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Dancing Baby: Retail phenom

The biggest little star of virtual culture is on its way to retail reality.

The biggest little star of virtual culture is on its way to retail reality.

Dancing Baby--the somewhat grotesque infant animation that has danced its way from a product demo onto Web pages, desktops, a hit TV sitcom, and a Blockbuster commercial--is now headed for store shelves in the form of T-shirts, dolls, and CDs.

The progress of the animated dancer's career is seen as a attempt by its owner to cash in on a fluke marketing phenomenon that so far it has been licensing for a song.

Dancing Baby, known to fans as "Baby Cha-Cha," was born in 1996, created jointly by Unreal Pictures and Kinetix as a sample for the Kinetix Character Studio animation tool. He or she (the entertainer's gender has not been disclosed) was in the midst of a world tour via email and Web sites when spotted by television talent agents, who gave Cha-Cha its television debut with a cameo appearance on Fox's Ally McBeal show.

Subsequent engagements away from its home on the Internet have included a Blockbuster commercial and a limited but successful retail run. Dancing Baby products that have already debuted include nearly $3 million's worth of T-shirts and 300,000 Dancing Baby CDs. Dancing Baby back-to-school paper products have drawn high initial orders from retailers, including Office Max and Kmart, according to Kinetix.

Initial orders of a mechanical Cha-Cha doll by Wow Wee have passed $2 million. Seventy products based on the digital creation are anticipated by September.

Dancing Baby even has an agent, Logotel, whose other high-profile syndication clients include Peanuts, "The Far Side," and Dr. Seuss characters, as well as another animated TV feature with Web roots, South Park.

"It isn't often that the public embraces a character in the way it has opened its heart to Dancing Baby," said Logotel president Eric Henry.

It wasn't always so easy for Baby Cha-Cha. When the dancing infant shipped in June 1996 as a Kinetix animation sample, backers hyped it with press releases and a special video. Despite these promotional efforts, the infant's career foundered.

"It flopped," recalls Kinetix vice president and general manger Jim Guerard.

But the baby was a hit on the spam circuit, which led to subsequent television appearances and the current retail marketing blitz.

A movie contract is under discussion, according to Guerard, as well as further television engagements. Guerard declined to name a studios or directors interested in Cha-Cha.

Like many moving images, the Dancing Baby started out as a wire-frame 3D model. A second step in the animation process known as "laying the skinny" added skin, eyes, lips, and other infant essentials. But the key to Cha-Cha's allure derives from the third step, in which an adult dancer wore a body suit armed with electronic sensors that map the dancer's exact movements onto the animated figure.

The original dance steps were those of the cha-cha, according to Guerard, inspiring the Dancing Baby's name.

Until the retail push shepherded by Logotel, Dancing Baby brought Kinetix cribs full of free advertising for its products, but a surprisingly small amount of cash. Not only did the baby get a free ride in and out of email boxes worldwide, but the license to use the image for activities like the television appearances is included in the $1,495 purchase price of Character Studio.

Guerard shrugged off the missed revenue opportunity.

"We included the Dancing Baby as one of 12 character files with Character Studio, and once you include it, it's very hard to take it away," he said. "We didn't feel we could do it to people. And besides, it has given us millions and millions of dollars' worth of free advertising, not to mention how it has elevated Kinetix in the world of professional graphics and special effects."

While some early admirers worry that retail success may spoil Cha-Cha, the baby's Web presence continues to grow. Web sites devoted to the virtual star include scandal sites and gossip pages about the baby's exploits and travails.

Baby Cha-Cha could not be reached for comment.