Remember Barney the Dinosaur? You have to wonder why anyone thought the Barney blitz would succeed…and then you have to wonder why it did. Here’s one version, written by Jack Mingo, the author of How the Cadillac Got Its Fins. (This article was first published in Uncle John’s Legendary Lost Bathroom Reader.)
How did Barney, a 6’4″ purple-and-green dinosaur, capture the hearts and minds of two- and three-year-olds everywhere? It depends on who you ask.
The story told by the company—and reported in Time and other news sources, goes something like this: Sheryl Leach, a simple mother and schoolteacher, was driving down the highway in Dallas in 1988 with her restless toddler Patrick, wondering how to get a little free time for herself. At the time, the only thing that could hold Patrick’s attention was a “Wee Sing” video featuring colorful characters and music. Suddenly, Leach had an inspiration: Why not try making a video herself? “How hard could it be?” she thought. “I could do that.” She got a schoolteacher friend named Kathy Parker to help, borrowed some money, and voila! Barney was born.
The real story makes Barney seem a little more like what he is—an extremely clever business venture.
Leach, the inspired mom, was actually working as a “software manager” for a successful religious and education publisher named DLM, Inc., which, umm, they forgot to mention was owned by her father-in-law, Richard Leach.
And Parker may have been a schoolteacher, but she was working as an “early childhood product manager” for the same company when Barney was born.
And hey, what a lucky break! DLM had just built video production facilities and was looking to branch into the lucrative kids’ video market when Leach had her brainstorm. In fact, Leach’s father-in-law invested $1 million to develop Barney and even provided the services of a video education specialist who was creating a real-estate training series for DLM at the time.
How Barney Made it to TV
In How the Cadillac Got Its Fins, Jack Mingo writes: “DLM created eight videos starring Sandy Duncan; they sold more than four million copies. One of those copies came to the attention of the executive vice president for programming at Connecticut Public Broadcasting, Larry Rifkin.
“It was Super Bowl Sunday. Rifkin took his four-year-old daughter to the video store to rent some tapes so he could watch the game in peace. ‘Leora walked out with “Barney and the Backyard Gang” and she watched the program and watched the program and watched the program. So I decided to take a look and see what it was she enjoying,’ said Rifkin. He tracked down the manufacturer and made a deal to purchase 30 episodes for his station.”
From there, the whole phenomenon just took off. Leach and Co. reportedly made $100 million from Barney in 1993 alone.
Barney vs. The World
Maybe it’s the color purple…maybe it’s that dippy voice. Whatever it is, Barney aroused some pretty potent passions. For example:
- The Rev. Joseph Chambers, a North Carolina radio preacher, thinks Barney is proof that “America is under siege from the powers of darkness.” He put out a pamphlet called Barney the Purple Messiah, charging that Barney is a New Age demon bent on introducing America’s children to the occult.
- The University of Nebraska held a “Barney Bashing Day,” which featured boxing with a Barney look-alike.
- In Worcester, Massachusetts, a college student jumped out of a car, shouted obscenities and assaulted a woman who had dressed as Barney to help celebrate the opening of a drug store. “I said, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ the woman told police. And he said, ‘Because we hate Barney!'” One little boy who witnessed the attack said, “I’m going home to get my gun, Barney. And I’m going to shoot him.