Elmhurst Museum celebrates Chicago as the toy industry epicenter

The real Toy Story

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By John Rice

Contributing Writer

When Carl Sandburg was describing Chicago in verse, after "City of the Big Shoulders," he could have added, "Maker of Toys." The Windy City has long served as an international center for toy invention and production. This rich history is being celebrated by an exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum titled, "Toys in the 'Hood."

Curator Lance Tawzer has gathered a collection of toys and games that will rekindle warm memories for the middle-aged and introduce younger generations to classics like Tinker Toys.

Tawzer said the exhibit demonstrates that many popular toys were created much closer to home than the North Pole. For example, the iconic Radio Flyer wagon has been produced in Chicago for over 70 years. And Frank Lloyd Wright's son, John Lloyd Wright, invented Lincoln Logs in 1916, inspired by the huge timbers he saw used on the construction of Tokyo's Imperial Hotel.

Tinker Toys were invented in Evanston in 1914; Tootsie Toys was the first die-cast toy company. In 1924, they began making Monopoly pieces and realistic toy cars at their Chicago plant. Uno was invented in Joliet. Thomas the Train first chugged to life in Oak Brook, the town where Beanie Babies were also born.

"I was looking for an exhibit that would have mass appeal, provide a cultural connection with Chicago and promote generational dialogue," Tawzer said.

Toys in the 'Hood displays archetypal toys and games on the ground floor with a large second floor space where visitors can "product test" toys. There's also a video that shows inventor John Spinello demonstrating the primitive prototype for his most famous creation, Operation.

Designing Operation

Spinello, like many Chicago toy inventors, was a student of the guru of games, Marvin Glass, who started a toy invention company that grew to be the largest in the world. Many of the products on display at Toys in the 'Hood, like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Mr. Machine and Lite-Brite, originated in the offices of Marvin Glass & Associates (MGA).

Glass was a shrewd, demanding boss, and he and Spinello got off to a rocky start. Spinello was studying industrial design at the University of Illinois when he was assigned to create a game. The sophomore designed an electric game in which players inserted a metal probe into different sized holes. If they touched the sides, a bell would startle them.

Spinello showed the device to his godfather, Sam Cattone, who was a model maker for MGA. Cattone thought it was great and a meeting was arranged with Marvin Glass. The college student showed up with a patent lawyer. When he placed the invention on Glass' desk, the boss wondered aloud, "What is this (expletive)?"

Spinello handed him the metal probe. "I had over-engineered it with a 12-volt battery," Spinello recalled, "When Marvin set off the buzzer, he fell back in his chair and said, 'I love it.'"

Glass offered $500 on the spot and guaranteed Spinello a job after graduation. The college student gratefully accepted payment. Two months after he graduated, Spinello and his new bride were, "Eating on wedding money," waiting for Glass to get his studio ready. Then Glass dropped the bombshell, "I don't think I'm going to hire you."

"I was very upset," Spinello said. "I should have gone after him but I didn't have a written contract." Meanwhile, Operation sold by the millions. It's been in continuous production since its introduction in 1965. A vintage version of the game is on display at Toys in the 'Hood. The box cover features Cavity Sam's surgeon smoking a cigarette during the procedure, with ashes dropping on the patient's face. The exhibit also has a lifesize cutout of the portly patient, complete with flashing nose for photo-ops.

After Marvin Glass died in 1974, Spinello finally landed a job at MGA. "I was ecstatic," Spinello said. "The company had 30 model makers who could create whatever I wanted."

Spinello is not bitter that Operation continues to be an international hit. He embraces its legacy instead. "At toy fairs, families of three generations treat me like the Pope. It was all worth it."

Engineering enjoyment

Burt Meyer is another MGA protégé, whose claims to fame include Mr. Machine, Lite-Brite and Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. He toured Toys in the 'Hood and thought the museum had done an excellent job. He plans to attend the Toy Fair Extravaganza there on June 26 and sign copies of Lite Brite.

Like many Chicago-based toy inventors, Meyer graduated from the Institute of Design on the campus of I.I.T.

"I was raised as an auto mechanic," Meyer said, "And an art teacher at the School of Design encouraged me to use my engineering background to design toys."

Meyer landed at MGA and partnered with a former watchmaker, Leo Kripak, to create the clockwork mechanism that powered Mr. Machine. Meyer went on to collaborate in the creation of Mouse Trap, Inch Worm and Hands Down for MGA, before starting his own company, Meyer-Glass Design. His company later came up with Catch Phrase.

What does it take to be a toy inventor?

