Publishers Weekly announces Friendly Family Productions’ New Licensing agreement for Little House “Lifestyle” merchandise

Publishers Weekly Announces Friendly Family Productions has new Licensing Agreement for Little House “Lifestyle” Merchandise

The industry digest, Publishers Weekly, has announced that Friendly Family Productions, owners of the rights to television, movie, theme parks (!) and other media and merchandising of “Little House on the Prairie” -related productions, has made and agreement with Knockout Licensing to represent a “Lifestyle” brand. The vision for the brand is focused upon marketing to 5- to 10-year-old-girls with a few select products for adults, and features items such as dolls and journals. 

The article indicates this effort was spawned by research conducted on behalf of FFP which concluded the “Little House” brand was more recognizable in 2010 than it was during the television series’ first run in the 1970s and early 1980s. The news is hardly surprising, since the children of that era are the parents, even grandparents, of today, and not only grew up with the TV show as background noise, but very often discovered the books as a result of the attention given the show. Those children, most of whom are now in their 40s and 50s, and the next generation, have grown up reading the original Wilder series and had access to hundreds of related publications, both scholarly and fan-fiction. In the media, as well as viewing the TV series, there have been various made-for-television movies, including the 2005 Disney effort, and the wildly popular (although not technically related) PBS series, Pioneer House.

One of my earliest Laura treasures...handcrafted "Laura" dolly for Christmas, about age 6.  Will the new "Lifestyle" products look like this, or should we be prepared for something more tiara than sunbonnet?

One of my earliest Laura treasures…handcrafted “Laura” dolly for Christmas, about age 6. Will the new “Lifestyle” products look like this, or should we be prepared for something more tiara than sunbonnet?

What else could account for this increased visibility? Significantly, the last few decades have witnessed the aforementioned huge increase in scholarship surrounding the Ingalls and Wilder families. This research push began in earnest in the 1970s with the investigative works of William T. Anderson, who began publishing while still a youth himself, and who inspired scholars and curators around the country to dig deep in the local archives and see what relevant information could be unearthed. Primary finds were often the result of collaborative efforts among interested parties: Anderson had the foresight to interview numerous family and friends of Laura Ingalls Wilder, her husband Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. While still a boy, Anderson even had the good fortune to corresponded with an elderly Lane! With the help of such local figures as De Smet News (South Dakota) publisher and defacto town historian Aubrey Sherwood, Anderson was in turn able to identify Ingalls and Wilder artifacts and historic structures/landscapes which were in danger of being forever lost. His publications relevant to the Ingalls and Wilder legacies number about 20, and several have undergone multiple revisions and republications. Anderson is a very visible and active supporter of the Wilder legacy, spending most of his free time venturing from one Laura town to another, researching and fundraising at various Wilder homesite museums. He has advised and advocated for these museums throughout his career, and has served on the board of the Laura Ingalls Wilder-Rose Wilder Lane Home Association in Mansfield, Missouri for decades. He makes regular public appearances at the Wilder homesite museums and several other locations where an interest in Wilder is the big draw. His personal appearances always gather a large crowd as he addresses myriad questions on the details of the real Ingalls and Wilder families. His books sell heavily throughout the U.S., and are a staple on Wilder fans’ bookshelves, as well as in the gift shops of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder homesite museums…not to mention at dozens of similar shops at history museums throughout the country.

Some of the earliest acquisitions in my "Laura Books" collection, including Spaeth, Anderson, Miller, Walker, an early edition of Wilder's These Happy Golden Years, and my original set of 9 paperbacks from childhood.

Some of the earliest acquisitions in my “Laura Books” collection, including Spaeth, Anderson, Miller, Walker, an early edition of Wilder’s These Happy Golden Years, and my original set of 9 paperbacks from childhood.

A smattering of the publications available to die-hard fans, including Trini Wenninger, Amy Lauters, Mary Jo Dathe, Catherine Latane, Pamela Smith Hill, the late Dorothy Smith, and several Anderson and Miller titles.

A smattering of the publications available to die-hard fans, including Trini Wenninger, Amy Lauters, Mary Jo Dathe, Catherine Latane, Pamela Smith Hill, the late Dorothy Smith, and several Anderson and Miller titles.

