Thursday, January 24, 2019

For the Honor of Justine Part 4

Once upon a time there was a pre-teen dorky girl living in Texas trying to figure out what her next toy obsession would be. Out of nowhere came a toy line she never knew she needed but was so glad to grab her lovely hands on. The line was called Swans Crossing and unknown to her she would one day get to befriend the woman who designed and created the toy line. Read on for my final article about the amazing toy designer, illustrator, and inventor who brought the soapy world of Swans Crossing to life in plastic: Justine Dantzer.

For the Honor of Justine Part 4

When I was first put into contact with Justine Dantzer the only thing I knew I needed to talk to her about was her involvement with the Princess of Power toy line. I was told her story was remarkable and that it needed to be captured and shared for other toy collectors to read. That first email I received from her detailed far more than I ever thought I would learn. She did not just create the designs and names for many of the dolls from that first wave of She-Ra toys, oh no, she had her hands in the creation of other many great toy lines. As I read through that email my heart skipped a beat once I read that she had a huge part in the creation of the Swans Crossing toy line by Playmates. What was meant to be a discussion about She-Ra turned into numerous conversations about her work in the toy industry which is where we are currently; the fourth and final article about the fabulous Justine Dantzer.

For those just tuning in there have already been three articles about Justine on Diary of a Dorkette. The first article was an introduction to Justine's work as well as her time at Kenner. The Princess of Power was the subject of the second article. Happy Meal toys marked the third article and shared a whole new aspect of making toys. Now with this fourth article many of her experiences will finally be shared about her time working on the Swans Crossing toy line.

Many of my faithful readers should know about Swans Crossing. I have talked about my love for the toys for quite some time and for those wondering what it was all about let me share a little refresher. Swans Crossing was a teen drama that debuted on June 29th 1992 and aired for 13 weeks until its end on September 25th. It was Sarah Michelle Gellar's first leading role on a television series. Brittany Daniel and Mira Sorvino also starred. The toy line featured many of the main characters with rooted hair in dynamic poses with stylish fashions. It was a short lived toy line but one that stood out from other girl lines at the time. It was also a first for Playmates as at that time Playmates was making a name for itself with their various boy lines, namely Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

How did it all begin though? Justine was not allowed in the initial meetings between Playmates and the production companies Heliosphere Productions and Newlifier Limited about the startup of the show, however according to her knowledge Justine knew one of two things, "The production company responsible for the show either came to Playmates with interest in a toy line for the show or Playmates went to licensing shows wherein shows and productions were being pitched to companies with the hope that merchandise, like a toy line, would want to be bought for the show." What ended up happening was a rather interesting mix of clashing ideas that created some mixed results.

"This toy line was different than other toy lines I had been on. Playmates had just hired a new marketing manager whom I had worked with at another toy company and together with the vice president of marketing, both were women, they wanted to make a mark and a career boost with a girl toy line since Playmates was not really known for popular girl lines. There were also women involved with the production company for the Swans Crossing episodes who also wanted to make a name for themselves. Both sides together were a bad mix. Too many chefs spoiled the broth." With so many people vying to make a name for themselves, it was inevitable that the process of Swans Crossing becoming a show and toy line would be rather bumpy.

Playmates hired Justine and placed her in charge of the Swans Crossing line with the help of Anaglyph Sculpting Company. Soon Playmates became involved with helping the production company choose the young actors for the show so that Justine and Anaglyph Sculpting would have personifications of the actor's heads for the designs and sculpts of the show's characters. The lines between “toy manufacturing” and “TV production” got a bit blurred and power plays started occurring. "Playmates wanted this done very quickly. Glossies were handed to me and I would have to draw these actor's heads in a scaled down way which was difficult. The process took time because the dolls were around four inches tall. It would have been different if the dolls had been a standard Barbie size, however in the toy business creating doll’s heads that really look like the actors is always a problem." Justine churned out turnaround and color drawings as quickly as she could. "Suddenly though, the actors were changed from the original roles. The designs of the doll heads had to keep morphing as the actor's roles kept changing. Also Playmates wanted to save some production costs, especially on the boy dolls. Playmates as a company felt comfortable with making small dolls that were totally painted from head to toe and they decided to not reduce paint operations on the bodies by much, which was great because these dolls were created to be ‘fashion’ characters leading the ‘high life’ but had no cloth fashions. This is why the dolls did not turn out like their personifications!" Check out the pencils below, the sculptors used these to help when sculpting.

