'Daddy, Can I Have One?'

When gift-industry mogul Russ Berrie celebrated his nuptials last month, he topped the cake with a pair of $15 baubles: bride-and-groom troll dolls. Dotting the reception tables at New York's posh Essex House were 160 more nine-inch gnomes with shocking pink and blue hair, one per guest. The extravagaza might have been a 6-year-olds fantasy, but Berrie's interest in trolls is no child's play. This year his company expects to sell $150 million worth of the humble creatures. "We've got a full-blown fad on our hands," says Sid Aronson, a spokesman for Russ Berrie and Co. "We've been airlifting trolls into the country since March to meet the demand."

As any parent can attest, trolls--those homely little dolls with the oversize eyes, bulging tummies and Don King hairdos-have made a stunning comeback since their last wave of popularity, in the 1960s. With retailing pundits forecasting another lackluster Christmas, trolls are expected to be one of the season's bright spots. Ace Novelty's Treasure Trolls and Russ Berrie's Russ trolls are already among the five best-selling playthings in the nation, according to The Toy Book, a trade magazine. And some analysts expect the total market for the critters to swell to between $400 million and $500 million before the year-end. Since no one owns exclusive rights to the generic troll design, a host of troll-come-lately imitators are also scrambling to cash in on the craze. As a result, gimmicky new varieties are proliferating by the month. "There's one that gets a tan if you put it out in the sun," says Richard Greene, owner of seven Totally Trolls shops in the San Francisco Bay Area. "A second one sticks its tongue out if you squeeze its belly-and a third is an X-rated version of that."

While the popularity of the impish dolls may puzzle many grown-ups, industry pros say each troll is a calculated blend of kid-pleasing ingredients. "That little tuft of hair is a big deal," explains Carolyn Shapiro of Toy and Hobby World magazine, pointing out that other long-tressed toys, such as the Totally Hair Barbie, are also winners. The colored gem, or "wishstone," in the belly of Treasure Trolls is another major draw, especially with jewelry-loving little girls. Nor does Shapiro discount the allure of more than 1,000 outfits, the variety of which reaches Barbie-like proportions. For kids, it's a potent combination. "I literally have children who walk in the door and start shaking, they're so excited," says Lisa Kerner, who showcases 3,800 old and new trolls at her Trolling Along Troll Museum in Whitman, Mass.

Though it may be hard to imagine today, there was a time when aficionados could scarcely find a troll. During those lean years, collectors were forced to comb flea markets, garage sales and antique shops for their treasures. Then in 1982, marketing executive Steven Stark stumbled across the dolls on a business trip to Denmark, where trolls had never gone out of style. That discovery led Stark and his wife, Eva, to set up EFS Manufacturing to license the Danish designs. The result was a line of trolls called Norfins, distinguished from the trolls of the 1960s by a range of facial expressions, from hopeful to perplexed. "People were so excited when we started exhibiting them at trade shows in 1983," says Eva Stark. "Adults would burst into smiles and say they used to have trolls as children." Soon thirtysomething parents were snapping them up for their kids-as a toy that evoked their own childhood years and had the additional advantage of costing less than twentysomething dollars.

But it took more than nostalgia to turn a small-scale revival into a mass phenomenon. In the late 1980s, the brawnier Russ Berrie and Co., with its nationwide distribution network and advertising budget, brought back its earlier troll lines and began placing the good-luck dolls on gift-shop shelves across the country. Inevitably, tie-ins soon reared their fluffy heads: troll backpacks, troll pencils troll stickers and lunchboxes, necklaces, rings, even troll-brand shampoo. By early this year trolls had reached what marketing specialists call critical mass, as children demanded the latest fad toy. Or toys. With trolls dressed for every occasion from scuba diving to Christmas caroling, customers who yield to the temptation to buy one doll almost inevitably spring for a second and a third. "Trolls are like potato chips," says Eva Stark. "Nobody is satisfied with just one."

Although trolls top many Christmas-gift lists, analysts wonder if the demand will continue much past the holiday season. "The average life span for a toy is three years," says analyst Paul Valentine of Standard & Poor's. "But I wouldn't be surprised if this one fizzled out early because there's such a glut on the market." Even ardent collectors admit that the situation is getting out of "con-troll." Yet manufacturers show no sign of curbing the flood of new designs in 1993. "The steady supply of new costumes drives parents nuts," says Robert Abramowitz, an Ace Novelty exec. And as long as children are pestering their folks for the latest punk-rock or Santa troll, manufacturers like Russ Berrie will enjoy the honeymoon.