Almost 20 years ago, a particular novelty item took the country by storm. Stores were selling out of it. Heads of state reportedly displayed it in their offices.
That item was Big Mouth Billy Bass, a plaque-mounted animatronic fish that sang “Take Me to the River” and “Don’t Worry Be Happy.”
“If I’m known for anything, I guess I would be known for being the inventor of Big Mouth Billy Bass,” said Joe Pellettieri, former vice president of product development at Texas-based Gemmy Industries.
“Really it was my wife’s initial idea,” he said in a recent interview. The couple was driving past a Bass Pro Shop and she said, “‘How about a fish on a plaque, singing?’”
It took Pellettieri about a year to bring the idea to market, working with engineers to perfect the design. He remembers showing an early model to potential customers in Hong Kong in 1999. The fish faced forward on the plaque, its mouth moving and the tail wiggling to the music.
“It was just OK,” he said.
Then Pellettieri had a brainwave. He took the model back to the engineers in China and asked them to make the head turn during the song so that the fish appeared to be looking at the viewer.
“The surprise factor when it turned was the whole key,” Pellettieri said. “You’ve got to get the joke in within the first five to seven seconds, so they don’t walk away.”
Gemmy, a private company, won’t divulge sales figures, but Pellettieri is proud of its success.
“It was one of the biggest novelty items of all time,” he said. “Pet Rock was miniscule compared to Big Mouth Billy Bass.”
That success was followed by Gemmy’s next business idea: inflatable holiday yard decorations, a market it continues to dominate today.
Pellettieri wasn’t done inventing. “I tell people, I’m not a one-hit wonder,” he said. “I’ve got other hits that you probably are familiar with.”
There were dancing hamsters, frogs that sang hip hop and motion-activated talking figures. In the late 2000s, however, Gemmy lost some of its biggest customers. Eckerd, a large drugstore chain, went out of business in 2007. KB Toys closed its doors in 2009.
“A lot of retailers changed their focus and didn’t want to do novelty items anymore,” Pellettieri said. “So the business changed.”
There were misses, too, like a series of singing Elvis hound dogs.
“They looked great, they sounded great, they had Elvis’s voice in it and they just didn’t sell,” he said. “You just don’t know.”
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