When TODAY first opened Studio 1A on the Plaza, we didn’t know if anyone would come to the show in all kinds of weather to be a part of the telecast. But the fans showed up from the start, making it a top destination in New York City.
The producers wanted to use this fantastic setting more during the show, and draw on the excitement of the crowd. It was fun to experiment with new ways to take advantage of Rockefeller Center. At a weekly staff meeting one November afternoon in 1994, an executive producer had an idea to do something special that would not only involve the crowd on the Plaza, but that would capture the spirit of the holiday season.
The staff, so small it all fit in an average conference room, considered three types of philanthropic efforts… a food drive, a clothing drive or a toy drive.
After discussing the pros and cons of each, it was decided the holidays were about kids, and kids wanted toys. So the idea of new, unwrapped toy collections was born.
That first year, TODAY staffers posed as elves to get a chance for their family to see them on TV and collected about 1,100 toys on the Plaza that were sent out to five homeless shelters around the country. The show’s producers, researchers and studio crew packed the toys into crates after the show and shipped them out to the charities. The charities then distributed the gifts to parents and caregivers. The philosophy was the toys were not coming from TODAY, but from a person who mattered in their lives. It was a way to empower disadvantaged families, and make children feel loved.
Without solicitation, companies started sending donations. Celebrities started calling, asking if they could collect the toys. For several years, the staff continued to pack and ship the toys, adding non-profits around the country. The third floor hallway during the Toy Drive would be a sea of boxes. Everyone on the staff, from executive producer to production assistant, pitched in. That continued until a tractor-trailer full of Holiday Barbies showed up one day. We realized the Toy Drive was a powerful way to help children. Many companies had a history of philanthropy, but corporate philanthropy wasn’t highlighted in the media. Some companies were very generously giving to our little Toy Drive. So why not thank these people on air?
The rest is history. Executive producers have changed through the years, as have on-air hosts, but the Today Toy Drive is a treasured tradition on the Plaza. From helping those initial five homeless shelters, which still receive toys today, it’s grown to provide gifts to about 180 family charities in all 50 states. Celebrities are happy to be the toy drive elf of the day, and companies large and small make donations from a few hundred toys to millions of dollars worth of merchandise.
Since it began in that conference room 22 years ago, the TODAY Toy Drive has given millions of children more than $400 million in toys, books and clothing, as well as necessities for their families. It’s not only a fun part of TODAY during the Holiday season, but it also enriches the lives of some of the most impoverished children in America. I am proud to be part of such a great tradition.