After seeing the Geico commercials that used the original Chatty Cathy TV commercial footage, my girlfriend picked Chatty Cathy for her Halloween costume for 2009. Her choice was easy. Pulling the whole costume off turned out to be quite difficult.
A Chatty Cathy doll costume without a working pull string isn't much of a costume so that was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome. The original dolls had an actual record inside of them with a low-def phonograph of sorts that I believe was powered by a constant force spring motor. The original version only said 11 and later ones 18 sayings. The last generation of them even had interchangeable records with up to 120 sayings.
That was logistically too difficult for this project. Read on to see how we did it.
Step 1: Materials & Tools Required
The only part we spent any money on was the actual costume itself and the pull string. All of the bits and pieces to make the voice box work were made from stuff laying around the garage. I don't think I have what anyone would consider a normal garage but it's probably pretty standard compared to other DIY'ers.
Materials for costume:
6.5 yds of navy blue cotton broad cloth - On sale for $1.79/yd ($11.64 total) at Jo-Ann's
(1) package of 1/4" double fold bias tape - About $2.00 at Jo-Ann's
(1) 22" hidden navy blue zipper - About $3-4.00 at Jo-Ann's
(1) Dorthy from The Wizard of OZ costume pattern - Originally $14.99, on sale for $0.99 at Jo-Ann's
(1) curly blonde wig - $24.99 @ Spirit Halloween Store
(1) wig cap - $2.99 @ Spirit Halloween Store
(1) pair of really plastic looking fake eyelashes - $4.99 @ Spirit Halloween Store
(1) pair of ankle socks with ruffles - $3.99 for a 3/pk @ Target
(1) old white sheet (used the fabric to make the bow) - free
(1) black poofy ruffled underskirt - free
(1) pair of black shoes - from our closet
Materials for pull string voice box:
(1) Broken Sansa E260R MP3 player, screen was busted but player still worked - free (a friend was going to throw it away because of the broken screen. I figured it would come in handy someday...)
Custom build of Rockbox 3rd party firmware for Sansa MP3 player
(1) set of basic PC speakers - free
(1) reset switch from old PC case - free (case was gutted for anything usable and then taken to a PC recycling center)
(1) light action lever switch - free (dug out of trash at my Dad's shop 15+ years ago. Again, I figured it would come in handy someday...)
(1) 9V battery pigtail - free
(1) 9V battery - About $1.50-2.00 @ Fred Meyer
(1) 24" Fly Fishing Tool Retractor - $6.50 @ Sports Athority
(1) black fabric hip pouch - free
(1) large key ring - free
Misc crimp wire connectors & wire nuts
Misc wire - free (used speaker wire and thin gage wire from stripped old PC's.)
Mom who know's how to sew
Soldering iron & solder
Micro screw driver
PC or Mac w/ sound editing software
Multi-meter or circuit tester
Step 2: Making Chatty Cathy Talk
We had a variety of old MP3 players laying around. What I wanted to find was a way to make one play a track and then pause. Next time you hit play, it would need to advance to the next track, play, then pause. I did some searching online and found a post on the forums for Rockbox open source MP3 player firmware. There was a patch that did just what I was looking for but it wasn't part of any regular build. I played around a bit with learning how to apply patches to the firmware but ended up finding someone on the forums who has their own custom build of Rockbox for one of the MP3 players we had.
The player is a 4gb Sansa E260R Rhapsody model by SanDisk. A friend had broken the screen on this and was going to toss it. The player still worked and held a charge. The LCD was cracked and you could barely ready anything on it. I contacted the guy with the custom build and asked him if he could add the patch to his version. He mentioned I should also download the voice files for Rockbox since my screen was broken. The software is set to talk by default. You just have to install the voice file for your language.
Moonscapex's custom Rockbox build can be found here:
The Rockbox software and forums can be found here:
The patch that makes this work:
This would be easiest to do with a non-rhapsody model of Sansa player. Rockbox also works on several Ipods and some other brands if you want to apply the patch yourself. There are some annoying extra steps that you have to do to install Rockbox on a Rhapshody player and they are very tough to do without a working screen. This stuff is covered in detail on the Rockbox site so I wont get into that.
I disassembled the MP3 player and soldered wires onto the play button. This took much longer than it should. The button is a micro switch and is dropped down below the jog shuttle and the flexible cable for the screen. Not much room to work.
Once I had good connections on the play button, I re-assembled the player and wrapped it up in clear packing tape to hold the wires in place. The top half of the black plastic face piece had to be broken off all the way.
I then connected the lever switch and the reset switch in parallel to the play button wires. The lever switch gets pulled up on and actuated when you pull the ring on the back of the costume. The reset switch was hidden on the front of her dress so she could make it talk whenever she wanted.
For the speakers, I tried using a PC case speaker into the headphone jack but it was way too quiet. Instead, I cannibalized a set of powered PC speakers that ran on 9V power. We used on speaker, the amplifier, the 3.5mm speaker wire, and the AC adapter pig tail. I used crimp connectors to hook the cut off section of the AC adapter to a 9V battery pig tail for the power supply. This provided plenty of power to make the speaker loud enough.
Everything was packed away in a hip pouch and hidden under her dress. The speaker was tied to her bra on the front and the pull cord mechanism & lever switch was attached to the band of her bra on the back. There was a string connecting the fly fishing tool retractor to the lever so when you pulled about 8" of cord, the switch would activate the MP3 player.
She recorded a bunch of sayings and saved them as MP3's on the player. We included some snippets from the original commercial jingle as well as the Geico version.
Link to the Geico version on youtube:
Below are videos of our voice box mechanism in action. The first one is just audio extracted from the Geico commercial. The second one is our recording.
Step 3: Making the Dress
She wanted a dress that looked like doll clothes. We didn't specifically try to match a Chatty Cathy outfit. We bought a pattern at the fabric store along with fabric, white bias tape, and a hidden zipper. She had found a picture online of a sailor dress that looked like a doll outfit.
Here's where my Mom comes in. Neither of us know how to sew so we employed the help of my Mom on the dress. We cut out the patterns and made a couple trips out there for fittings and instructions on how the dress needed to look. She did a marvelous job and we couldn't have done it without her.
We added a metal grommet to the backside of the dress for the pull cord to come through.
Step 4: The Finished Costume
Everything went together great and made the perfect Chatty Cathy costume. We had a small mishap and something got jossled loose on the way to our party so I had to do some last minute repairs. The speaker wasn't turned up all the way so it was hard to hear over the party music but in light to moderate conversation with little or no music playing, you could hear it perfectly.
We hope you enjoyed the costume. Happy Halloween!
Third Prize in the