HBO Max’s Beanie Mania is a fascinating retrospective on a ’90s toy obsession

Two decades after the toy phenomenon that swept the United States ended, the HBO documentary Max Beanie Mania revisits the story of how Beanie Babies rose to prominence through a combination of archival news footage and colorful interviews with key players from the game. These actors include former Ty Company employees , professional Beanie Baby dealers and prominent collectors who became the first influencers who helped take the brand from local fashion to national obsession.

Beanie Mania weaves an entertaining and fast-paced tale that reveals the depths to which the collective fanaticism, greed and influence of the internet, even in its early days, all combined to create an inflection point that led to an investment bubble unprecedented and unsustainable. Visually, Beanie Mania makes the most of its subject matter, with playful Beanie Baby toy interstitials interspersed with plain text that move the narrative forward through time and feature interviewees with title cards featuring Beanie Babies as replacements.

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The source of the hype, the documentary reveals, it all started in 1996 in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, not far from the headquarters of Ty, Inc., where a group of affluent stay-at-home moms living in the same housing estate began collecting. . Beanie Babies for their children at local gift shops. Determined to complete their collections, the women quickly fell into an addiction that involved spreadsheets, phone bills over $ 2,000, and encyclopedic familiarity with all of Beanie Baby’s available inventory across the country.

It turned out to be a boon for women, as company founder Ty Warner declined to advertise or run the media. local media to talk about Beanie’s latest releases and create a hype that quickly spread across the country.

While Beanie Mania focuses primarily on the key players who have benefited from the beanie craze, it features interviews with some collectors whose lives have been heavily impacted by toys, including Jeannine Marron Twardus, a former cryptology technician for the FBI became the owner of a gift shop whose passion for collecting toys almost ruined her. (Sadly, Frances and Harold Mountain, the divorced couple who had to split up their Beanie Baby collection in the courtroom after failing to do so themselves, don’t show up.)

“The collector’s mindset is, you can’t get enough… and it’s dangerous,” says Mary Beth Sobolewski, one of the mothers of the original Naperville group and founder of the popular collectible magazine Beanie Baby. Mary Beth’s Beanie World (who changed his name to The world of bean bags by Mary Beth after Warner sued her for trademark infringement).

The exponential scale of growth is simply astounding; between 1996 and 1997, sales soared 1000% in just a few months, with 500,000 hats sold each month. Sales reached nearly $ 1.4 billion in 1998, followed by a McDonald’s Happy Meals “Teeny Beanie” partnership that sold five weeks of product in two weeks. The news archive footage – which includes brief interviews of children and traders – effectively reestablishes both the nostalgia and the absurdity of the collective mania that would only be rivaled by the release of the Harry Potter books later. .

Even more fascinating than the rapid rise of Ty, Inc. Beanie Mania reveals the unofficial aftermarket universe that revolved around toys, from collectors’ guides to Beanie Baby jewelry sold at ersatz fan conventions, and the mania sparked by speculative collectors more interested in a financial investment than collecting. In 1997, aftermarket resellers would make an average of 500% profit on the retail price. The other important point to remember is the inordinate influence that Naperville mothers continued to have in controlling the aftermarket authenticity narrative, because despite the success and the hundreds of thousands of inquiries from retailers At the height of the craze and thousands of counterfeiters flooding the market with counterfeits, Warner continued to refuse to invest in any official Beanie Baby advertising or press. As one former collector notes: “There was no proof that they would ever be worth anything. We all believed in it.

Given Warner’s reluctance, it is not surprising, albeit disappointing, that he himself is not among the group of interviewees. Famously lonely, his own lawyer states that there is “absolutely no chance” the director will get an interview, and therefore, Beanie Mania fill in details by asking other people about it. He is described as a contentious figure in The Wizard of Oz / Willy Wonka who started his career with a commitment to supporting small toy stores and welcoming every new employee, but who quickly alienated those closest to him. of him and the success of the company by his own greed.

“It was a really beautiful thing for a while, until the adults messed it up,” Joni Hirsch Blackman recalls of the infatuation, as another member of the Naperville Mothers Group and former reporter. of People magazine who was the only person to ever interview Warner about Beanie Babies. Yet despite the inevitable decline of the larger toy craze of the 1990s, there are those, like Peggy Gallagher, who still love to collect beanies and have no regrets. When asked if she felt good about the whole experience and if she had spent so much time and money, she replied, “I do. Because I love them. “