"You need to be an engineer, plus an eclectic specialist in non-specialization. You have to have a childlike imagination." You also can't be afraid to get down on the floor to play. Meyer gave the example of Pretty Pretty Princess, a game in which players compete to collect the most jewelry.

"There I am, sitting on the floor with male executives from Milton-Bradley, all of us trying to win the Princess' crown."

Meyers' three children thought his job was "cool." His sons played sports, while his daughter loved dolls. One day, Marvin Glass pitched the idea of a "Barbie" for boys. He envisioned a soldier that boys could dress up, arm with weapons and use as an action figure. Meyer designed a prototype but a toy company president rejected it, out of fear it would turn boys "queer." A year later, another inventor launched the highly successful G.I. Joe.

Dramatic entrances

Two of the inventors with exhibits on display at Toys in the 'Hood are from the Oak Park area. Bruce Lund operates Lund and Company Invention, LLC, out of a building at 344 Lathrop, River Forest. His headquarters looks like something Rube Goldberg would have dreamed up.

The conference room features a swooping ceiling, from which a paratrooper, a hot air balloon and a miniature sun are suspended, providing overhead lighting. The man himself made a dramatic entrance through a secret sliding door, accompanied by the fanfare from "Star Wars."

The shelves are stocked with Lund creations, like Fireball Island, TMX Tickle Me Elmo and Talking Electron Microscope. Lund explained that having an office with an eye-popping presentation was important in the toy business. That afternoon he was hosting a delegation from Holland, where his toy Kackel Dackel (Doggie Doo) has been nominated for "Toy of the Year."

In a touching tribute, Lund also has his childhood trucks on display; their treads still caked with dirt from his parent's backyard.

Like Meyer, Lund graduated from the I.I.T. School of Design. Prior to that, he earned a bachelor's degree in Botany and Zoology from Duke University. Those studies gave Lund, "A love for the elegant design of nature," and inspired him to become an engineer.

Unfortunately, Lund had some deficiencies in his chosen field.

"Math isn't my strong suit and I can't draw." He was running out of money while pursuing his master's degree when he was referred to MGA.

He started there in 1979. The wacky toys created at MGA made Lund "wonder what they were drinking." MGA rose to prominence, he explained, because they were, "Pioneers at the dawn of the age of plastic toys. Marvin Glass was the first, the biggest and the best at inventing plastic toys. He trained many people who would start their own companies."

By 1984, Lund "thought he knew everything" about toy production, so he quit. He started his own company on his back porch in Roscoe Village. Over the years, he helped develop million-sellers like Vac Man, Tumble Time Tigger and Hydrogen Rocket.

Fireball Island was one of the hottest games of the '80s. The Indiana Jones-themed adventure game used red marbles to represent fireballs. More recently, they produced Uno Roboto, Little Miss Muffin and the aforementioned Doggie Doo. The latter toy involves feeding and cleaning up after a dachshund. Lund said it appeals to the scatological humor of 4- to 8-year-olds.

Three years ago, he moved his company to River Forest. In addition to its uniquely decorated offices, the headquarters has a "white room" where inventors can write on washable walls, a climbing wall, funhouse mirrors, and a workshop where electronic engineers and industrial designers manufacture the magic components essential to successful toys.

Lund has toured Toys in the 'Hood and was impressed.

"It's as good," he says, "as anything they have at the Museum of Play in Rochester."

Thinking like a kid

Not far from Lund, in Oak Park, Don Rosenwinkel presides over Big Monster Toys. The Chicago-based company has succeeded MGA as the largest toy invention studio in the world. Like John Spinello, Rosenwinkel graduated from the U. of I. School of Industrial Design. He worked at MGA from 1977 to 1988. When it closed down, he launched BMT.

His biggest successes include Polly Pockets, Uno Attack and Imaginix Motorized Dinosaurs.

What does it take to design toys? "You need a playful spirit, a high-level imagination and know how to think like a kid. You also need a very thick skin because the majority of your ideas will end up as failures."

As a kid, Rosenwinkel was partial to the Erector Set, G.I. Joe and plastic army men. He now oversees 30 employees, who try to inject a childlike spirit of fun into new toys.

He has nothing but praise for Glass.

"Marvin was the first professional toy inventor. He made it a respected occupation. He was a visionary who hired brilliant inventors. Toy manufacturers from around the world came to see Marvin."

The Toys in the 'Hood exhibit runs through Sept. 18 at the museum, located at 120 East Park Ave. in Elmhurst. Hours of visitation are Tuesday-Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Toy-centered events, including the June 26 Extravaganza, are listed at elmhursthistory.org, or you can call 630-833-1457 for more information.

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