The likeness of the dolls to the actors was not the only thing that was disrupted due to so many changes with casting. "Playmates downsized the number of paint operations per head to cut cost so that they could add more to the paint operations for the fashions/bodies. It was a very chaotic environment with so many egos involved from the Playmates Marketing Group and the show's production company. This ultimately resulted in problems with the show getting any airing including how the toy line came out." With so many changes being made to the toy line that were out of Justine's control, she felt let down. "I wanted to do my best with this line, much like any toy line I have ever worked on. This was a very different toy line to work on."

While there may have been an interesting process capturing the faces for the dolls, Justine did express the fun she had creating the fashion looks for the dolls. "I would create tear sheet boards which was a process of tearing out looks from magazines and putting them on boards to help describe the inspiration for how the characters would look and dress as well as their personalities. I wanted to give a personification of the dolls and how they needed to look." For example the Sydney doll in horse riding outfit had to convey fashion meeting a sporty persona, "This of course led to a flurry of more meetings with lots of changes."

Check out Justine's drawings for looks that were produced and un-produced. 

Produced Hangin' Out Mila Rosnovsky fashion

Unproduced Sydney Rutledge fashion

Produced Slumber Party Gloria "Glory" Booth Fashion

Produced Rock Concert Mila Rosnovsky fashion

Unproduced Gloria "Glory" Booth fashion

Produced Slumber Party Mila Rosnovsky fashion

Produced Rock Concert Gloria "Glory" Booth fashion

Produced Rock Concert Owen Fowler fashion

Produced Rock Concert Jimmy Clayton Fashion

Unproduced Hangin' Out football fashion

Produced Rock Concert Sandy Swan fashion

More details of Rock Concert Owen

More details of Rock Concert Jimmy

Produced Hangin' Out John Troy "J.T." Adams fashion

Hangin' Out accessory drawings

Produced Dance party Sydney Rutledge fashion

Unproduced Dance Party Mila Rosnovsky fashion

Unproduced Callie Walker fashion

Produced Dance Party Gloria "Glory" Booth Fashion

Produced Dance Party Garrett Booth Fashion

Details on Dance Party Mila Rosnovsky fashion

Another produced Slumber Party Mila Rosnovsky fashion

Unproduced Party Time fashion

Produced Hangin' Out Sydney Rutledge fashion

Unproduced Knock-A-Round fashion

Unproduced possible Rock Concert fashion

Produced detailed Dance Party Sydney Rutledge fashion

Unproduced detailed Dance Party fashion

Produced detailed Dance Party Gloria "Glory" Booth fashion

Unproduced Dance Party fashion

Produced Slumber Party Sydney Rutledge fashion

Unproduced Slumber Party fashion

Produced detailed Hangin' Out Sydney Rutledge fashion, see Picture 1 and 2 for more

Picture 1

Picture 2

Produced detailed Hangin' Out Callie Walker

Unproduced Swans Crossing Fashion

Unproduced Swans Crossing Fashion

Unproduced Swans Crossing Fashion

Unproduced Swans Crossing Fashion

Unproduced Swans Crossing Fashion

Produced detailed Rock Concert Gloria "Glory" Booth fashion

Unproduced Swans Crossing Fashion

Unproduced Swans Crossing Fashion

"The premise of the line was to really get movement with the poses and to create poses that would show off the personalities of the dolls." Justine went on to explain that the dolls were articulated at the arms and hips only but they each had their own unique pose as a selling point, "Those poses were intentional on every doll I designed. The sculpting team I worked with really captured my designs." While the paint on the faces may have been reduced, Justine was able to add more paint to the bodies helping to show off the unique nature of the fashions and poses, "I was able to paint the masters of those dolls. I was very careful with my choice of color. I was also behind the doll’s hair. I chose the style for each doll. After marketing the dolls would come to me with their initial rooting and I cut and styled every head. The prototype dolls as well as the ‘root and groom’ doll heads were handled by me. I would check for bald root pattern heads for manufacturing.” Justine was not only behind the cut and style of the doll’s heads but much more, “I did this entire line from start to finish. I would make sure that Playmates had everything they needed, a quote package per figure so that they could get to manufacturing.” 

When asked what all went into gathering a quote package together Justine further explained, “When all the work was done, the sculpting and master sculpt copies for production as well as the root and groom master heads along with the paint master heads and paint master bodies were sent out. This also included the color call out chips for all paint operations and for the vinyl skin color. All of that comprised the “Quote Package” so that they could go into manufacturing.” Justine continued, “You must understand, this was very unusual for one toy designer to be responsible for, and even rarer for a woman in this business, but I did it. I worked from home, I was not an in-house employee. This can be a sticking point for certain toy collectors out there in regards to my life’s work, it can be hard for some collectors to understand that so many toys were designed by one woman, painted by one woman, managed by one woman and often out of my own home. I operated as a ‘best kept secret’ in the toy business as I was a total R&D facility to many major manufacturers for years. A lot of people do not know that because it is often not talked about.” Below are images of doll heads that were cut and styled as well as a prototype and a painted prototype by Justine.  

