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‘Sparkles’ and ‘Squinkles’

Actress and social activist Helen Alexander is an ‘elder-preneur’ with her toy line

Helen Alexander’s “Squinkles” evolved from shorthand symbols during her 1940s stenography class and are now a line of plush toys.BY RANDY SOUTHERLAND

Helen Alexander’s well-appointed Atlanta home is filled with toys—not just any toys, mind you. They’re Squinkles. Billowing lips and ears seem to sprout from convulsed shapes. One multicolored odd couple is seated together in front of the grand piano as if playing a song for a sunny afternoon.

“He’s serenading her,” says Helen with a mischievous smile. “But she’s having none of it.”

This musical couple and a host of other equally strange and cuddly creatures are all the product of Helen’s fertile imagination and the latest venture in a very long career. Originally conceived more than 67 years ago, Squinkles are now a line of plush toys and the latest venture of this senior entrepreneur, who markets the toys to both children and adults. They came about because Helen’s father thought his aspiring actress daughter needed a skill to fall back on if acting didn’t pan out.

“He said, ‘Helen, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to support yourself in the style to which you’re accustomed in the theater, and I think you should have a trade,’” she recalls. “‘So please, go take shorthand and typing.’”

Alexander’s acting career began in the 1940s when she was selected for a touring production of Moss Hart’s “Winged Victory,” starring Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.Helen soon found herself in a stenography class, sitting among rows of young women destined for office jobs in the big city, while she carefully drew the squiggly symbols.

“As I practiced the shorthand at night, I got so bored copying these symbols that I started to make little critters out of the symbols, and I subsequently had 84 of them, which I did in color,” she recalls.

Soon the letters took on a life of their own as her pen created images that represented the high-society swells that filled her life as a young girl in a well-to-do family in New York City.

One of Alexander’s original characters, the “Kawshener” takes a timid step.Helen grew up the daughter of prominent Wall Street banker Alex Eisemann, who became a commercial radio pioneer manufacturing the Freed-Eisemann Radio. The family lived in the swanky Pierre Hotel—once home to celebrities such as Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn.

Her parents were prominent members of the New York Jewish community, and their fourth-floor home overlooked Fifth Avenue. It was also the stopping point for an ever-changing cast of characters who arrived for parties, get-togethers, political gatherings or a commanding view of the St. Patrick’s Day parade.

“We had a lot of friends in the theater such as George Jessell and Irving Berlin,” she says.

Her parents were progressive, Democratic and pro-Roosevelt, and her father was an active fighter against anti-Semitism—then a real threat throughout the country. He was also a magician and jokester who would sometimes liven up a party by picking up the family dog, telling everyone he was tired of it and then dropping him out the window. Only later did the startled guests realize there was a balcony on the other side.

For a girl growing up in that time, it could be a very fanciful world. Her creative environment planted the seed for her dream of pursuing an acting career. But to meet her father’s demand that she learn a trade, she also took business classes at night.

Soon acting began to pay off when she won a job in summer stock in Ivoryton, Conn. She worked at this famed theater with notables such as Buddy Ebsen and Celeste Holm.

“I was an apprentice, so I didn’t have big roles, but it was great training,” she says.

Lovable Lappy, one of Alexander’s huggable Squinkles, is about 6 inches long and made of plush red fabric. His eyes, brows, smile and nose are sewn on, so there are no small parts to worry about with children.A New York agent saw her in one of these productions and sent a note saying, “When you’re back in New York come and see me.” That connection led to her being selected for a touring production of Moss Hart’s “Winged Victory,” starring famed actors Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb. Along with playing major cities, the production toured a variety of military bases, always playing to large, enthusiastic crowds of soldiers who were preparing to be shipped overseas. Helen performed for nearly 10 months in New York before embarking on a yearlong, cross-country tour.

She was enjoying a relatively successful career on stage playing in the national tour of “Junior Miss” and keeping busy with radio work when she was called for screen tests.

“One was at 20th Century Fox and the other at MGM,” she recalls. “It was during World War II, and I couldn’t drive a car because there was no gas, so I hitchhiked. If a man came along, I’d pretend I was fixing my hair, because I wanted to be safe. Then, while I was going between the studios, I was picked up by Katharine Hepburn in her Rolls Royce.”

She won a role in the 1943 production of “Stage Door Canteen” and was able to work with Hepburn. 

Just as she was really getting started, Helen’s acting career took a backseat to something more important. She was under contract to co-star in a Hollywood film with Victor Mature, but before heading out West she decided to accompany her mother to Atlanta to visit relatives. There, the 25-year-old New Yorker met Arthur Harris, a young attorney who swept her off her feet and married her two weeks later. Helen left New York behind for the then-sleepy provincial capital of Georgia.

It was here that she found a new outlet for her energy. Coming from a liberal family, she was deeply disturbed by the treatment of blacks in the heavily segregated South of the 1950s. When she discovered that the deaf daughter of a black acquaintance couldn’t receive an education because the local special-needs school was for “whites only,” she decided something had to be done.

With the help of a friend, she founded the first school for the deaf open to blacks in the city. Based at Spelman College and Atlanta University, the school opened up a new world for many handicapped children who were denied an education in white schools. She also gave birth to three children, Art, Alex and Jill.

Alexander has performed in commercials and other roles, such as “Sparkles,” the quirky character in the Georgia Lottery ads.In the meantime, Helen continued acting, taking jobs in TV and radio commercials, city theater productions and the occasional small role in feature films. She has had parts in major motion pictures such as “Driving Miss Daisy,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Blessed Assurance” with Cecily Tyson, and has hosted television shows, industrial films and radio productions. After she and Harris went their separate ways, she married prominent Atlanta architect Cecil Alexander.

Helen continues doing character roles such as “Sparkles,” the provocative, over-the-top lady who promoted the Georgia Lottery through a series of humorous commercials.

In one spot, she’s a prim and proper bank teller when a man walks up to deposit the millions he has won in the lottery. Upon seeing how rich he is now, she quickly disappears and comes back as a sultry vixen who tells the startled bank patron, “My name is Edna, but my friends call me Sparkles, and I have a hot tub.”

“The problem is I’m in my 80s now,” she admits. “I don’t think I look it, but there aren’t a lot of parts for actors my age.”

The slowdown in acting was part of the reason she decided to start her own toy company. One of her sons discovered her original drawings and urged her to get them out into the public eye. Husband Cecil declared that they looked like fun toys.

Squinkles, with their big lips, elongated bodies and strangely appealing faces, became a series of 12 different critters in varying sizes.

Soon her home and garage filled with eccentric characters with names like Eyeing You, Sockittome and Mrs. Izatso.

Where did Helen get the name Squinkles for these lovable toys?

“It was the name I called my daughter when she was a baby,” she says.

—Randy Southerland is a freelance writer living in Acworth.

See and purchase Squinkles online at www.squinkles.org or call (888) 278-4786.

 

July 2007

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