Another, related factor is live entertainment. Traveling theatre troupes, such as Arts Power! stage productions and the Little House on the Prairie Musical (another FFP effort) have enjoyed large audiences and frequent sell-out crowds. Public appearances and promotional segments with Little House television cast members have increased greatly in the last decade. The Little House Musical stage production, initially starring a grown-up Melissa Gilbert (the former “Half-Pint,” this time starring as Caroline “Ma” Ingalls) had a successful and long-term run across the United States: this writer attended, and met Gilbert backstage, in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2010. Add to that, several television cast members have published memoirs, and embarked on book tours. Alison Arngrim (“Nellie Oleson”), Melissa Sue Anderson (“Mary Ingalls”), Melissa Francis (“Cassandra Cooper” and now featured at Fox Business) and Gilbert (“Laura Ingalls Wilder”) all released books in the last 5 years and promoted such with numerous appearances at bookstores and large history museum events, including several at Wilder museums. Arngrim also tours the U.S., Canada, and France with her stand-up comedy show, and works tirelessly to advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse; hers has become a household name in some very unexpected places. 

Other important factors? I’d be remiss to leave out the hundreds of presentations of authors and independent researchers, many of whom, at least among Laurati, have become household names in their own right. Fans of all ages regularly turn to these authors’ and researchers’ publications and presentations for more detailed information concerning any number of Laura-related topics. I cut my researcher teeth on John E. Miller’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town (a study of the early years of De Smet, Dakota Territory, in which the Ingalls and Wilder families were quite literally among the very first white settlers), and learned new ways of analyzing the novels with Janet Spaeth’s contribution to the Twayne United States Authors Series of literary criticism, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Community and school audiences have been delighted by the Arts Power! productions, certainly, but it is also true that researchers who have devoted their lives to the legacy of Wilder are in demand, and not just in the form of sales at booksellers. Rather, they are also in demand at schools, libraries, colleges, historical societies and small museums which play host to bestselling memoirists (Kelly Kathleen Ferguson and Wendy McClure, most recently) as well as historians with an emphasis on niche scholarship.

These presenters all share a common bond of being inspired from an early age by Wilder’s writings; indeed, many of these authors count Wilder as THE reason they developed literary aspirations. And, published or not, several historians–yep, I’m one of them!–have been touring the States for many years, presenting research-based, and often first-person, interpretations of the real Laura Ingalls Wilder. The programs are typically interactive, wherein the presenter will often use historic objects and skills demonstrations to vividly illustrate Wilder’s works, while answering questions covering all aspects of Wilder’s real life, career, and the era in which she lived. To name a few: Connie Neumann, Judy Green, Marie Tschopp, Marian Cramer, Ann Weller Dahl and many others have years–in some cases decades–of public presentations in a wide variety of styles and subject areas relevant to Wilder to their credit. Sarah Utoff has presented at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library a dozen or more times. Nicole Elzenga, collections manager of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and Tourist Center in Walnut Grove, Minnesota (http://www.walnutgrove.org/museum.htm), spends a good deal of her working life visiting and presenting at elementary schools throughout the region to share an insider’s knowledge of the extant artifacts. In just over 4 years of my first-person programming, I have already presented educational programming at schools, libraries, museums, and community events in seven states. The interest in our work is everywhere.

Clearly these presentations, which sometimes are delivered to crowds numbering several hundred, are in demand with both educators and anyone else who worries as the the current generation becomes increasingly detached from knowledge of our nation’s earlier period, and with those who seek to make a connection to the past using Wilder’s work and life as the conduit.

The logo for the first LauraPalooza, 2010.

The logo for the first LauraPalooza, 2010.

If you need more proof, make yourself a plan to attend the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association‘s third academic conference, lovingly known as LauraPalooza, next July 2015 at South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota. There, you’re likely to find hundreds of Laura enthusiasts from all walks of life in rapt attention as speakers ranging from NOAA scientists to YA authors, physicists to librarians, musicians to college professors, all present their research on any aspect of Ingalls and Wilder research which one might imagine. For many of us, the biggest thrill of attending LauraPalooza is the opportunity to listen to our Laura heroes give talks about their work, and later hobnob with these people who have set the stage for the latest crop of researchers. John Miller, Barbara Walker (foodways historian and author of The Little House Cookbook), Bill Anderson, Pamela Smith Hill, Kelly Ferguson, and Wendy McClure, among many others, have all been most generous with their time and knowledge at these conferences. I hope the membership can convince more of the most beloved Wilder scholars to attend in 2015. And if you’re a Wilder researcher yourself, you might want to think about submitting your work when the call for papers goes out this summer: http://beyondlittlehouse.com/2014/05/15/countdown-to-laurapalooza-2015-timeline/

Judy Green, Connie Neumann, and myself at LauraPalooza 2012.

