By Steve Evans
The Mattel Toy Company of Los Angeles introduced its “Uke-A-Doodle” in January 1947, and it turned out to be the company’s first successful toy. At the time, Mattel was still a new company founded by a bright young couple named Elliot and Ruth Handler. Elliot designed and named the “Uke-A-Doodle,” which was adorned with images of palm trees and a Hawaiian hula girl; surprise, the hula girl resembled his wife, Ruth.
The colorful toy had four strings and quasi-tunable keys, but it could not really be used to learn to play. Toddlers were strumming away on their Uke-A-Doodles, but not making beautiful music. This all changed with the new and improved Uke-A-Doodle that came out in time for Christmas 1949. Not only could a young musician strum the strings, but he or she could now play a recognizable song (“Oh Where has My Little Dog Gone”) by simply turning a crank.
The Uke-A-Doodle contained a new invention from Mattel: an internal music-making device. It was complicated in design, but simple and affordable to produce. An internal rubber belt with raised studs rotated past a comb of 12 different-length metal tines. When one of the rubber studs struck a tine, it produced a musical note. Each of the 12 tines produced a different note, covering a full musical scale with all flats and sharps. The Mattel Company went on to manufacture several different song choices, limited only by the complication of how many studs could be placed on a short rubber belt to make the song loop correctly.
Ted Duncan got credit for the idea of the music-maker device within the Uke-A-Doodle. In the 1940s, Duncan was known in Hollywood for orchestrating music for several popular movies, but he also collected expensive Swiss music boxes as a hobby. In studying how music boxes operated, he came up with an idea for an affordable music-making device. He built a prototype and approached Mattel with his invention. Elliot Handler, president of Mattel, loved the device and not only added the music maker to the Uke-A-Doodle, but also included it in a variety of Mattel toys, most notably the Mattel Jack-In-The-Boxes.
In the early 1950s, Mattel began to leave behind the Hawaiian theme of the Uke-A-Doodles and went to work designing new models called “Ge-tars.” When a small child held the Uke-A-Doodle, it did in fact look more like a guitar than a ukelele, when compar
ed in proportion to an adult holding a real guitar.
The “Cowboy Ge-tar” of 1951 featured decals showing a bucking bronco, a cowboy playing guitar, a steer’s head and a pair of six-shooters. It came in four different colored plastics and a choice of either playing “Red River Valley” or “Bury Me Not on the Lone
Prairie.” The Cowboy Ge-tar went through several cosmetic changes over the years, but continued to be a popular model for three decades.
Mattel toy guitars were equipped with steel strings up through the 1955 Davy Crockett model, but from that point on, all Ge-tars came with nylon strings, beginning with the Mickey Mouse Ge-tar of 1955. This signaled the start of a fantastic line of character Ge-tars. Here is the long list, in order of age: Mickey Mouse, Popeye, Casper, Beany and Cecil, Yogi Bear, Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker, Barbie, Porky Pig, Tom and Jerry, The Monkees, Flipper, Doctor Dolittle, Buzzy Bear, Captain Kangaroo, Bumble Bug, Snoopy, Mother Goose, Winnie-the-Pooh, Cat In The Hat, Smurfs and, last but not least, the Garfield the Cat model of 1984.
It’s interesting to note that two different models may have the exact same body shape, such as the 1963 Barbie and the 1970 Snoopy. This is because the plastic top of these two bodies came from the same mold, cutting some expense in Mattel’s manufacturing process. Speaking of Snoopy, this model did not come with a neck cord, i.e. guitar strap; 1970 was the year Mattel discontinued neck cords because of the danger of strangulation.
Today, these Mattel crank guitars are fun to collect and are also very affordable, usually just $10 to $50 each. They have great artwork, and since they all match in size (14 inches tall), can make a nice display when hung side by side.
After all these years, the music crank may no longer be in working order. Sometimes the rubber belt has snapped or is even missing, but often the belt is just slipping. To help the belt along, stick the eraser end of a pencil through the sound hole and help move the rubber belt as the crank is being turned. The good news is that 50 percent of these old music makers still work just like new, which can really be a treat.
Most of the character Ge-tars played old standards like “Bicycle Built For Two,” or nursery rhymes like “The Bear Went Over the Mountain,” but some actually played the characters’ theme songs such as the “Mouseketeer Song” or “Popeye the Sailor Man.” [To see another short demonstration video, like the one featured above, click here.]