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Throwback Thursday: A Visit with Geoffrey the Giraffe

Geoffrey the Giraffe has been a staple of the Toys “R” Us brand since 1973. Most of us have, at some point, either seen or spoken to him, collected his stickers, rode on a rocket shaped like him. The decline of Toys “R” Us in the early 2000s brought about a time of discovery for the man who would be known as an icon of children who never wanted to grow up.

I was welcomed into Dr. Raffe’s home, a modest four-bedroom lighthouse in Rhode Island overlooking a lake, the perfect view of the sunrise, the time when Dr. Raffe does his calisthenics. “Even doctors can get unhealthy,” he says, his gravel-toned voice still tinged with the mirth I had grown to love as a child. “And please call me Geoff.”

The ceilings are understandably high, though Geoffrey will only be reminded of that when he receives visitors. He offers me some bamboo tea picked out by his wife, Gigi, who is visiting relatives this weekend. I ask if she took the Geoffreymobile and he lets out an almost embarrassed laugh.

“It was never my idea to call it that. That was Junior’s idea. He always had a creative mind, even back then.”

Geoff says his contribution to our childhoods was limited to his face. “I was the world’s first giraffe supermodel,” he laughs. Dr. Geoffrey G. Raffe was approached by Toys “R” Us in 1973, fresh off graduating with a Ph.D. in child psychology.

“There weren’t a lot of jobs to go around in that particular field. Psychology was a relatively new science and back then everyone was more focused on fixing the adults. I always believed that they wouldn’t need much fixing as adults if you encouraged them when they were young. So when Charles [Lazarus, founder of Children’s Bargaintown and eventually Toys “R” Us] came to me, and he said, ‘we have an opportunity for you to reach kids,’ the method seemed a little unorthodox, but I was on board almost immediately.”

From there, Geoff followed the company as it grew, making appearances at new store openings, amassing a following of millions of children all over the United States.

“I was maybe 29, or I had just turned 30, actually, and I just kept getting phone calls asking if I could show up here or there. ‘The kids are rioting without you!’ So honestly, I could never say no. My wife would get so mad at me. ‘What about your own kids?’ She would say. And one day, I said to her, ‘y’know, I’d like you all to be a part of this. I really would.’”

By February 1975, the entire Raffe family, Gigi, Junior, and Baby Gee all had a role to play in launching new stores with their own comic strips advertising weekly sales while Baby Gee showed up in advertisements for baby products.

After more than twenty years in the spotlight, Geoff and Gigi decided together that the family ought to take a backseat in ads. “Baby Gee had become undergraduate Gee, and I can’t imagine why, but that doesn’t sell toys as well,” Geoffrey chuckles. “We were a little worried that kids would see me without my family, and they would wonder if maybe they had gone off to another store or something.”

Contrary to what Geoff believed, sales continued, at its peak becoming the standard for an industry category killer, selling across all markets. From bikes and trains to video games. In 1992, Toys “R” Us established the Toys “R” Us Children’s Fund to help kids in need, a cause Geoff could not have been happier to champion. 

“We had grown so big; we had to start giving money away!” He laughs. “And Junior wanted to use that money to expand to foreign markets, to reach kids all over the world. Then Gigi says, ‘let’s start a charity.’ And here comes optimist Baby Gee, ‘why not both?’ And, yeah, we had grown so much with no signs of stopping. Why not both. At the time I thought, nowhere to go but up.”

But then came Y2K.

“Most of your readers probably won’t remember the big Y2K scare. For us, it wasn’t really the fear that computers would come crashing so much as it was the fear computers would get too smart.” He lets out a rueful, self-aware chuckle. “Oh, boy. The machines were coming to get us, we thought.”

The rise of the Internet and online purchasing, spearheaded by Toys “R” Us’ then biggest rival, Amazon, also meant the simultaneous decline of brick-and-mortar sales. In an effort to curb the loss of business, Toys “R” Us briefly partnered with Amazon, who later reneged on an exclusive agreement to carry only Toys “R” Us items, a betrayal Geoff says he had only read about in the papers.

“Of course, when one side of the company isn’t doing too hot, the whole company feels it. I was over on the advertising side. I’d always felt my only job was to make sure the kids were taken care of, so when I got a couple of letters that year telling me that for some reason—which we now know to be Amazon—they weren’t getting their Christmas presents, man, that was just devastating. And that of course only discouraged people from coming into stores.”

In 2003, Kids “R” Us, the branch of the company catering specifically to children’s clothing, shut down, dealing Geoff another blow.

“Junior was particularly upset about it. By this point, he had taken a position on the board and Kids “R” Us was basically his child. He definitely took it the hardest, I think, of anyone.”

The store found itself traveling through several hands until 2005, when Global Toys Acquisition — a private equity consortium comprising Bain Capital Partners LLC, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR) and Vornado Realty Trust—invested $1.3 billion to complete a $6.6 billion leveraged buyout of the company, turning Toys “R” Us into a privately owned entity, eventually buying out competitors KB Toys and FAO Schwarz in 2006.

Geoff, Jr. remained on the board, convincing his father to do one last campaign.

“We had bounced back, financially, but people just didn’t trust the name ‘Toys “R” Us’ like they used to. They didn’t trust the name Geoffrey the Giraffe. So I said, well, I gotta get the kids to believe again. What do I do?”

The revamped, social media-friendly Geoffrey debuted in November 2007, with a younger, more sleek look, and stars instead of the usual giraffe spots.

“’What do you know,’ I say. I actually look hip!’” While Geoff himself was not used as the model for this new Geoffrey character, he nonetheless hopes children will continue to be inspired by his legacy.

“The looks I would get walking into a store on a Saturday morning. Gosh. Those little eyes would light up, and suddenly, everything you ever wanted was possible. Step aside, Mickey Mouse. Here comes Geoffrey the Giraffe.” Many fans agreed with this sentiment, earning Geoffrey the #10 spot on AOL’s list of “Top 25 Mascots of All Time” in 2010.

For now, the retired doctor enjoys contributing in any way that he can, writing books on child development and the role of toys, both for children and adults. He admitted he still plays with toys himself, pointing out his mini-golf setup in the backyard as well as his Wii. “I don’t want to grow up,” he says.

Before I go, I make one last request: to sing the Toys “R” Us jingle. He admits he’s a bit rusty, but like the many children he’s helped over the years, he’ll never forget it.

Sources: Toys “R” Us, Inc.

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