clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Cleveland’s Greetings

How did a city with a tortured history become home to Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears?

American Greetings
American Greetings

Cleveland is demanding our attention. From the Republican National Convention to the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, the Indians’ recent dominance to a surprising tech scene, we’re thinking about the city more than ever. This week,​ The Ringer ​is exploring why Cleveland matters.

Happy birthday! Wish you were here, babe. Congratulations on your graduation, engagement, anniversary, bundle of joy, promotion. Merry Christmas. Mazel tov. Here’s to 50 years together. Feel better. So sorry for your loss.

Would you believe a phone number with a Cleveland area code answers calls with a recording announcing that the place you have reached is where we create happiness, laughter, and love? That the thousands upon thousands of cards shipped off each year by American Greetings, whose roughly $1.9 billion in annual revenue makes it one of the world’s largest greeting-card companies, hold sentiments dreamed up in Ohio’s second-largest city? That this place — this hard-luck stalwart of the Rust Belt — is responsible for no less a beacon of joy than the Care Bears?

Cleveland, throughout its history, has been known for many things, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to LeBron James to my god, the Browns. But it isn’t widely known as a prolific hub of emotional messaging and beloved children’s characters, even though that’s precisely what it is. So how did a city nicknamed the Mistake by the Lake — a moniker that makes Clevelanders shudder now, so eager are they to tell you that it’s not like that anymore, that the curse is finally lifted — come to send comfort and delight and the bright, red love of Tenderheart Bear and Strawberry Shortcake into homes and classrooms and tight, tight hugs everywhere?

Let’s start from the beginning.

American Greetings is as American as: apple pie, thick slices of American cheese, thick slices of American cheese layered atop apple pie, handfuls of swiped fast-food napkins in your center console, and the ice cream machine being broken at McDonald’s. Flip through the company’s history and see industriousness blink by like slides in Don Draper’s “Carousel” pitch: Jacob Sapirstein, an immigrant from Poland, buying postcards from foreign manufacturers and selling them to Cleveland merchants in 1906; Jacob storing cards in his young family’s living room; Jacob’s 9-year-old son, Irving, dispensing Valentines when his father was laid up with the Spanish flu; Irving’s brother, Morris, delivering cards from the back of a horse-drawn wagon; impoverished Clevelanders buying and giving greeting cards during the Great Depression when they could afford little else; the decision to begin printing original cards in 1936; the explosion of the greeting-card business as families scattered across the country in the wake of World War II; the gathering of the reins, in 1987, by Irving’s son-in-law, Morry Weiss; and then by Morry’s sons, Zev and Jeffrey, in 2003.

Four generations of the Sapirstein-Stone-Weiss family have led American Greetings. Each has done so out of Cleveland, company headquarters and home to more than 1,700 employees, including nearly every member of a creative department that has in 110 years found just about every way to say, thinking of you. If you’ve remembered mom’s birthday while you were shopping for eggs, or told grandpa that he’s still funky on his 85th birthday, the odds are good that you’ve held a little piece of Cleveland in your hand.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Well wishes, though, may not be the most indelible mark American Greetings has left over the years; for decades, its platoon of licensing divisions has churned out some of the country’s most memorable and cherished children’s characters. And those characters, despite seeming at odds with a city that’s endured more than its fair share of misery, are Cleveland through and through.

“I think we’re a tough group of people, because we put up with a lot of stuff for a long time,” says Rick Reising, an American Greetings creative director who first joined the company as a senior writer and editor in 1984. “Cleveland in its heyday — aside from now, because Cleveland definitely is a city on the rise — Cleveland’s heyday was in the 1890s.

“It was a happening city,” he says. “It was a highfalutin city, which is hard for any of us to believe because nobody’s alive anymore that lived through that, you know? All we know is the stuff from the ’70s and some of the darker days.”

It was around this time that Elena Kucharik first joined American Greetings as an artist, in 1965 — four years, I am obligated to tell you, before the Cuyahoga River caught fire. She grew up in Cleveland and started working at the old factory off Detroit Avenue right out of college, punching in and out for her lunch breaks. At American Greetings, she worked on decorative borders, looping vines, and other pretty little things, until one day she was asked to draw something cute: a kitten, maybe, or a puppy. Kucharik had found her niche.

So when, in 1981 — the year that Red Right 88 could have sent the Browns past the Raiders and to the Super Bowl — American Greetings went looking for someone to paint a series of colorful, emotion-driven bears, the company turned to Kucharik. Her paintings became the basis for the original cast of 10 Care Bears: Bedtime Bear, Birthday Bear, Funshine Bear, Wish Bear, and friends. With heart-shaped noses and stomachs emblazoned with symbols and words to indicate their admirably straightforward feelings (a crescent moon for the sleepy bear; a rainbow for the cheerful one; a heart for the bear that just wants a hug), they were billed as a family, and they embodied their city’s charm. “Cleveland lacked a little bit of the — let’s just say the sophistication that you get out on the East Coast,” jokes Kucharik, who now lives in Connecticut. “That sounds snobby. But it’s a little bit different.”

Thirty-five years after Kucharik’s initial watercolors, the bears and their pastel goodnesses still loom large. They are responsible for nine feature films, five television series (including an all-CGI iteration, Care Bears & Cousins, that launched on Netflix last November), and countless stuffed animals, books, candies, stickers, and T-shirts, as well as untold amounts of refrigerator art and the ceaseless loop of “We’re the Care Bears!” that is probably now stuck in your head. The Care Bears sold $2 billion worth of merchandise in the first five years after their launch, and they have had three decades — minus a period of intentional brand hibernation in the 1990s — to carry on selling.

