The Joe Bender Toy Story:
The following information came from research of news articles and other information found online. Please see list of sources at the bottom of this page.
What makes joe bender so lovable?
What is the appeal of the Joe Bender toys — these lovable, posable bendable magnetic characters? I think it is because Joe (and all the other Bender toys) are an open canvas. The creator, Steve Walterscheid, is quoted as saying, “Joe Bender can be anybody” and he intentionally left the human Benders faceless so they could be posed to show their character and emotion.
The inventor, Steve Walterscheid, intentionally left the human Benders faceless so they could be posed to show their character and emotion.
Before we proceed any further, please be warned these lovable little characters are addicting! Once you start collecting the Benders you can’t stop! They are like the proverbial potato chip where one will not do because it leads to wanting more, and more, and then the whole bag!
October 1999 was the first time these wiry handmade characters was seen. Steve Walterscheid, a restaurant bar manager and part-time tinkerer, was at a company party and decided to show some of his creations to his co-workers and friends. Walterscheid told them, “It’s something I came up with over the years tinkering with wire. I’m making them at home, what do you think?” Everyone started playing with the wire figures, bending them into playful positions. A local shop owner, Paul Schneider of Twist, told Steve he would take as many as Steve could make. Schneider thought the design of these figures was great, “they’re kinetic and so simple … the essence of good design.” With order in hand, Walterscheid starting crafting them in his basement after work, having to work through the night to make as many as he could. The first Benders were three times taller than the current ones and were coated in vinyl to make the skin-like appearance. Schneider/Twist, priced them at $10 each. He quickly sold approximately 700 of the figures between the end of November until Christmas of 1999. Twist could have sold more but Walterscheid couldn’t keep up with the demand — the Benders already had a following!
In January 2000, Walterscheid decided to take his creation to Hog Wild, a local toy company, and the Benders dynasty was born. February 2000 was the largest toy trade show of the year, the American International Toy Fair. Hog Wild ordered 20,000 Benders in preparation and by the time they got to the toy fair, every single one of them had sold! If they didn’t already know it, the success of the toy fair confirmed — they had a hit.
it'S all in the name.
Steve Walterscheid dubbed his first creations “Fat Stevies”. He’s not even sure why since their appearance is anything but tubby. Walterscheid mused, “I know,” referring to the seeming oxymoron in the name, “My name’s Steve . . .” adding, “It was the opposite. . .”
It’s when Walterscheid and Mark Hebenstreit of Hog Wild Toys, LLC joined forces that Fat Stevie morphed into the Joe Bender we know and love today. Hog Wild, located in Portland, Oregon, prides itself in selling only fun, innovative, and maybe even quirky toys that cannot be found anywhere else. Hog Wild collaborated with Walterscheid — he was key to the creative side and Hog Wild knew how to better manufacture and promote the product. After the toy fair in 2000, the orders continued and by 2006 there were over 100 Bender characters. Millions were being sold and in at least 20 countries. As you can imagine, for several years the Joe Bender toys were one of Hog Wild’s number one selling category, with sales topping over a million annually.
what are the benders?
The Benders are billed as “posable magnetic sculpture” and are up to 4-inchs-tall, plastic-coated wire figures with magnetic hands and feet having flexible/posable bodies. However, if you ask anyone who owns a Bender, the figure is only half the fun of owning a specialized Bender — there are accessories! Each come with their own custom-made metal tin (so the character’s magnets stick to it) which adds intrigue and value to owning a Bender. The shaped metal tins are the characters’ home, soapbox, or podium. Since the Benders have such “magnetic” personalities, they love finding adventures on a fridge, metal railing or, for that matter, anything metal.
Steve Walterscheid once said, “Joe Bender can be anybody.” He purposely gave the human Benders black, emotionless faces. Walterscheid wanted the creativity of the poses to reflect the characters’ emotion. The idea was that they be interactive art where the user is the “sculptor”.
The Benders are “irresistibly attracted to anything metal . . . there’s just a magical quality to magnets,” noted Walterscheid.
Steve Walterscheid always saw the Benders as more like mini art sculptures. He never saw them as only for children. They could easily be found in a museum with their artistic shapes and tangible appeal. In fact, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was once one of largest purchasers of the Benders.
