Long before Tickle Me Elmo cleared store shelves in a blink and prompted parents to offer hundreds of dollars to lucky buyers, he was just a red plush toy living with a former child genius who claims he once was a Unabomber suspect.
Mark Johnson-Williams -- who taught himself advanced math before he hit puberty and began working his way through college at age 14 by picking up construction jobs -- created the voice of the season's hottest gift.
"My kids don't know any different. They think this is normal," said Johnson-Williams of Tyler, 8, Nathan, 10, and Lauren, 12, whose friends do not want to go home after they've seen the heaps of toys, including Elmo, a fluffy red Sesame Street character that vibrates and giggles incessantly when its belly is squeezed.
Living among toys in his oceanfront home in Half Moon Bay, Calif., has extended the childhood Johnson-Williams, 40, lost when he decided to go to college at 14, just after he had taught himself calculus and trigonometry.
The whiz kid was at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, until his 20s because he worked while he studied, often lying about his age to get sewer and construction jobs.
After graduation, he got a job with Milton Bradley developing computerized chess games. Now he is one of a handful of electronic sound-toy experts in the United States.
Johnson-Williams always has a few wires hanging from his briefcases on frequent flights to toy manufacturers in Asia. That may have attracted the attention of the FBI, he said. FBI agents questioned him, neighbors and relatives over six months because Johnson-Williams supposedly fit the mold of the infamous bomber. The FBI suspected a man much like Johnson-Williams: a Northern California resident in his 40s who had studied the sciences in the Midwest.
"I was always sending batteries and headless dolls in the mail," he said. "I think that's what caught their attention."
Johnson-Williams began work on the Elmo doll in 1994. He never imagined it would gain the popularity of the Cabbage Patch dolls and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, sensations of Christmases past.
Elmo has been sold out in stores since Thanksgiving.
At Johnson-Williams' downtown Half Moon Bay office, a bag of Elmos is testimony to his experiments at the request of toy maker Tyco: short Elmos, Elmos without their stuffings and Elmos with white cotton tails. Johnson-Williams said the first models laughed but were not programmed to laugh more and more with each tickle.
"It was OK, but it wasn't magic. We had to do more," said Johnson-Williams, who also worked on a talking Cabbage Patch doll.
He and Benito Cortez, a 31-year-old sound designer at Music Annex Studios in Menlo Park, Calif., reviewed digital audiotapes to squeeze Elmo's 16 different laugh sounds onto the smallest chip possible to keep the price between $25 and $30.
No one imagined a million dolls would sell in five months.
"It's so rare, you don't even think of it," said Stan Clutton, Tyco vice president for marketing. "We were focused on getting what we wanted onto a chip."
Johnson-Williams has lots of fun with his work but says it doesn't bring him the millions many might expect. He works on a monthly contract for Tyco and received no bonus because of the toy's popularity.
Pub Date: 1/02/97