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Hey, Doll, What's Cookin'?

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AFTER DAN LAUER LEFT HIS VICE PRESIDENT’S job at the Royal Banks of Missouri in May 1989, he began packing around water-filled condoms. A banker gone bonkers? Nope. The condoms were a prototype for Waterbabies, a Lauer brainchild that has since ballooned into what’s likely to be the season’s hottest-selling baby doll.

A Waterbaby “doesn’t buzz or beep,” says Lauer, 30. “It’s just, well, very real.” The reason: Warm water poured through a valve in the doll’s back gives it lifelike bulk and temperature. The tots stay toasty for only two hours, but even when chilled, says Lauer, kids like their wiggle.

“I know it will be our No. 1 doll by far,” says John Haunschild, a merchandise manager for the 80-store Venture chain. After Cabbage Patch Kids, he adds, “it’s the best doll of the last 10 years.”

Waterbabies, now on store shelves nationwide, were born of memories from Lauer’s youth in St. Louis. On summer days, he and his five siblings fashioned dolls out of water balloons, drawing a face on one, dressing another in diapers. Lauer also liked to play entrepreneur, and at age 5 told his mother, Betty, he wanted a suit for Christmas. She bought him a space suit. He nearly wept. What he wanted, Mom says, “was a three-piece vested suit with a briefcase.”

After getting a B.A. in business from the University of Missouri—St. Louis, Lauer wore banker suits for six years while harboring entrepreneurial dreams. When a sister mentioned the water dolls, he went to work, showering toy companies with hundreds of letters. Finally landing an interview at Mattel, he spent a night crafting samples out of balloons and condoms. Alas, by morning all he had was a soggy mess.

Undiscouraged, Lauer returned to the kitchen of his Clayton, Mo., bachelor apartment. He experimented with dozens of varieties of polyvinyl chloride, the plastic generally used in dolls, until he found a formula that didn’t leak and had the softness he sought. A six-week, 1990 market test in St. Louis yielded a stunning 65,000 orders, and the following year Playmates, maker of Ninja Turtle toys, bought the rights to Lauer’s baby. The inventor in Lauer was delighted; the proud parent was not. “I felt like my baby had left,” he sighs. “I started suffering from empty-nest syndrome.” But there are compensations. So far, stores have ordered 2.8 million Waterbabies that will retail for an average of $19 and could bring Lauer nearly $2 million in royalties.