Judy Green, Connie Neumann, and myself at LauraPalooza 2012.

So, what does this all mean? Undoubtedly, there is a lot of enthusiasm for Little House and related activity; a market for merchandise generally goes hand-in-hand with any popular interest. My (far too many) years in retail management and visual merchandising tell me that any merchandise effort must be carefully planned and executed, regardless of the beneficiary of the spoils. Not insignificant here is the timing: Blu-Ray pressings of the Little House TV series are off and running, after a successful DVD box-set launch several years ago which featured the production of several hours of interviews and bonus materials brought together by Dean Butler (“Almanzo Wilder,” and the force behind Legacy Documentaries). FFP, in its partnership with Knockout Licensing, would be wise to make note of what the fans are most inclined toward and skip the pink-princess aisle of the local MegaMart, but one wonders if that is an option such an entity would even consider. Perhaps the pink-princesses need a run for the money; perhaps this is what FFP is banking on. There is no doubt the market for children’s toys has been noticeably and increasingly gendered in recent years, and the big box stores hold much sway in the production, marketing, and even packaging of toys. Will the Little House dolls and other children’s merchandise in the works through this deal be as–forgive me–Rose-y as the rest of the so-deemed “Girls” aisle in the MegaMart? Or will Friendly Family Productions take the high road and offer attractive, quality, non-sweatshop-produced toys that even us grownup fans can appreciate? Only time (and the bottom line?) will tell.

As for me, my devotion is, and always has been, to the preservation of artifacts, manuscripts, correspondence, ephemera, structures, homes, and landscapes with historically significant ties to the real Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family. While my childhood self adored the television show, my adult, historian/preservationist self recognizes that the show was a means to sparking my interest in the legacy which would serve as the primary link to all my scholarly inquiry. And as most any starving scholar will likely tell you, I prefer to spend my hard-won fun money in support of the nonprofit institutions which protect those artifacts, manuscripts, correspondence, ephemera, structures, homes, and landscapes with significant ties to Laura. Any t-shirt, doll, or coffee mug I acquire these days is in direct support of the institutions operating with a stated mission to preserve the heritage of real people and educate the public with work rendered by dedicated scholars. If that happens to include the occasional “Not your Mother’s Child Advocate” item featuring an in-character Alison Arngrim-as-Nellie Oleson graphic to support http://www.Protect.org., so be it; Arngrim has made many appearances in direct support of Wilder’s legacy, so supporting a cause we both hold dear is only logical. But you won’t find her image in the pink princess aisle of the MegaMart, either.
Wink, wink.

My sister and I met Alison for the first time in 2010, at a booksigning event at R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut.  Alison's knowledge of the three women who inspired the Nellie Oleson character she portrayed for 7 years on television is impressive.

My sister and I met Alison for the first time in 2010, at a booksigning event at R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut. Alison’s knowledge of the three women who inspired the Nellie Oleson character she portrayed for 7 years on television is impressive.

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7 comments on “Publishers Weekly announces Friendly Family Productions’ New Licensing agreement for Little House “Lifestyle” merchandise

  1. lauri5567 says:

    I have to wonder what this means for the rag dolls that each home site sells? Generally, I don’t sound the alarm at every thing, but this just seems to me that FFP doesn’t like to see the home sites profit from the small amount of souvenirs they sell without FFP getting a share of everything. Maybe I’m wrong, but making the Little House on the Prairie change their name left a bad taste in my mouth.