The Original Bender Family includes Joe (husband), Wendy (wife), Junior (son), Brenda (daughter), Bitsy (daughter), Fender (dog) and Mind Bender (cat). However, when the publishing company, Klutz, wanted to write several small flip books about the Benders, they found Wendy Bender to be a little too controversial as she has breasts. Klutz chose rather to use Brenda Bender as Joe’s counterpart in their books. However, Hebenstreit of Hog Wild says for them, “Wendy is Joe’s spouse.” Wendy Bender as well as many of the female Benders have been toned down with the toy market in mind. They opted to show femininity with pigtails and skirts — trading out their voluptuous curves. A few female Benders retained their cleavage including, all the Bikini Benders, Ginger Bender, and Hula Jane.
The decorative metal tins are as much a part of the art and uniqueness as the characters themselves. The containers add intrigue and value to owning a Bender.
production & distribution.
As mentioned, the original Benders were made by hand by Steve Walterscheid in his Portland, Oregon, basement. Once Hog Wild Toys got involved and to control costs, manufacturing went to China. Walterschied’s copper wire figures also changed to galvanized steel (it is much more durable) and they are still covered in colorful plastic.
The packaging, props and accessories are a HUGE part of the product. The decorative metal tins are uniquely designed to fit the theme of each Bender. For example, the Egyptian Benders, Tut and Cleo, each come inside their own gold with Egyptian script accented sarcophagus-shaped metal tin. The metal tins are just as unique as the Benders themselves. In addition, most Benders come with a prop or accessory — although for some, the tin is their accessory. Camper Joe and Jane (sold separately) come packed inside their own green pup-tent-shaped tin yet they also come with their own props such as a fishing rod, camp chair, grill, wood logs, roasting stick with marshmallows, frying pan and coffee pot. The Bikini Benders (Britney, Lucy, Carmen and Ruby) each come inside their own brown suntan-lotion-shaped tin and include accessories such as a beach lounge chair, water bottle, magazine and boombox.
The toys were such a hit partially because they were cute and unique — perfect for small artistic stores. Catering to small mom-and-pop stores was what both Walterscheid and Hog Wild envisioned. They never wanted to market the Benders to Walmart-type big box stores. The largest Bender retailer is REI (an outdoors/sporting store), who found the sport-themed Benders worked well with their philosophy and branding. One REI executive is quoted as saying, “It’s a product that inspires people to get outside. It makes a great gift for someone who is an outdoor enthusiast.”
The Monkey Benders proved to be the most popular Benders and are most like a toy. Walterscheid named two of the monkeys after his sons, Max and Leo. The Monkey Benders come in several lines: Coconut Tin Monkey Benders, Banana Tin Monkey Benders, Flying Ace Monkey Benders, Space Monkey Benders and Monkey Benders with Pop-Up Building.
In 2000, Klutz, a children’s toy book publisher, unveiled a three-book series, The Adventures of Joe Bender, The Adventures of Brenda Bender and The Adventures of Fender Bender (Fender is their beloved dog) featuring members of the Bender family. Each flip book has the characters featured with a series of photos in poses using easy-to-find objects (e.g. adding paper clips to their feet for skis or using a twist-tie for a neck tie). In addition to the flip book, attached is a Bender character inside its own small round tin.
In 2008, Skipstone/The Mountaineers Books published The Little Book of Bender’s Big Adventures, photographs by Rob Casey. The 48-page features Joe Bender and his dog, Fender, in daring outdoor adventures and expeditions.
Kristi Turnquist (1999, August 5). “The Benders Star In Twisted Toy Story”. The Seattle Times, retrieved from: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19990805&slug=2975755
Anna Sowa (2006, January 22). “Meet the Benders”. The Bulletin, retrieved from: http://bbweb.sx.atl.publicus.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060122/BIZ0102/601220318/1011&template=print
Christina VanGinkel (2006, August 22). “Bug Benders, and More!”, HomeSduf.com, retrieved from: http://www.homesduf.com/2006/08/bug-benders-and-more.html
Nancy Lombardi (2011, September 13). “Catching Up With Steve Walterscheid, Owner of Zing Toys, Inc.”, aNb Media, Inc., retrieved from: http://www.anbmedia.com/catching-up-with/2011/09/catching-up-with-steve-walterscheid-owner-of-zing-toys-inc
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