ROCHESTER, New York — Before the holiday wish lists and mad buying rush each year comes a dose of nostalgia with the National Toy Hall of Fame's annual picks for enshrinement.
This year, bubbles, little green army men and the Rubik's Cube took their place alongside past winners including Monopoly and Silly Putty. But is the road to such playtime immortality really all fun and games?
According to the judges, well, yes.
Sure, there's occasional lobbying. The Hess gas station's Facebook page suggested this 50th anniversary year was the perfect time to include its toy truck, and Raggedy Ann fans in yarn wigs picketed for her inclusion in 2002.
But Hall of Fame judges say any real pressure is nostalgia driven, a matter of balancing head versus heart.
Take Star Wars action figures, which were on the ballot last year, said Jeff Gomez, chief executive at Starlight Runner Entertainment.
"What I have to do is separate a little bit from my own childhood and take a look and see if I could argue for them," the media consultant says. It turns out he could, because of the way the figures let children tell their own stories within the movie mythology. In they went.
Before making the ballot, toys first have to survive a panel of historians and curators at The Strong museum, where the 16-year-old hall of fame is housed. The group meets several times to choose 12 finalists from nominees that pour in online all year and via postcard and petition. The finalists are then sent to the 24 judges, who include inventors, educators, psychologists and others.
This year, 434 toys were nominated within 5,000 submissions.
Only toys with longevity, icon status and the ability to inspire kids are seriously considered. But that only narrows the list so much.
"There's always a give-and-take," says Chris Bensch, vice president for collections. This year, Bensch went in thinking electric football could be on the ballot.
"I have to say my colleagues rapidly disabused me that that was worth including this year," Bensch says. "It didn't have enough play value. It was all about chance. It hadn't been on the market long enough."
For this year's finalists, the panel came up with American Girl dolls, Fisher-Price Little People, Hess toy trucks, My Little Pony, Operation, paper airplanes, pots and pans, Slip 'N Slide, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the three winners.
"I try to pull back and look at the big picture — How much did this toy impact our culture, impact our country?" ESPN producer and judge Amy Rosenfeld says. "It's impossible not to apply your own personal experiences."
Some choices have stirred debate. Matchbox fans weren't happy with the enshrinement of Hot Wheels, Bensch says, and in a tongue-in-cheek rant, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart took the hall to task for inducting the stick and cardboard box before the ball.
Those unconventional nominees, like this year's pots and pans, always raise a few eyebrows.
But, Gomez notes, "Not all of us are well off and not all of us had the wonderful things we saw in TV commercials."
Toy analyst Chris Byrne says the hall of fame helps memorialize a place in the nation's culture but doesn't necessarily propel the toy onto kids' Christmas lists. The Rubik's Cube, while still well-known, had its heyday in the early 1980s, he notes.
"These are things that generations from now, people will say, 'What was that?'" he said. "It's a nice piece of cultural history."