A plastic toy icon has proved the spud is not a dud.
Now age 55 and going strong, Mr. Potato Head has morphed from a real potato in his birth year of 1952 to a mature spud with many faces, courtesy of plastic, including married man, movie star, even mayor.
For the firm that makes and markets Mr. Potato Head, the spud earned Hasbro Inc. of Pawtucket, R.I., $4 million in sales in his first year.
At Dennis Martin's home in Birmingham, Ala., the collector has presumably the largest collection of Potato Heads, which he has been amassing for 10 years. Now he has nearly 1,000 items in the collection, kept in the Potato Head Room.
``I thought it would peak after awhile,'' Martin said of the Potato Head craze. His own love of the toy prompted him to create www.mrpotatohead.net. He used to collect Pez dispensers, he said.
``For some reason, I picked up a Potato Head or two. There are a lot of collectors out there,'' he said in a recent telephone interview. ``We get so many e-mails a day from people who want to know how much their Potato Head is worth.
``It's a neat little hobby. It's fun, and it's not corrupted and not crazy. It's the first toy ever advertised on television. It's in the Toy Hall of Fame. Every generation since it came out can recognize it. It's a great piece of plastic.''
But Mr. Potato Head's body wasn't always plastic. George Lerner invented him in the late 1940s, intending parts as prizes in cereal boxes, said several sources. The sharp parts were used to decorate real potatoes or other vegetables.
``If the parts could pierce a potato, then the fear was that they could also pierce children's skin,'' said Gary Doss, curator at the Classic Toy Museum in Burlingame, Calif.
Hasbro converted Mr. Potato Head's body to plastic in 1964. The plastic body is covered in holes made to fit the dull-pointed parts - it also doubles as a container to hold the pieces.
These days, Mr. Potato Head has identities such as Optimash Prime to go along with the craze for the Transformers, and even dresses up as Darth Tater. According to Hasbro, as a Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Tater was once a promising young Jedi who lost his roots.
Mr. Potato Head even had a line of Tooty Frooty friends, including Pete the Pepper, Kate the Carrot and Oscar the Orange, Doss said. But none caught on like the potato.
``I don't see any end in sight,'' said Martin, who has six children of his own. ``With the relationship with Disney, they keep coming out with new stuff.''