Cabbage Patch Kids -- cute, homely . . . and controversial

The crowd had lined up at 6 a.m., after word of the first shipment got out the night before. Over 200 frazzled parents were camped out on the asphalt parking lot in front of the Toys R Us store in Rockville, Md., waiting for the sun to come up over the great cabbage patch raid.

A crate of Cabbage Patch Kids, the dolls that are the hottest and scarcest Christmas gift of the year, had arrived. They were sold out shortly after the store opened.

Brenda Freeny of Gaithersburg, Md., had missed out on a doll that November dawn, but she was intrepid. She checked Toys R Us daily until this sunny morning in December, when the little muffin-faced dolls suddenly appeared in a top secret shipment from their manufacturer, the Coleco Company.

Mrs. Freeny kept her vigil because her two daughters, 18 and 15, want Cabbage Patchers for Christmas. Why? ''They're absolutely lovable, they tug at your heart like an orphan, and you have to adopt them,'' says Mrs. Freeny. The big gimmick of the dolls is that they come with make-believe adoption papers from ''Babyland General Hospital,'' with fatherhood assigned to creator Xavier Richards, who named them for a myth about adopted kids being found under cabbage patches.

The little Cabbage Patch dolls have been so short in supply and so high in popularity that they've made borsch out of almost every other gift item this season.

Stampeding crowds knocked down an elderly man in North Miami Beach, Fla., trampled a pregnant woman in Bergen County, N.J., injured five in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., knocked over tables and fought with each other in Charleston, W.Va. One store manager armed himself with a baseball bat; police have been called in to quell the doll riots.

A Midwest postman and father, desperate to find the dolls, flew to London to pick up five. Harrod's, the London department store, is receiving requests to airmail the dolls to charge customers in the US. The dolls have made the cover of Newsweek, the CBS Morning News, Nightline, the Phil Donahue show, and the stately editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

They are so scarce that they are being scalped like hit theater tickets: the Rowe-Manse Emporium, a store in Clifton, N.J., advertises that it buys the under Rowe-Manse says phone calls for the dolls have been coming in at a rate of 200 an hour for weeks.

Donna Sharp, merchandise manager of the store, said they had the situation well under control, no riots, because they were not announcing the arrival of the dolls and were issuing tickets for the dolls quietly as long as they lasted. Customers then pay for a doll at the check-out counter and drive around to the warehouse entrance to pick it up. They clutch the precious doll tickets and line up as clerks bring out Cabbage Patchers and hold them up like puppies at the local pound to choose from.

Preferences are strong, since Coleco, the manufacturer, claims that the dolls are unique - no two the same because they are designed by computer. They have in common one feature: They are the only dolls on the market that look like toddlers wearing false teeth. Eighteen inches tall, with squooshy plastic faces, dimples, yarn hair (when not bald), they have outstretched arms which summon the buyer.

As one 11-year-old girl who pines for a Cabbage Patch Kid explained, ''Every kid thinks they're cute, but grown-ups think they're ugly. It's the hottest thing, everyone wants one, even boys, because of their faces and quilted knees and belly buttons and knitted hair. And every one's different, that's the thing.''

Barbara Wruck, Coleco's director of corporate communications, attributes the dolls' popularity to the fact that in an age of mass-produced conformity ''no two dolls are exactly alike . . . and that they furnish contact comfort. . . . They're nice to hold. . . . With their purposely homely faces, they're designed to have a vulnerable quality that creates a feeling of nurturing and response.''

It doesn't hurt, either, she adds, that they're in great demand. Coleco expects to sell in excess of 2.5 million by the end of December, with uncounted numbers of other back orders to be filled in 1984.

Barbara Wruck is asked to comment on an allegation circulating currently that if a defective doll is returned to the company, the owner receives a Cabbage Patch ''death certificate'' rather than a replacement doll. She denies the allegation, calls it ''preposterous, . . . a very offensive, low-grade rumor. . . . We would never dream of doing that to a child. Our whole concept of the dolls is one of love, affection, warmth, and good things.''

Nor is Coleco amused, she indicates, by the scalping of the $25 retail dolls at profiteers' prices: ''I just don't think that's in the Christmas spirit.'' Coleco has spent at least $15 million promoting the dolls since a massive TV campaign began last June, and spinoff licensees are already under way - everything from cabbage patch manicure sets to possible plans for TV shows or even a movie a la Muppets.

Meanwhile, the question of whether the Cabbage Patch Kids trivialize adoption or offer a positive image of it is raised. One adoption expert who wishes not to be named suggests a comparison between the selling of black-market babies for adoption at exorbitant prices and the stampeding and scalping surrounding Cabbage Patch Kids sales: ''Some white families are so desperate for babies, they are doing desperate things to be able to adopt one. The analogy with the dolls struck me deeply,'' he says. ''It's very analogous, and very destructive'' to the adoption image.

''I was a black-market baby originally,'' says another expert, Samuel (Sandy) Levine, a lawyer who has devoted his life to adoptions as executive director of the nonprofit American Adoption Agency in Washington. He says the adoptive dolls ''may be a good opportunity for children to resolve some questions about adoption,'' although he feels ''they're the ugliest little critters I ever set eyes on. . . . I think their manufacturers are having the laugh of the year at people buying them. . . .''

Psychiatrist Kent Ravenscroft, supervisor of the Children's Hospital staff in Washington, considers the dolls ''an exciting development,'' making the adoption process seem more natural, stressing its normalcy, and counteracting any prejudices.

But a social worker at Manhattan's Children's Aid Society who deals every day with adopted children says the adoption process is not treated with dignity in a phenomenon like this. ''In the current craze the adopted dolls are treated like objects, not like babies to be cherished,'' says social worker Susan Silverman. However, Jane Edwards, the executive director of Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency in Manhattan, says, ''I've talked with several adoptive parents about the dolls, and they don't feel offended by them. I don't feel it trivializes adoption. . . . At least the doll comes with papers that show it's a legal and official adoption.''

Experts may vary on their opinions, but one young mother in a brown coat at the Toys R Us checkout counter in Rockville, Md., spoke for another segment: disenchanted parents. She was pushing a shopping cart containing her two small children, several toys, and a Cabbage Patch coupon. ''I'm picking up one of the dolls for a neighbor,'' she said. ''We don't like them. They've become a status symbol, and I think it's totally ruined the spirit of Christmas.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.