“Forget the war protests 15 years earlier,” writes American Greetings’ official website, “when Care Bears debuted, their popularity caused near riots as moms and dads vied to get their hands on the lovable new characters.”

The Care Bears remain one of American Greetings’ greatest successes. From Kucharik’s paintbrush emerged characters who have appealed to generation after generation: walking, singing, dancing emissaries of openness, happiness, and — above all — friendship.

“People think friendlier in the Midwest,” Kucharik explains.

In 1977, orders came down from Muriel Fahrion’s art director. “He said, ‘I want something that has daisies, strawberries, a rag doll, and the colors are pink and red,’” Fahrion recalls. From that, Fahrion, who like many American Greetings illustrators was hired straight out of art school, drew a set of six sketches that would become the country’s most famous cherubic redhead, her green-stockinged legs perpetually skipping en route to some picnic, so bright and pleasant and sweet that you could almost smell the berries — you could, in fact, if you got one of the dolls, which were scented.

Among Strawberry Shortcake’s many accomplishments: She — and the employees at American Greetings always call her “she,” remaining more than a year after her sale to the licenser Iconix something much greater than an inanimate object — was the first major brand designed explicitly for licensing. When Strawberry — we’re going to get familiar here — was rolled out in 1980, she wasn’t just a simple drawing on a greeting card. In the past, superstar characters like Mickey Mouse were extended to merchandise only after they had proven to be commercial successes; American Greetings’ then–vice president of creative, Tom Wilson, however, saw the potential for more with Strawberry Shortcake. When she was released, she arrived with cards, plans for plushies and toys and animation, decorative bedspreads — the works.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It is difficult to overstate just how quickly she dominated the hearts and minds of America, and especially of its little girls, on the back of this marketing blitz: Two years after Strawberry’s release, she was profiled in People in a story headlined “Who’s Red and Sweet and Filthy Rich? Strawberry Shortcake, Toyland’s Newest Tyke-Coon.” She grossed $100 million in her first year, People cooed, “enough to buy 400 million packs of bubble gum!” If you’ve ever wondered how a toy takes over seemingly overnight — filling shelves, spinning off cartoons, appearing on lunch boxes and paper plates and at the end of sentences that begin Moooommmmm!!!! — you’ve got Strawberry Shortcake to thank.

And she is a Clevelander, first and foremost. Strawberry Shortcake was born in a now-defunct licensing division of American Greetings called Those Characters From Cleveland, a group of 15-odd writers, illustrators, designers, and executives responsible for some of the country’s most iconic toy brands: Strawberry’s pillowy bonnet and her calico Custard, the Care Bears, Holly Hobbie (named for her creator, an American Greetings contract artist), Madballs (soft, squishy faces reminiscent of haunted potatoes, in whose image they were conceived), My Pet Monster (a plush doll designed for — gasp — boys), Popples (lumpy teddy bears that could be rolled into a ball), Lady Lovely Locks (Barbie-esque dolls that are indeed lovely), and others. Search for any and you’ll find legions of fans pining for TCFC’s creations.

“I’m one of seven kids,” says Fahrion, who grew up in Lakewood, Ohio, a West Side suburb of Cleveland. “My stuff comes from my visual memory. So as I drew a character — we call that being under the mushroom — I could feel that character and I could see the situation. So the first introduction of Shortcake has a lot to do with me and my background.”

In the process, Fahrion created a world that still resonates. People used to make pilgrimages to her home in Oklahoma, where she moved in the ’90s, not realizing they were looking not only at Strawberry Shortcake’s world — a grownup version of Strawberry’s Berry Happy Home — but also at a slice of Fahrion’s Cleveland upbringing; the artist’s early visits to the city’s museums, orchestra, and lakefront could just as easily have made for episodes of a Strawberry Shortcake cartoon. The little girl with the freckles was a family affair: It was Fahrion’s sister, Susan Trentel, a mother of six and accomplished seamstress, who stitched together the first Strawberry doll.

American Greetings Entertainment is the descendant of Those Characters From Cleveland; these days, the division carries the banner for the company’s original creations, new and old, deploying and redeploying them in an attempt to capture the imaginations of new generations of children, as with the Netflix Care Bears & Cousins show. American Greetings’ bread and butter, the actual greeting-card business, is struggling — the internet has strangled the industry; the company’s stock peaked in 1998, and the Weiss family bought it back from shareholders in 2013 — but its characters continue to thrive. AGE’s members joke that they work for the Care Bears, not the other way around: The bears have been there longer than they have.

This is not completely true. A handful of TCFC alumni remain at American Greetings, including Reising. He works in inbound licensing these days, making cards, party goods, and the like for companies that sell their licensing rights to American Greetings, like Warner Bros. and Disney. But Reising still does occasional editorial work for the Care Bears — or, as he puts it, “I do still keep my fingers in the Care Bears pie.” Three and a half decades after they were dreamed up, the bears continue to carry a special significance: With warmth and friendliness — dare we say cuddliness? — stitched right into their fabric, they’re an enduring symbol of Cleveland pride.

“I remember the first time I heard it,” Reising says of the name Those Characters From Cleveland, the group that started it all and became a catapult of — and this is not, the Cavaliers finally proved for certain, an oxymoron — pure Cleveland joy. “It was right before I got hired, and I thought, ‘What the heck? What a stupid name.’ … But that also had to do with me being a young kid and living in a depressed Cleveland at the time. Like: ‘Why would you want to call it that?’”

“It’s different now,” he says.