Copycats. Factory fires. Court cases: The hair-raising true story behind the Good Luck Trolls

Billy Langsworthy

By Billy Langsworthy

May 10th 2016 at 11:20AM
UPDATED May 12th 2016 at 12:18PM
Copycats. Factory fires. Court cases: The hair-raising true story behind the Good Luck Trolls

With its crazy hair and potbellies, the Good Luck Trolls are toy royalty. Huge in both the Sixties and the Nineties, the rewards were not reaped by creators Dam Things as it was plagued by copycats during both crazes. In fact, the extraordinary true story behind Trolls contains everything but a fire in an orphanage (that happened in the factory instead). Dam Things CEO, Calle Østergaard, reveals the mad-but-true story to Billy Langsworthy.

With its potbelly and iconic hair, Dam Things’ Good Luck Trolls is a toy icon.

Despite looking like one of the sweetest creatures ever to grace a toy shelf, the story behind the Trolls is a whole different beast entirely, featuring court cases, deceitful business partners and even a factory fire.

Before being associated with mad barnets, trolls were rooted in Scandinavian mythology, and while often associated as being a scary creature, the Good Luck Trolls came about as a result of Thomas Dam wanting to cast the creatures in a new light.

“Thomas knew the way people perceived trolls but Thomas was special,” Dam Things CEO Calle Østergaard tells ToyNews.

“He would cut sculptures out of wood that resembled the peasants in his little village. They weren’t necessarily flattering but they looked funny. As he grew up and had to find himself a living, he started creating wooden figures. Soon, after a trip to the US to visit his brother in 1951, he gained knowledge of how to create characters from latex.”

In 1957, Dam created the first Good Luck Troll and gave it to his child, with no intention of mass producing them. That changed when a business partner stopped by the Dam household and asked Thomas to make 15 of the things for a Christmas display. Demand soon spread.

“After a lot of discussion, he went ahead and built a factory, but the factory was hardly completed before it was too small and he had to extend it,” says Østergaard.

“Orders came from Denmark, from Norway and from the rest of Scandinavia. Suddenly, they started to come from the UK. A company in London called Plastic Limited was the first company to get a license to produce Thomas’ Trolls.”

Factories in New Zealand and Florida soon followed, with the Good Luck Trolls landing in the US courtesy of the ‘mother of Trolls’, Inge Dykins.

Østergaard continues: “Dykins was a Danish woman living in Florida. She was married to a UK oil man who travelled the world and she was bored stiff, so she started selling handcrafts in the US and got a few Trolls from a Danish friend. She said ‘they are so ugly, I must be able to sell them.’”

In the early Sixties, the Good Luck Trolls had become a global phenomenon, but Dam’s fortune was short lived due to a business partner with questionable motives.

“Dam got himself involved with an American partner who was supposed to take care of the business parts of the venture,” says Østergaard.

“The result of his work was that Thomas lost the copyright in the United States in a court case in 1964. That was the first disaster to hit Thomas. Not only did he lose the copyright for the US, but he then saw everyone in the US copy his Trolls.

“After 1964, what had become a world phenomenon nosedived. Thomas discovered a lot of things that he didn’t know had been taking place with this partner. They owned some airplanes that he didn’t know about and they had an office on an island in South America that he’d never heard about. Money went to this place before coming to Dam in Europe.”

As a result, Dam gave up on the Trolls, but in the late Eighties, a man named Steven Stark spotted the toys in Copenhagen airport and convinced Dam to get back on the horse, with Stark handling the Trolls in the US.

“Stark and Dam got Trolls visible in the US again,” reveals Østergaard.

“In 1988, it had become a good business but as a result of the 1965 court case, others joined in because there was no copyright.”

In 1989, Russ Berrie, who had once been the number one US sales rep for the Good Luck Trolls back in the 1960s, decided to launch his own variation on the Trolls. Right after him was Ace Novelty, the company which produced Treasure Trolls, the ones with a wish stone in the belly.

“From 1989 to 1994, the Trolls became the biggest toy phenomenon,” says Østergaard.

“Because of the loss of copyright, there was a number of suppliers of ‘Trolls’. There were 15 different lines of them at one point. We were all competing and putting products that looked the same into the market, so in 1994 the market completely broke and you could hardly give a Troll away.”

The retail turnover worldwide for Trolls, in all their forms, was between $3bn to $5bn in that short period of time in the Nineties. Due to copycats, Dam was responsible for under five per cent of that.

A few years earlier, in 1989, the US joined the Berne Convention, whose members had to give the same protection to anything protected in countries that are part of the Convention as they would give to their own authors.

This could have changed things for Dam, but the Danish Ministry of Culture didn’t let its people know until almost a decade later. But, just as the firm was in a position to tackle the copycats, disaster struck in 1998.

Østergaard explains: “We were stopped by a big factory fire that hit us just as we were about to start exporting to the US again. It postponed everything for a year while we rebuilt.”

To add insult to injury, another firm launched a wave of Trolls during the year-long layoff, selling an estimated eight million Trolls while Dam had its hands full with the remains of its factory.

“That kicked off our determination that we had to do something about the copyright,” says Østergaard.

“On weak legs, we decided to try to enforce against everyone else. We took someone to court in the UK, and then in Germany, and learnt how to protect our copyright. We had taken a sufficient amount of companies to court - including Disney for the use of the Troll in Toy Story and Toy Story 2, which we very pleasantly settled – but we had to do something about the US manufacturing of Troll copies.

“We went against Russ Berrie in 2001 and was fighting that company for years. He had benefitted from Trolls enormously in the Nineties. Dykins is known as the ‘mother of Trolls’ in the US while Thomas Dam is described as ‘father of Trolls.’ Russ Berrie is known as ‘king of Trolls’, but that was only because he produced so many copies.”

Berrie decided to settle in 2004 and a joint statement between Dam Things and Berrie saw him acknowledge that the rightful owner of Trolls in all variations was Thomas Dam. He also signed over all rights to Dam of the universe known as ‘Russ Trolls’.

“The ruling became a huge thing as everyone in the industry then knew that if you wanted to do something with Good Luck Trolls, you had to speak to the Dam guys in Denmark because they’re crazy and aggressive and will sue you if you didn’t,” adds Østergaard.

So, after decades of copycats, court cases and a factory fire, the Good Luck Trolls looks to have finally found its happy ending in a deal with DreamWorks.

“As we had the exclusive rights to grant, we had pitches with different studios and to my surprise, there was a lot of interest in creating the Trolls movie,” says Østergaard.

“Thomas always wanted a movie for his Trolls and now he can look down and see what it became.”

As well as having the rights to creating movies and TV shows, DreamWorks also now owns the Good Luck Trolls copyright, aside from in Scandinavia, where Dam Things is now concentrating on a brand new line of Trolls aimed at adult collectors.

While Trolls is set to hit UK cinemas in October, most would agree that the trials and tribulations of the story behind Dam’s Good Luck Trolls could hold its own on the big screen too.

“That’s actually the plan,” reveals Østergaard. “We are in the early stages of writing a book, and then we’ll see if we can do a movie. If I didn’t know it all to be fact, I’d have a hard time believing it.”