will and won’t stick around. For example, does this week’s crypto-crash mean crypto is almost over? Or is it just a quick downturn in a volatile market that will then limp on to become an essential decentralized currency? From our perspective now, thinking the Internet is just a trend seems completely silly as we live our lives online. But, at the time, when you were being sent those free AOL CDs in the mail, it would have been impossible to conceptualize what our lives and the global digital economy would become.
I’m glad you brought up just how nuts 87 poems in 18 hours is. If you had to write a poem for your own Beanie Baby, what would you write?
AD: I spent way too much time on this:
“A hole in a sock, she can fix
Positive reviews, she readily gives
Endlessly researching, stitching, restoring
Informing on her world, for all of you!”
Thinking of our own personal Beanie Babies, it was kinda cute how they introduced each mom with a Beanie Baby that ‘fit’ their personality. If I had to pick, I would pick ‘BAM’ the Ram because I hate to admit it, but I am very stubborn, which their poem illustrates. Its fur is also a pastel rainbow and sparkly! So cute and fluffy! I remember how excited I was when I got one when I was on a family vacation in Maui in 2002. I was so excited that obviously, a photo commemorating the Beanie and my horrible hair and tan has to be shared (hence the image below):
Now, Emily, what Beanie Baby do you think best represents you and why?
EC: I’m Runner the Mongoose! I’m an avid runner, but mostly Runner’s morbid and violent little poem represents my lugubrious sensibilities:
“I’m not so mean, I’m really shy
But every cobra has to die
I grab them by their little head
And whack them till they’re stone cold dead!”
I’m not so mean, I’m really shy too!
Runner comes from a Beanie era that was after my time because I would absolutely love to put him in my current apartment collection of strange and vaguely threatening knickknacks, a few of which are Beanies. I have a crab Beanie Baby sharing space on the back of my toilet with a plastic lobster. I also have a small collection of cat Beanies since I used them a few years ago for a Little Edie Halloween costume and farther back, as a Cat Lady (same thing basically) when I went to Key West’s Fantasy Fest. Since we’re sharing vacation pics:
In that same vein, I wish Beanie Mania highlighted more Beanies currently taking up space in people’s homes and apartments. The documentary’s biggest failure was in the last few minutes when it tried to bring the Beanies into the present with a few YouTubers who recently made videos about the stuffed animals. One guy had storage containers filled with Beanies, which belonged to his mother. This was both sweet and alarming in its excess, but what about the other enormous Beanie collections? What about the people who still continue to collect now or believe, in their heart of hearts, one day Beanies will make them money? I’d rather see these answered than a paltry attempt to suggest that another Beanie boom may happen (no) by talking to a YouTuber.
AD: The conclusion was lame. I wanted to know more. I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg with the story. I was frustrated that they made it seem as if the company was irrelevant after 2000, but that isn’t true. Ty is still a huge toy company and they are still making new Beanie Babies. There were a lot of loose ends. For instance, what is the company structure now? Obviously, Ty Inc. has changed a lot. I remember having to go to small little mom-and-pop stores for Beanie Babies, but now you can find them at Walgreens or Target. Before, Beanies were more traditionally styled stuffed animals, but now they have teamed with other companies to make special ones. What is the reason for this change?
And! What about the ladies? Do these women still collect? What do they collect now? Did their marriages survive their Beanie addiction? And when is that Beanie Museum opening in the Schlossberg’s house and more importantly, when are we going?!
EC: I’d go as soon as it opens. I feel compelled to bear witness to that monument to Americana trash consumerism. Speaking of museums and trash, Marion and I once spotted the most awe-inspiring trash vision in Fairmount, Indiana, the birthplace of James Dean and the homeplace of our beloved James Dean Gallery. Driving out of the small town, we passed by a house with its curtain rods lined with Beanie Baby bears rather than curtains! We were in tacky ecstasy! Do you have any cherished Beanie memories?
AD: I have so many Beanie memories that it’s hard to choose! First one: when parents took medical advice seriously and didn’t listen to Joe Rogan for their healthcare decisions, you had to take your child to get vaccines and booster shots. Next to my doctor’s office was a small pharmacy that, along with medicine, carried Beanie Babies. Whenever I had to go to the doctor and had to get a shot, my mom would tell me not to cry and if I was brave, we could go to the store afterward to pick out a Beanie Baby.
More recently, when I was in college, I heard that all Beanie Babies were made of spider eggs and that they were going to hatch! Of course, in hindsight, that sounds stupid, but I was naïve and 20-years-old. So I called my dad in a panic asking him to get rid of all my Beanie Babies. Thankfully, he didn’t believe they were made with spider eggs so I still have all my Beanie Babies at home.