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    • Melanie S. says:

      I’ve had a similar train of thought all day. It seems to me this is directly related to the upcoming cinematic feature, and I foresee a big commercial onslaught of Chinese-made plastic trinkets. I really, really hope on wrong. Then again, the homesites know what their visitors want, and are deeply invested in survival. I guess the best thing we can do is keep our memberships current and encourage others to do the same. Just as Sarah Sue always posts reminders about doing gift shopping for Birthdays, Christmas and all other holidays through the homesite stores, I encourage everyone to put their dollars to good use by supporting the nonprofits and small businesses they cherish. And, when shopping with the big guys, choose wisely. Not all corporations are alike, and some are noticeably better employers, community neighbors, and corporate citizens than others. *Stepping off soap box, for now!*

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      • lauri5567 says:

        There’s the feature film and the release of Pioneer Girl, which I’m sure will generate some attention. I’ve wondered about Harper Collins and the Little House Trust’s view of this as it has to do with their property, as well. Going off on a bit of a tangent, I would love to see Roger Lea McBride’s daughter (or is it granddaughter?) at Laurapalooza. I’m sure she has opinions on the property that are deeper than just gleefully raking in the royalties, and I would love to hear her vision. I imagine the lawsuits over the royalties left a bitter taste to her, but my opinions on that are completely different than the ones involving FFP.
        Also, I played with enough Jem and She-ra figures that I can’t throw too many stones at the pink princesses.

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  2. Melanie S. says:

    She-Ra! That’s a blast from the past. My cousins and siblings and I all had different Masters of the Universe alteregos in the 80s, and I was She-Ra, my sister was Teela. I was apparently too old to get into Jem, though. Growing up, we brothers and sisters and cousins also used to play Little House, and actually dressed one of my little brothers as Carrie! When he was older, he didn’t want to play, but the next younger brother played Albert (of course, from TV, not the books–largely because at the time he had a physcial resemblance to Matt Laborteaux). We didn’t relegate the game to just girls, and any color sunbonnet or lunchpail was fine. But the need for defining what was for “girls” or “boys” was never there.

    I’m not completely dissing the girly toys here, or obviously I’d be a huge hypocrite. My concern is that in the last 5 or so years there has been a sudden and very EXTREME genderization of toys; it is a pigsonholing that didn’t exist a few decades ago. Now the stores and manufacturers segregate everything, even Legos! Horrifyingly, the “girl” Legos, which are called Lego Friends, don’t even have the same options for creativity. They are mostly pre-made playsets with very little customization, and of course they are wall-to-wall pink. I resist things like this because it sets girls back, rather than encouraging equality. Any kid who constructs creative masterpieces with traditional legos is using their imagination, whereas a child relegated to the “friends” playsets has to seek out more pieces to express that same level of creativity, while also being told that space travel is a man’s job and baking cupcakes is a woman’s. It is a nasty marketing game that has snowballed to ugly proportions. As a little kid, I remember playing with the Easy Bake Oven with girls and boys, or using toys like Pogo sticks and jump ropes that weren’t color-coded to indicate which gender was “supposed” to play with them. Now, just try finding a kid’s jump rope that isn’t pink or purple.

    Ultimately, I am hoping that the Little House toys will reflect the needs and desires of real children, and not some marketing guru’s idea of boys vs. girls. I’m hoping that the toys will have a variety of colors and themes, and will not be so exclusionary. I hope they won’t hang on to outdated stereotypes of what girls or boys are “supposed” to do or enjoy…after all, Laura herself, and even the much more ladylike Caroline, did a lot of things that were supposed to be “man’s work,” because they, like tens of thousands of women, especially in the homesteading west, knew that the work simply had to be done! Gender stereotypes were regularly thrown out with the dishwater when survival was at stake. It would be a tragic misrepresentation of Laura’s memory to pigeonhole her to some fantasyland and heavily gendered “ideal” that has no relevance to what her life actually was.

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    • lauri5567 says:

      I always find it interesting that Laura is usually portrayed as a total tomboy, but from early on, she cared about the color of hair ribbons. The books/characters are more complex than a lot of people notice.
      I was into to Jem in 4th-5th grade, so you probably missed her. What bothers me lately is how quickly girls especially are supposed to move past toys to boys and clothes. You can’t get those years of childhood back.

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  3. Congrats – You have been nominated for the One Lovely Blog Award on my blog. http://missyscraftymess.wordpress.com/2014/09/03/one-lovely-blog-award/

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