Teardown: KC Bearifone Could Talk Circles Around Teddy Ruxpin

At the risk of dating myself, I will tell you that grew up in the 80s — that decade of excess that was half drab and half brightly colored, depending on where you looked, and how much money you had for stuff like Memphis design. Technology seemed to move quickly in almost every aspect of life as the people of the Me decade demanded convenience, variety, and style in everything from their toilet paper (remember the colors?) to their telephones. Even though long distance cost a fortune back then, we were encouraged to ‘reach out and touch someone’.

A Healthy Fear of Bears

Looking back, it’s easy to see how all that advanced technology and excess filtered down to children. I may be biased, but the 80s were a pretty awesome time for toys, and for children’s entertainment in general. Not only were the toys mostly still well-made, even those that came in quarter machines — many of them were technologically amazing.

Take Teddy Ruxpin, which debuted in 1985. Teddy was the world’s first animatronic children’s toy, a bear that would read stories aloud from special cassette tapes, which moved his eyes and mouth along with the words. One track contained the audio, and the other controlled three servos in his face.

I remember watching the commercials and imagining Teddy suddenly switching from some boring bedtime story over to a rockin’ musical number a là the animatronic Rock-afire Explosion band at ShowBiz Pizza (a Chuck E. Cheese competitor). That’s the kind of night I wanted to be having.

The current lineup of the Rock-afire Explosion. Image via Servo Magazine

Although I went to ShowBiz a fair number of times to play Skee-Ball and stare at the Rock-afire Explosion animals and their cool set pieces, I never did have a Teddy Ruxpin. I remember being torn between wanting one and thinking they were kind of scary, which in turn made me a bit tangentially afraid of the Snuggle bear. When it came down to it, Teddy simply cost too much — $69.99 for the bear alone, and another $20 for a single cassette with storybook. And that’s 1985 dollars — according to my favorite inflation calculator, that’s $250 in today’s money for a talking bear and one lousy story.

Which brings us to KC Bearifone, an animatronic teddy bear telephone. Honestly, part of the reason I bought the Bearifone was some sort of false nostalgia for Teddy. The main reason is that I wanted to own a Teleconcepts unit of some kind, and this one seemed like the most fun to mess around with. A robot teddy bear that only does speakerphone? Yes, please.

When You Can’t Be There, Be a Bear

“Ich bin ein Bearliner.”

If there’s another thing the 80s were known for, it’s latchkey children. Both of my parents worked, so after a respectable number of years in before-and-after-school daycare facilities, I walked home from the bus stop and let myself in every afternoon. Although my Dad was never gone on business trips or anything, he did work a lot of double shifts and often came home late at night, long after I’d gone to bed.

Plenty of kids’ fathers did travel for business, and that’s what KC Bearifone seems to be built for — calls from Dad’s hotel room right before bedtime, so he can say good night and maybe read you a story.

Whereas Teddy tells proprietary stories in some stranger’s gentle voice, KC Bearifone sounds like Dad, because that’s exactly what you’d be hearing — Dad’s voice. The difference is that theoretically, any discernible audio of human speech will animate KC Bearifone’s eyes and mouth. Weekly check-in with Grandma? KC Bearifone becomes a sweet old lady. Conference call with Munich? KC Bearifone spricht Deutsch.

So why did KC Bearifone even exist? Presumably to entertain people, especially children. And quite possibly to capitalize on the animatronic bear craze that Teddy Ruxpin started. But can you imagine seeing every caller’s voice come through a talking teddy bear? Talk about wild, and disarming to boot. If you’re a nervous phone user, this concept is orders of magnitude better than picturing the caller in their underwear for the sake of your confidence.

Bear Down for the Teardown

At first, I thought I wouldn’t be able to get too far into this teardown, because I thought there was only the one zipper that runs up KC’s back. But then I found a hidden zipper in the back of his head that let me into the goods. You can see how much more difficult it would be to tell which wire does what without access to the head.

Now that I’ve found that head zipper, I can get pretty much anywhere. What you see here is the extent to which I can pull back the fur on his head, which is glued down around the eyeballs.

Really wish I had a landline, but they’re $80/month. Have to take him to Mom’s.

The zip tie around his neck runs through a casing in the collar of his fursuit and is used to cinch it closed and keep kids from seeing KC’s internal horrors. If I wanted to get in to see the control board, I was probably going to have to snip it, so snip it I did.

