It all started out innocently enough. As they drove past a nearby Bass Pro Shops Outlet, Barbara Pellettieri looked at her husband and asked, “How about a singing fish?” Joe Pellettieri thought for a moment. As vice president of product development for Gemmy Industries, a toy company in Irving, Texas, he was trying to find a new use for a high-tech computer chip that would allow a toy to move to a musical beat. His company’s first stab at this novelty market was a Christmas tree called (pun alert!) Douglas Fir, which danced and synchronized its mouth to the tune “Rock Around the Christmas Tree.” Although it had sold well, Pellettieri was looking for something that was more fun, something that was unique, something that was less seasonal, something that was…a singing fish?
Average guy + sports + the outdoors = fishing. It might be a whole new category of toys. A real breakthrough. But the first prototype built in the spring of 1999 was “God-awful,” admits Jim Van den Dyssel, Gemmy’s vice president of sales. Pellettieri then hired a taxidermist to give the next version the look and feel of a real bigmouth bass. It wasn’t until the late summer, however, that Pellettieri found that special something. A motion sensor had been installed, so the fish would become active whenever someone moved near it. But the real clincher was the way it moved. Turning and twisting toward the viewer, the fish seemingly sprang to life. “It’s great because it doesn’t look like a joke,” says Van den Dyssel.
Big Mouth Billy Bass was born. Gemmy scrambled to secure the rights to two songs for the toy: Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and Bobby Mcferrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Tooling was quickly designed and manufacturing began in China at Gemmy’s factory, but the toy missed the critical holiday season and wasn’t launched until February 2000.
Nevertheless, the response was overwhelming. It didn’t take Gemmy long to realize it had a monster hit on its hands. Bass Pro Shops, which was the first retailer to sell Billy, sold out of its entire stock within five hours – at $25 a pop. So few of the toys were available at that time that early buyers were reselling them on eBay for $80 to $90 apiece, says Van den Dyssel. He recalls a woman from North Carolina who wanted to take out a second mortgage on her house to buy as many of the toys as she could fit in a trailer to sell on the road. Unfortunately for Gemmy, it didn’t have enough toys in stock yet for her or anyone else.
Big Mouth Billy Bass soon became a full-tilt, pop- culture phenomenon. BOATING Magazine’s ever-vigilant Tech Team beat the trend and performed a product test of Billy (“Making Waves,” May 2000) to rave reviews. Soon Billy was hanging with Whoopi Goldberg on Hollywood Squares. Regis Philbin contacted Gemmy to design a special Billy Bass that used a recording of Philbin singing “Pennies from Heaven” as a farewell gift to Kathie Lee Gifford. Soon everyone had to have one – even the Queen of England and her daughter, Princess. Although Gemmy officials won’t release figures, Big Mouth Billy Bass is estimated to have racked up more than $100,000,000 in sales last year. Not bad for a gadget that some retailers guess costs $4.50 to $6 to manufacture. Billy’s success unleashed the inevitable cast of knockoffs and copy?catfish that include Boogie Bass, Travis Trout, Salmo the Salmon, Rocky Lobster, and Jaws, a singing shark that belts out a rendition of “Mack the Knife.”
But fads fizzle fast. Silly Putty anyone? How about a Rubik’s Cube? “The pressure is on to come up with the next hot item,” concedes Van den Dyssel. “Everyone is waiting. But right now there isn’t one.”
So, why do we care? Is there a moral to this toy story? Yes. We care because someone finally recognized that boaters and fishermen are a giant hunk of mainstream America. Don’t believe us? Just ask Big Mouth Billy Bass.