One aspect that was truly remarkable was her innovation to use a bendable vinyl as a costume element for clothing on the dolls. Back then clothing on dolls was typically made out of cloth or a hard plastic. "I created that look. Some of the dolls had costume elements like skirts that were made from a nice and soft bendable material thus making it more fashion-like. I was very proud of this innovation and I did not get a patent or credit for this idea. It is now something that is used all the time with toy lines."

Dance Party Mila Rosnovsky, the pleated bottom part of her dress was made from the nice soft plastic.

The Swans Crossing dolls were not the only thing that Justine had designed. "My original design for the bed was very different than what would become the final product."

Original designs for the bed

Justine's colorful design for the bed frame

More drawings of the bed

Drawings for the vanity

Designs for items

"Playmates wanted a canopy bed so someone else ended up sculpting the new bed design however I did paint the model for it." Below are images of the final product with the top photo being the painted prototype by Justine.

Photo of painted model

Finished box art for the Slumber Party playset

Back of the Slumber Party playset

Closer view of the Slumber Party bio card

There was also a play set to this line, a concert stage where the teens were helping to raise money for a political campaign. "I designed the entire Rock Stage play set including the backboard art. My original design for the backdrop had to be simplified during production into what was manufactured." Justine explained, “That in the designing of a line of this magnitude, you simply had to pick and choose what to let go of.”

Final backdrop for the play set

Concept drawing that did not get used for the backdrop

Sketches of items for the concert

Swans Crossing inside the 1992 Sears Wishbook

Other extras added to the line were a sports car and a motorcycle. There were also sketches made for a horse to go with Sydney Rutledge in her horse riding ensemble, the horse was never made.

Box art for the Sports Car. Note that in the Sear Wishbook, the car is presented as a Mercedes but the final product would not have the Mercedes emblem on it.

Back of the Sports Car box. (This was always on my wish list as a kid)

Close up of the Sports Car bio.

Produced detailed design of the Motor Bike for Callie Walker

Further detailed designs for Callie's Motor Bike

Colorful display for Callie's Motor Bike. 

Unproduced design for Swans Crossing horse

Detailed design for saddle for the unproduced Swans Crossing horse

Here are some images from inside the 1992 Playmates Toy Catalog used to help market the toy line. 

As the line began to near its completion, Justine and the sculptors from Anaglyph were called in to view a screening of the Swans Crossing show. Justine was tentative in her review of the show, "We knew the actors were new to the business but those first screenings were lacking the quality we were expecting from the show." There was concern about the fate of the toy line. Remember dear readers, for the toy line to have continued the show needed to be sold and successful as well. Most of us know how this turned out. 

The actors were not expected to be delivering any award winning performances. The show's concept was not awful. The strong personalities between the toy company and the show’s production company was not even completely at fault, “The show was not strong enough to be successfully sold in all the markets across the US for there to be any added investment in the toy line. The production company would go to different points in the U.S. pitching to the local networks hoping that the networks would show interest and pick it up. They simply did not." Attempting to follow in the glitzy excess of 80's prime time soaps, the show was marketed as a young preteen Dynasty soap opera for girls. If we look back at that time, the early 90's was a swan song for great shows like Dynasty and Dallas. With no promise of a future, Playmates pulled the line out quickly and soon went back to what they liked and knew: boy lines. The show would eventually air the episodes already recorded for thirteen weeks while the toy line would become incredibly short lived. Below are images of the dolls packaged front and back that were released.

Swans Crossing was eventually dropped, "I was disappointed but not surprised. Playmates had high hopes for this line. It was a new and risky venture for the toy company to tap into a market aiming for a popular girl’s TV show. For it to have worked the show needed to be really good with scripts strong enough to capture interest from marketers. Or maybe there was a lack of a good sales person that Playmates could have hired to find a proper placement for the show." Of course what ended up happening through the course of the 90's was the elevated pop culture consumption of teen dramas. Sadly Swans Crossing was unable to find its proper footing in a decade that should have seen it shining with many seasons. 

When asked about what she liked about her work on the line, Justine replied, "There were aspects that came out nicely. My 'personal' favorites were the dolls with soft vinyl skirts as well as the dolls with details to their outfits, like the molded stars or zippers on the rock concert series." Justine was also proud of Callie Walker in her motorcycle outfit as well as Garrett Booth in his dance party suit and tie.