At this point, I decided to see if it would even power on. To my surprise, we had four D cells lying around the house, all with at least 1.5 V in each of them. What we don’t have is a landline, so I can’t test it that way, but the light above the power switch comes on, so it seems worth the effort to investigate further.

End of the Teddy Bear Picnic

Well, it seems I snipped that 35-year-old zip tie for nothing, and now I have to thread a new one through the casing. Oh well, it shouldn’t be that hard; I’ve threaded my share of limp elastic through fabric casings up to this point, so it should go pretty quickly.

I thought I would have to undo every screw from the base of the neck up in order to get the cover off of the main box, but then I realized that the head post is slotted in to the top of the body. Unfortunately, the head won’t stay upright and backward by itself. That’s probably a good thing.

But here’s the bad part — there are two screws at the bottom of the compartment that are super hard to get to. I could probably get to them with a flex-head screwdriver. As I was pulling on the back of the box and thinking, I realized that there’s no way I’m getting it open without amputating the keypad from KC’s abdomen, or skinning him completely. And I don’t want to go there.

Bear In Mind, This Isn’t Over

I still want to take over the input and do something cool with it. I’m thinking it would be perfect for listening to the Hackaday Podcast. So far, I haven’t had time to started hacking on KC Bearifone, but this project has some interesting information, including a page about building your own ‘transmogrifier unit’ if you can’t locate the commercial unit inside that makes the voice signals manipulate KC’s features.

And as far as Teddy Ruxpin goes, I’ve got a semi-working unit on the way, so maybe we’ll have an actual talking bear showdown one of these days. Is the world ready for that?

43 thoughts on “Teardown: KC Bearifone Could Talk Circles Around Teddy Ruxpin

          1. Alas I missed another microscopic chance for a bear pun, but I’m afraid it might take a little set up and too much would water it down. ;-)

    1. So Nickelodeon Gack or Hasbro’s Bop it.

      Garish to say the least.

      I feel like Sony and Packard Bell released quite a few PCs with Memphis inspired design. Truly hideous

  1. Kristina,
    That photo where you are pulling the “cape” over the face makes the bear look angry, Maybe stuff some extra cotton there when reassembling to keep that look!

    1. I guess it wouldn’t be so bad today, but in the “good” old days yer default toy battery was a dime store zinc carbon that had maybe a whole 100mAh to start with and a self discharge of 10% a month or something crazy.

      “Mommmm I need batterriiiies.”
      “I just gave you some”
      “Yeah but I wanted to listen to the second half of the tape tooooooo”

        1. There used to be some price stratification, blue and silver or blue and red or something, the crap ones were standard and the silver or red were heavy duty, they just dropped the extra crappy tier.

  2. To make the phone work, there are companies that sell VoIP adapters with an analog plug on them, for things like fax machines and such. That assumes you have VoIP service, however.

    1. Bluetooth POTS adapter?

      There are ready made versions available, but the filter won’t let me share Amazon links anymore :-(

      I also seem to remember there being rj-11 to 3.5mm adapters available, to play music while talking to someone on the phone (or record the conversation!), but I couldn’t find one that didn’t require a handset. There are probably some simple plans out there somewhere!

  3. I was blissfully unaware of Teddy Ruxpin. But I was very aware of the Snuggle bear, and that thing was just creepy in a Stephen King kind of way. So your reaction to the fabric softener shill may have had nothing to do with Teddy Ruxpin.

  4. I was born in the 70’s. You know everything avacado color. By the 80’s I had learned to garbage pick, dumpster dive, or whatever you want to call it. Almost everything cool I got came from the trash. And it lasted about 5 minutes before I took it apart and never put it together again. Once I got this laughing teddy bear from the trash. 2 “c” size batteries and it was working!! squeeze the bears paw and it would laugh like a hyena for about 30 seconds!! Man, I couldn’t wait to get it apart to find out how it worked!! After tearing the bear to shreds imagine my disappointment at seeing a generic plastic box on the inside with a switch attached to the paw. I was confident that this bear had to have some kind of memory and a sound generator or something like that. The box was marked “Made in Taiwan R.O.C.”. Where in the world was that I thought? All the cheap crap came from Japan. Careful disassembly of the box revealed an all plastic record player! The record was maybe 1.5 inches in diameter. It played to the end of the record and the needle would rise up and return to the start point and turn off until the switch was activated again. There is a little plastic needle and a plastic cone made the speaker all in one. The plastic needle would deflect enough for the return trip back to start. I was so dissapointed :(. About ten years later I got a teddy ruxpin to tear apart and I’m not going to comment on it since you got one coming. For all the magic built into some of these toys simplicity and off the shelf use of parts amazed me.

