Thousands of New Playthings, and Not a Child in Sight

Toymakers and buyers meet for trade fair; `interactive' anything is big, big, big

FORGET the snow, the earthquakes, the overseas conflicts. Try eating Dr. Dreadful's ``oozing brains'' and other edible foods for young children designed to gross out the hardiest parents. Hobnob with Barbie. Meet the kinder and gentler GI Joe.

If you really want to be comforted, the place to be right now is at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in midtown Manhattan and a nearby skyscraper. At these sites - where the pressing demands of the day seem to disappear - you can say hello to Barney the friendly dinosaur, meet Fred and Wilma Flintstone, be reintroduced to Barbie, everyone's favorite young lady next door, and carry out an ``interactive conversation'' with Mirabelle, a doll equipped with a computer chip.

Welcome to the 91st annual American International Toy Fair. The crowds here, while definitely well-mannered, can rival Mardi Gras celebrants in terms of sheer enthusiasm. But Toy Fair is not for children (since they are not around) or even the general public. Toy Fair is for the committed: More than 20,000 retail buyers throughout the world turn up to see what's new in toys - or meet the celebrities that toymakers fly in to advertise products.

Television personality Shari Lewis is said to be on hand to promote her puppet Lamb Chop; Hollywood superstar Alec Baldwin is hawking The Shadow, an action figure based on an upcoming movie and the old radio series; and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, flew into Manhattan to promote Budgie the Little Helicopter, a talking storybook character.

Hectic? You bet. And the companies love it. ``This place is just loaded with people - and toys,'' says Doug Yowell, a spokesman for the Toy Manufacturers of America (TMA), a trade group.

The fair, which began in a series of showrooms early this week, opens at the Javits Center today and will be held there through Monday. But many exhibitors will continue to show their products through Wednesday at a site on 23rd St. and Fifth Avenue.

Last year turned out to be a decent one for the toy industry, thanks in large part to sales of electronic video games. Toy revenues grew 5.3 percent in 1993, reaching $17.5 billion, up from $17 billion in 1992, according to John Amerman, chairman of Mattel Inc., and the new chairman of the TMA.

But video-game sales rose 18 percent in 1993, which helped push overall toy sales up. Without the electronic games, toy revenues rose slightly less than 2 percent. Industry officials anticipate sales posting a revenue gain of around 6 percent in 1994.

``There are some wonderful toys coming out involving classic products'' that combine high technology and new imagination, says Chris Byrne, editor of Toy & Hobby World, a trade publication. Case in point: Buddy L. voice-operated trucks.

``The whole toy industry is in the midst of a change; the industry is not just making toys anymore. The focus is now on children's entertainment,'' Mr. Byrne says.

Industry analysts see continued growth, especially for companies that can control domestic costs while expanding abroad. Mark Manson, who follows the industry for the New York investment house Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Inc., sees the larger manufacturers producing only ``moderate hits,'' and ``few blockbusters'' this year.

Still, Mr. Manson says the wave of corporate mergers and consolidations that has swept through the industry in recent years should help smaller firms with new products. And established leaders, such as Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc., are expected to do well in 1994.

Among industry trends:

* Interactive toys are now being offered that can actually talk back to their owners.

* Old favorites, such as Boggle and Mr. Potato Head will be back, along with newcomers such as Star Trek: the Next Generation, and Beavis & Butthead.

* More franchise or licensed toys are on the way, including Elvis dolls, Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil, and ``Shaq'' action figures, based on basketball player Shaquille O'Neal.

There are also two major anniversaries this year. Barbie, the largest toy franchise in the world, with annual sales of more than $1 billion, turns - ahem - 35 years old. And GI Joe turns 30, although a lot of folks wonder why he doesn't retire, now that the cold war is over.

Most toymakers are expected to hold the line on prices this year, to help boost sales.

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