JEWELRY, HAMSTERS THE CHARMERS THIS YEAR; WARBLING WARRIOR AND HIS FISTS OF FURRY HAVE UNBEATABLE APPEAL IN THE NOVELTY-TOY RING

Everybody was kung fu fighting! (Whoo! Hah!)

With hamsters fast as lightning. (Whoo! Hah!)

In fact, it’s a little bit frightening. (Whoo! Hah!)

But they bought with expert timing. (Whoo! Hah!)

Get this: The reigning black belt champion of coveted novelty toys this season is —

The Kung Fu Hamster.

In the Bay Area and nationwide, stores can’t keep the singing rodents, which retail for $9.99, on the shelves.

“We sold well over 400 since Thanksgiving,” says Steve Combs, manager of the new Longs branch in Walnut Creek’s Citrus Grove shopping center.

Robed in a black or white jacket and a matching headband, the blond rodent wields a whip-fast nunchaku when pressed into service by a button in its left elbow. The selling blow isn’t its twisting hips, but its squeaky warbling of “Kung Fu Fighting,” the song imposed upon an unsuspecting public by Jamaican-born Carl Douglas in 1974.

“It’s really cute,” Joey Martinez, assistant manager at the KB Toys in Antioch, says of the warbling warrior’s appeal. “Usually half the people who see them buy them.” Customers at the toy store have snapped up the store’s entire stock, snubbing the patriotic hamster singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and the tuxedoed crooner piping “Just a Gigolo.”

It’s no surprise that the creatures with the fists of furry are brought to you by Gemmy Industries, the same Texas company who conjured up the Big Mouth Billy Bass. Yet even their fevered brains underestimated the fighting spirit of their creation.

“Personally, I though we were wasting our time,” says chief operating officer Jerry Jordan. The other rapping and rocking hamsters hadn’t been selling well and when some distributors took one look at the hamster with the kung fu grip, they said, ” ‘You got to be kidding. I’m not putting this rat in my store.’ ”

Gemmy did a limited distribution to only three or four major retailers in late summer. Although the private company won’t disclose numbers, Jordan says the furred fighter has sold in the hundreds of thousands.

“From what our customers are telling us, it’s one of the fastest — if not the best-selling — item in the store,” he says. Those stores range from the aforementioned drug stores chains to Spencer (purveyor of adult-oriented games and gifts) to the Cracker Barrel Country Store.

The owner of Schact Musik Verlage, which owns the rights to the song “Kung Fu Fighting,” couldn’t even get 100 of the hamsters in time for Christmas to send to Europe. SMV sub-publisher Sindee Levin hasn’t been able to find them in her Los Angeles area, but says, “I saw someone’s car and they had it on the dash(board).”

The latest figures she has are half a million sold, and those were October numbers. It’s bigger than Douglas Fir the Talking Tree and the Macarena Gorilla.

“Our products are like jokes,” Jordan observes. “You see it once and you think it’s funny. You want to take it to other people.”

Whether Kung Fu Hamster can defeat the formidable bass remains to be seen. Levin heard 12 million of the singing fish are flopping out there (George Bush hung one in his Texas living room and the Queen of England reportedly owns two.)

By the way, the Kung Fu Hamster is made in China.

(Whoo! Hah!)

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at vchan@cctimes.com.

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