Well, I did it. I conquered my childhood fear of talking bears and brought a vintage Teddy Ruxpin animatronic stuffed bear into my home. There were and still are plenty of his brethren both young and old to choose from on the auction sites, and when I saw this particularly carefree barefoot Teddy in his Hawaiian shirt and no pants, I was almost totally disarmed. Plus, the description promised a semi-working unit with a distorted voice, and who among us could resist a specimen in such condition? Maybe the tape deck motor is going out, or it just needs a new belt. Maybe the tape itself messed up, and Teddy is fine. I had to find out.
But let me back up a bit. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Teddy Ruxpin was a revolutionary toy that dropped in 1985. It’s a talking teddy bear that reads stories aloud, all the while moving his eyes and mouth to the sounds. Along with Teddy came special cassette tapes, corresponding story books, and outfits. I wanted one when I was a kid, but was also kind of scared of them. Since they were so expensive — about $250 inflation-adjusted for the bear and a single tape / book / outfit, plus another $15 for four D cells — I never did get one in my youth.
On the day Teddy arrived all the way from Hawaii, I ran out and bought a set of C cells so I could check his condition. To my absolute glee, not only did he work as intended, he looked and sounded downright demonic! I grabbed my phone and started recording.
It’s a barefoot kind of Saturday,
It’s a picnic sort of day
It’s a barefoot kind of Saturday,
Can we go out and plaaaaaaaaay?
According to the way this song’s supposed to sound, several characters are singing it together. Of course, the phone mic makes it sound worse than it really is, so I made a much longer recording by propping Teddy up in front of my desk mic. If you think you can stand it, there’s another song that starts about two minutes in:
At this point, it was time for experimentation. If you’ll recall, Teddy Ruxpin cassettes are special in that one track contains the audio, and the other holds the encoding for the servo(s) that control his eyes and mouth. I can see through the little viewing window that there is some kind of scwum on the tape itself, which could be the cause of the Satanic sounds. Since I didn’t have any other Teddy Ruxpin tapes lying around, I decided to see how the tape sounded in a regular cassette deck (a Hello Kitty boombox I bought in 1999, lined out to Audacity):
Oh! So that’s another kind of freaky, isn’t it? Those 1960s outer space noises are the sound of whatever encoding was used to drive the eye and mouth servos. But based on the normal-sounding speaking voice when played through a tape deck, it seems that whatever is possessing Teddy is coming from within, and will not be so easily exorcised. That’s cool. All the more reason to perform a vivisection.
But First, A Little Grunge Music
In the meantime, I decided to get another tape to prove that it’s Teddy’s problem, so I got the best possible Teddy Ruxpin tape available: Grunge Music.
Wikipedia will tell you that the term to describe the early 90s Seattle music scene came from a record label executive’s description of one band’s sound, but I honestly believe that it was put into that person’s subconscious by this tape, which makes reference to and samples music made by a class of creatures in the Teddy Ruxpin universe known as Grunges. Somehow, this tape sounds even better than the Summertime one that came with Demonic Teddy.
The astute among you have noticed that the tape is upside down, and I suppose that is in the interest of shorter wires between the playback head and the servos that control Teddy’s eyes and mouth, though it could have been done as an easy way to distinguish Teddy tapes from maxi cassingles. What’s slightly more interesting is that there is a second set of copy protection windows in the top of the tape. I’m thinking that this is what tells Teddy whether the tape is one of his, or just some other ribbon of rust.
It really didn’t take long for me to get attached to the Demonic Summertime Teddy, so much so that I bought a second one to do the actual teardown part. I really don’t think there’s much to be afraid of under those screws, but I want the chance to familiarize myself with illiop innards before putting Hula Teddy under the knife.
So anyway, here’s where I screwed up. I wanted to make a recording of Grunge Music through Teddy, but for some reason, I decided to start removing screws, and now the tape doesn’t move anymore.
In the meantime, Teddy Tuxpin showed up, and he works perfectly. So for now, the best I can do is record Grunge Music through Teddy Tuxpin:
And here’s how Grunge Music sounds through Hello Kitty:
And then, I had an idea: buy a total of three more Teddies, hack them all to do my bidding, and make them sing barbershop quartet. I could even sew little matching outfits for them. But I digress.
Since Teddy Tuxpin works well, I am hesitant to open him up, and will probably use one of the others to get all the way inside. I cheated a little bit and found this amazingly Web 1.0 site that presents detailed teardown information in helpful poster board-like format. There are two deep-set Phillips screws at the top of the plastic box, and two tiny, soft-metal screws that are unspeakably easy to strip. I had already tried and failed at one of them before I went looking around to make sure that’s all there was to getting inside.
But Wait, There’s More
In my frenzy to collect Teddies from around the Internet, I also bought one of the newer kinds. Produced by Playskool/Hasbro sometime between 1991 and 1996, these Teddies use cartridge tapes that look a lot like small 8-tracks. This particular bear came with a cartridge dated 1992. Instead of four C cells, these take four AAs, with ‘alkaline strongly recommended’. Everything is smaller, including Teddy himself.
After the 8-track teddies, there was a brief resurgence of regular cassettes in the third generation. Then they moved on to digital cartridges. Teddy sort of ditched the razor-and-blades business model in 2017, and comes with three stories pre-loaded. Other stories are available through an app. Oh, and this time around, Teddy has some seriously creepy LCD eyes. If you really want to get into the Teddy timeline, this trip through the Teddy Ruxpin vault is a good start.
Back to 8-Track Teddy
Against the advice on the inside of the cover, I scrounged up four decidedly non-alkaline batteries to test him out. While 8-track Teddy sounds just fine, neither his eyes nor his mouth are moving. While original Teddy was born with three servos in the head, I’ve heard that newer editions used a single servo, so perhaps it’s just dead or frozen.
Hmm, on second look inside the battery compartment, it says that if Teddy doesn’t animate properly, that you’re supposed to insert fresh batteries, with alkaline strongly recommended. Could it be that easy? The re-chargeables I’m using are only 1.2 Vs. I went out and got some new copper tops, and ’92 Teddy still doesn’t animate. I’m thinking it’s because his snout is askance — maybe he got dropped on his face too many times, or else swung around face-first into something. I’ll have to see if I can fix that.
In the meantime, let’s have a look-see inside, shall we?
Bear In Mind, This Isn’t Over
I don’t have to tell you about the change of feeling that comes with taking something apart. You know, the way that just seeing the inside of something increases your familiarity so much that you never view the outside the same way again.
So what about my childhood fear of talking bears? I must say that Demonic Summertime Teddy caused nothing but delight on my end, and I’m determined to get him chanting again so I can terrorize others. I already bought him a better copy of his Hawaiian shirt, which has a few holes and stains, so this has to happen. But it’ll have to happen in another post, which I’m certain will be a real teddy bear picnic.
I want to thank all the commenters on Elliot’s Not On the Internet post who have pointed me towards various answers to the how-does-Teddy-tick question, such as this GUI authoring tool for producing new Teddy tapes and this old Usenet post about the inner workings. I’m bound to get further than I would have before.