      1. In thesixties, there was “Bag of Laughs”. Maybe it had a different name. A cloth bag that,would laugh if you touch it. I never took one apart, but I assume some sort of mechanical “record”

      2. There were numerous toys worked by that mechanism. A string pull doll, a talking police car (Palitoys “Z victor 4” IIRC) some were purely mechanical, some had electric motor driving it. There was a really clever toddler toy that said the letters of the alphabet when you moved the lever around the dial to the letter and activated it. I think there was something similar with animal sounds.

          1. Sometimes my replies show up elswhere so I am replying to the talking phone video. That is a very similiar mechanism to what I described and I am amazed to see this sooo many years later. Thank you for finding this!!!

      3. It’s kind of amazing that such a mechanism lasted much past Christmas, but they were fairly tolerant of light abuse. However, they would get a bit skippy as the year(s) wore on and would come out with amusing mish mashes of the phrases… I guess it was the kid version of circuit bending when you were bored of the normal fare and gave it a whack halfway through a phrase such that it skipped to the last half of another. Much of this treatment did not improve it’s reliability in repeating it’s sounds as recorded as the scratches built up, so older more beaten ones would barely play a whole phrase through.

      4. Mattel See’N’Say … those were the ones with the pointer you moved to the picture/letter and then you pulled a lever which pulled a spring to run the mechanism.

        We had one in the fam in the noughts which lasted 3 sets of kids until it met a purger-mom and got tossed.

        1. Heh, in case you wonder how that happened, I found it in great shape at I think it was a “treasures in the attic” table at a Christmas Bazaar for 50 cents or something when the first round were weans. It didn’t dawn on me it might have been over 30 years old already, though it was cool though. So anyway, there’s some GenZ kids with memories of that thing now, that are probably gonna think the ‘rents were microdosing them with shrooms or acid to keep them quiet because nobody their age knows WTF they’re talking about… I’ll have to remember to tell them when they get to that reflective stage in the late 20s or so.

    1. My experience is similar, albeit 10 years earlier. And I too remember with fondness and fascination a talking toy that I dismantled.

      Inside of it was not a record, but a plastic tape! However, this was not a magnetic tape. Molded in the tape were a half-dozen… maybe 8… grooves… like a record! When you yanked the string, the tape was transferred from a spring-loaded drum (like pulling the tape out of a tape measure) to a take-up drum that the draw-string was wound around. When you released the string, a mechanical governor regulated the speed of the tape as it wound back onto the supply drum.

      There was a steel record needle on a short pivot arm that rested against the back of a white plastic speaker cone. That was the reproducer.

      Screw the toy… this was a remarkable piece of engineering. I wish I had that contraption now.

      1. Interesting, didn’t come across that version myself before. But there were some fairly small pullstring toys around that must have used a more compact version like this vs the disk mechanism.There were also some mag tape using toys around, I guess transitional from these in the late 70s and early 80s before ROM got cheap enough to use digital electronics.

  5. Could there be some access holes to reach the screws through the case? Or could you make some?
    (If you try, be careful drilling brittle plastic, which can do bad things when the drill bit bites in too deep.)

  6. The electricians at a company I used to work at got hold of a decapitated Teddy Ruxpin and “fixed” it. As they didn’t know it needed special tapes they just put a standard audio cassette in. Whether it was the wrong tape or a dodgy rewiring job, I’m not sure, but Teddy looked like he was having a massive seizure.

    1. Not knowing if TR’s mechanical info track was just the return track for a regular cassette,
      I’m guessing the return track audio was being read (in reverse) as mechanical instructions.

  7. I have been working on retrofitting a K.C. Bearifone with a c.h.i.p based on the excelled work of Next Thing Co for years! https://makezine.com/projects/chippy-ruxpin/

    I had the Panda version of the K.C. Bearifone in college but it was cruelly destroyed- i’ve been looking for the panda for years but haven’t found one.

    Now i have a regular white one that i deconstructed a few years ago- please do this project!! I’m embarrassingly excited about this.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.