With the show and toy line failing to catapult into the glittery pop culture sky, I was curious to learn what Playmates thought of Justine's work on Swans Crossing. "They seemed fine with the result of the product. I would paint an epoxy, then with some final clear spray I'd bag it all up and they would look at the item. Playmates seemed pleased. I was constantly busy trying to complete this toy line. Since I did not work in-house I would go home from a meeting showing the work to everyone in management and then fall into bed exhausted after uncountable all-nighters.” 

When asked what Playmates could have done differently for the toy line to succeed, Justine offered some possibilities, “There were a few things that needed to have been in place. First the cast should have been hired and ready to go so that the facial designs could have stayed the same. Many deadlines should have been made. Some of the people in the marketing and production side of things had no idea what went on behind the scenes to make or break a toy line. Again though, had the show featured a stronger script that would have been sold successfully to US markets, the fate of the toy line would have been very different." 

Still Justine has positive memories about her experience working on the Swans Crossing toy line, "The show and toy line ending had nothing to do with me or the other people working to make these toys a reality. I know I put forth my best work. At the end of the day I did not take this one as personal because these were not characters that I created. I would have loved to have seen it been a more popular toy line but, as I have said, there were too many people trying to control what was happening. However I am thrilled to know that there are still people who fondly recall the Swans Crossing toys and are still touched by the work we did. It’s really wonderful to know that what I did was played with and brought some happiness to some children, including you. I wanted children growing up with these toys to simply have the best. Please tell your readers that bit too!"

Swans Crossing may not have been a commercial success, however many fans (myself included) still love collecting Swans Crossing toys and enjoy the show. It was a dazzling toy line aimed at girls, and after this interview I finally realized what I loved so much about the unique nature of this line. Standing roughly around the same height as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figure, these glitzy teen dolls had stylish fashions in dynamic poses; those combined elements created fun personalities and an individual story with each doll. That is what I learned had made that toy line stand out for me so much. Of course knowing the story from Justine makes me love this toy line even more than I did before. If someone had told me all those years ago when I was buying my Swans Crossing toys at the local K-Mart that I would one day get to know and befriend the woman behind them, I would not have believed it. I am truly fortunate to have had this experience. Thank you Justine for sharing your story. You have brought magic to a lot of people in this world.

Well folks that is truly it for now. Thank you for taking the time to read these articles about Justine Dantzer and always supporting this little diary. I love getting to share whatever I can with you all. Never go too far as there is always something new going on. (Even if it takes a moment to get it posted. I am highly aware that this is the newest content since October! I am trying to do better). See you all soon.


  1. Quite a long running project this turned out to be! So MANY pictures. I never would have dreamed so much went into making a toy line!

    1. It was indeed a long running project, which I am glad is finally completed and able to be enjoyed by everyone. So much did indeed go into this toy line. I ended up learning so much about her work in the toy industry and everything that goes into it. My goodness so many stories. I tell her all the time that she needs to write a book. I think it would be amazing.

  2. Hi. Don't know if you can clear this up for me. My understanding is that 3 of the Rock Concert figures, Male 1 and 2 and Sandy USA Girl were never released / Available in stores. I can see you have them but I assume you got them from the lady who literally made them.

    I also understand that the Motorbike girl outfit figure was also never released in stores anywhere despite the bike being put out.

    I've never seen them and I used to collect these figures back in 92/3 and the internet provides zero pictures of them, again backing up that they were never released even in the US.

    It's common for the rest of the world to be left out of figures, happens pretty much with every series ever made, but ebay com brings back zero results on this four figures. Even today when they should be awash with them.

    So, can you confirm these figures never saw the light of day outside of a few prototypes that never went beyond staff working on them. Then we can cut the list down from 19 figures to 14. lol.

    1. Hi! Thank you so much for this comment, and I apologize for the delay in replying. So, what is pictured there all came from the Justine, however, a number of years before I wrote this article, there was a lot of Swans Crossing dolls that I purchased on eBay that had the Sandy, Male 1 and 2 in the lot, which shocked me because I had never seen them before. The seller was not a toy designer or insider, so these were not prototypes but actual releases they bought in store. I have never seen a Callie Walker in her motorcycle uniform aside from the one I have. My guess is that those particular figures were released in smaller numbers towards the end of the run of the line, and since the show did not last long, the plug was pulled on the toy line. But that is just my theory. In my interview with Justine I had asked about those specific figures and she had no idea what the distribution numbers were. It is a very interesting situation. I will search eBay too, and aside from that one listing all those years ago, I have never seen those four figures.