When she dressed in the morning for her very first Toy Fair -- putting on a pretty pink slip that would keep slipping for the remainder of the day and a gray dress and gray knee socks and brown penny loafers with the pennies in them and a gold chain around her neck and tiny earrings in her pierced ears -- Carla Lalli decided to leave behind her see-through vinyl Snoopy umbrella.
"I really need a plain cloth one," this 8-year-old babe said to her mother before heading for Toyland. Carla was escorted into a cab, and she told the driver to head for 200 fifth Ave., home of the Toy Manufacturers Association, which sponsors the annual gathering in New York.
Over the years, the Toy Fair has become a good barometer of America's leisure trends, an annual February harbinger of what will lie under the Christmas trees of the nation 10 months hence. So Carla's big brown eyes were wider than usual: She was going to be the first kid on her block, which happens to be Central Park West, to see all the new surprises for the year.
And how did she get a chance to visit an 8-year-old's heaven-on-earth?? Call it the power of the press: She had an Assignment.
On two previous occasions Carla had been assigned to write stories for The New York Dailey News, for which she was paid $10 a pop. Once she reported on horse racing, since she is quite the little rider herself, and her daddy -- an editor at The News -- has a certain fascination for the magic of the parimutuel board.
This time Carla had landed what in the newspaper business would be called a plum assignment. She got out of the cab and, reporter's notebook in hand, headed for the press lounge, where two women sitting at typewriters duly noted "Carla Lalli, New York Daily News" in the show's register, and typed out a press badge for the little scribe. In the lounge, Carla picked up a trick pen that doubles as a squirt gun, and contemplated using it on a certain editor.
First stop: Atari, the company that unleashed Pong on the world several years ago and has been refining homevideo games ever since. This year they've introduced some hand-held units that combined light-emitting diodes and holographs into what Carla decided were rather unimaginative games. "Yech," she said as Wile E. Coyote pounced on the Roadrunner and the screen turned to a three-dimensional image of a coyote eating a road runner.
Carla scrunched up her face, a very pretty face at that. She was more interested in a new remote-control system for TV games that liberates the joy-stick controllers from their usual connecting wires. Consequently she could dance around the showroom as she played Space Invaders, jumping to the left as she moved her ray gun to the left and vice versa. This lasted for about 15 minutes, after which Carla stuck out her tongue and announced that she couldn't understand why so many of her friends found this such an interesting game. She walked out of the Atari showroom and started wandering around the huge building.
"Oh, Tomy," she said, properly pronouncing the long o in the name of the Japanese toy manufacturer. "They make stuff to take in the bathtub with you!"
Indeed they do, including frogs and hippos that swim and squirt. But what initially caught Carla's eye was something called Flip & Fold Fashion, a doll's outline molded in relief in such a way that pieces of fabric placed over the plastic mold turn into pieces of clothing. "I like dressing her," Carla said, and kept that up for a while -- until she spied Kimmberly.
"Oh, she's beautiful," Carla said of the foot-tall doll with long blond hair and big blue eyes, dressed in real designer cloths. "This is neato," she added, now brushing Kimberly's hair -- "four times more hair than most dolls," according to the Tomy folks. Carla held Kimberly in her arms the way she holds Nina at home. Nina is the real McCoy, aged 11 months, and has dark hair that's much shorter than Kimberly's.
Carla also liked TomyTronic Wrist Bowling, an oversized digital watch that, at the touch of a bottom, converts into an LCD bowling alley with automatic scoring. Carla said that this could be the salvation of every student who was bored in history class learning about the Indians, something that had been pappening to her of late.
Still, as appealing as the electronic gizmo was, Carla kept drifting back to Kimberly.
Now it is not as if Carla is the kind of girl who dotes on dollas. She has logged many hours at Simon and Super Simon, both of which she owns. Last Christmas she asked Santa to bring her Electronic Detective. But a lot has changed in the last year.
"What we're finding this year," said Beth Blossom, a spokesperson for the Toy Manufactures Association, "is a swing back to basics, particularly board games and dolls."
Indeed, something has happened in the toy marketplace.
"We introduced a voice-synthesis toy named Milton last year," said James Shea Jr., president of Milton Bradley. "Right now I've got intelligent voice-response toys being developed in the laboratory. But I'm certainly not going to introduce that until I see the market begin to accept voice synthesis."
"It might have been the economic situation last year," said Hollie Doyle, one of the creators of the electronic toy Merlin, "that put a dent in electronics sales. It might have been the glut of electronic toys. Or it might just be that there's a new tenor in the country."
By now Carla could be torn away from Kimberly only by a stomach clamoring for lunch. She ordered a Shirley Temple and Fettuccine Alfredo "without the peas or the ham, please." Her penny loafers were hanging halfway between the floor and her chair, dancing back and forth, and somehow, for a brief instant, it seemed like the '50s: board games, dolls, Shirley Temples . . .
After lunch, Carla ran into a genie who was touting Wham-O Magic Sand, which floats on water. He looked at her press card and asked, "You Italian?" "Yeah," she said. "Are you?" "No," said the genie. "I'm Sicilian. Tony's the name." Tony the genie gave Carla the reporter a jar of Magic Sand.
"Oh, Milton Bradley," said Carla, spying a sign. "They make Simon." She hummed a few bars from the game: dah-doo-dee-dah. The man from Milton Bradley walked Carla through the company's display. "We're very big on board games this year," he said Carla particularly liked a board game that simulates the action of billiards, and one called Bargain Hunters, which teaches, among other things, that one mustn't exceed one's credit line with credit cards. "My mother has an awful lot of them," she said. She also liked an electronic board game called Dark Tower, an adaptation of Dungeons and Dragons that plays little snippets of Wagner. Carla did not care who Wagner was.
Whatever had happened previously in the day paled in a big way when Carla entered the gigantic Barbie showroom at Mattel. "She's soooooo beautiful," Carla said when she spied Golden Dream Barbie, who looked not unlike Farrah Fawcett in a gold lame jumpsuit.
"Our research shows that this will probably be one of the most successful Barbie introductions ever," said Jack Fox, a marketing director at Mattel, which has sold 125 million Barbies since 1959. "And we're also finding that dolls should be bigger than ever this year. Maybe the mood is changing in the country. But some things never change. Barbie's bridal outfit has always been our most popular accessory."
Carla was not terribly impressed with Mattel's new electronic games (three of which the company already has decided not to manufacture). Another one, though, World Championship Baseball, will be the state of the art in hand-held electronic games when it is marketed this summer. The unit has a three-color, fully animated display screen and allows a player to choose his lineup, substitute players, lead off bases and even call for a pitch out. It didn't get to first base with Carla.
One other thing did appeal to her though: Mattel Intellivision horse racing.
"I love going to the racetrack," Carla said as the computer listed her options and asked her how much of her $750 she wanted to wager.
"My daddy told me never bet more than $2," she said, and watched her horse gallop around the TV screen. Of course it won.
A few minutes later she was in a cab heading home. "I forgot to ask my editor when my deadline is," she exclaimed. "Oh, that was an exhausting assignment. I'm too tired to do it tonight. All I want is my beddy."