Shoppers Nationwide Are Beating the Bushes for the Newest Toy Craze—little Tykes Grown in the Cabbage Patch

updated 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

There were people all over me, grabbing, trying to rip the tickets from my hand. They were screaming and tearing at each other; they were going to kill one another.... I got back inside and called the police." This wasn't a scene at a Menudo concert but a mob of suburban shoppers in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. intent upon scoring a Cabbage Patch Kids doll, the year's hottest—and homeliest—toy.

At first glance, the Cabbage Patch Kids don't seem the sort of merchandise to incite interest, let alone riots. Pudgy, soft, snub-nosed, they're every bit as unlovely as the typical newborn human. But as millions of imploring kids nationwide have told harassed parents, one does not merely pluck a doll from the Cabbage Patch—one "adopts" it. The chubby babies (which retail for $20 to $30) come with birth certificates, adoption papers and belly buttons. Fingers and toes are cunningly detailed, and faces are computer-designed to ensure that no two are the same.

Parent company Coleco Industries began shipping the tykes in June and expects to deliver more than 2.5 million by year's end. That supply, however, will fall far short of demand, even though Coleco is churning out 200,000 per week, has stepped up production in Asia, and has chartered airplanes to speed delivery. The company can't work fast enough for parents, who swarmed toy departments during the post-Thanksgiving shopping blitz. Store managers have begun handing out numbered cards in an attempt to civilize customers, who've stood in line as long as eight hours.

Meanwhile, dog-eat-dog anarchy stalks the aisles where gentle Rudolph and the elves once reigned. A pregnant woman was shoved to the ground by a doll-hungry crowd in Bergen County, N.J.; another woman suffered a broken leg during a Wilkes-Barre, Pa. melee, and in Florida shoppers knocked down a 75-year-old man who had been waiting his turn for hours. A typical story is told by Ron Walulak, 36, of Old Bridge, N.J. He arose at 3:30 a. on a drizzly Friday to queue up in front of his local discount toy store, which opened its doors four and a half hours after he arrived. By that time, he says, "people were kind of crazy." Still, Walulak was one of the lucky ones. He escaped with his skin and a doll for daughter Lianne, 7.

Such fanaticism is "unprecedented," according to Donna Datre, a spokeswoman for the Toy Manufacturers of America, a New York-based trade group. "There has never been a product that has caused this much chaos," she says. Coleco officials expected the doll to be a hit, says company spokeswoman Barbara Wruck, "but I don't think anyone in their wildest dreams expected this." During the Cabbage Patch panic, the company's stock jumped 3½ points.

The man who inspired this madness is Georgia artist and craftsman Xavier Roberts, 28. In 1978 he and several friends invested $5,000 to set up their "adoption" business at "Babyland General Hospital" (a converted clinic) in rural Cleveland, Ga., charging $125 to $1,000 for their handmade dolls. Buyers went wild over the "Little People," as they were called. In 1981 alone, Roberts' sales jumped 180 percent—and 250,000 of his "babies" have been "delivered" at Babyland General in just five years.

Last year Roberts signed a licensing agreement with Coleco, which will gross at least $50 million on their mass-produced babies by year's end. Roberts still markets his handcrafted tots, and other companies have licensing agreements to produce the inevitable Cabbage Patch T-shirts, books, towels, lunch boxes, mugs and more.

Although the kindly creator is appalled by the frenzy his offspring have spawned, he isn't surprised by the soaring sales. In an age of hyperactive toys, he says, there's a need for a doll that "doesn't wet, cry or roller skate." Yeah, but what Santa may need is a toy that explains why a Cabbage Patch doll isn't under the tree this Christmas.

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