All over America, inventive minds work feverishly to develop next block-buster toy

January 19, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

Sitting in his swanky Santa Monica, Calif., condo, Davi Fuhrer cracks a schoolboy grin and makes a curt confession that few other 32-year-olds could fathom:

"These toys, they've taken over my life."

Well, they're not all toys -- not yet, anyway. Some are skeletons of toys, husks of toys and toy guts such as half-finished robot arms, hollowed-out noisemaking footballs, eyeball-less monster faces and bald pencils that haven't grown their hair yet.

Indeed, like a scene from "The Twilight Zone," the gizmos, gadgets and thingamajigs have taken over Mr. Fuhrer's bedroom, his kitchen, even his bathroom -- consuming his dreams and waking hours.

Toys, toys, toys. Hanging from shelves, poking from cluttered cardboard boxes, staring out from walls. Round-the-clock, novelty concepts are being dreamed up, drawn up and brought to life in the mind's-eye of the New York-born son of a toy industry executive -- a modern-day Geppetto with a -- of California camp.

Dreaming up toy designs

Brace yourself for this: Santa does not make toys. They are born in the workshops of inventors like Mr. Fuhrer -- a strange, lunatic-fringe mixture of playfully mad pop-culture scientist and savvy, bottom-line businessman.

In cluttered garages, sheds and cellars, from Santa Monica to Syracuse, hundreds of obsessed inventors scheme to create the newest madcap novelty -- the next Whoopee cushion, Hula-Hoop, Nerf ball, Silly Putty, Rubik's Cube, Mr. Potato Head, Yo-Yo or -- whew! -- dancing Coca-Cola can.

They're people like Rob Angel, a former Seattle waiter who, along with two partners, made millions by devising the board game Pictionary. Or Eddy Goldfarb, a pioneering 71-year-old Los Angeles inventor.

During World War II, Mr. Goldfarb saw a magazine ad for a special glass to hold dentures and laughed so hard, he got the idea for a novelty toy: the infamous windup chattering teeth. His idea not only sold millions but became a piece of Americana.

Such success stories, however, are rare. In the hard-edged, shark-toothed world of toys and novelties, independent creators face a 97 percent rejection rate -- on a good day.

Mr. Fuhrer has had some luck, such as his wacky board games Backwords and Motor Mouth, which sold 250,000 and 100,000 copies, respectively.

Some brainstorms fizzled

But other brainstorms bombed or misfired. Take the multiple murderer trading cards for kids: Collect 'em! Trade 'em! Arrest all 250 gruesome killers!

Not everyone laughed, Mr. Fuhrer sighs: "Apparently, there was this civil liability problem because there wouldn't be any way to retrieve the cards once some killers finished doing their time. That one bugged me. I could have made millions!"

Indeed, the stakes for novelties and toys are high enough to send inventors like Mr. Fuhrer back to their drawing boards. In 1993, cash registers will jingle with toy sales of more than $13 billion. Each year, 6,000 new toys and novelties flood the U.S. market.

L But dreaming up gimmicky novelties is not all fun and games.

Of 150 serious toy inventors nationwide, industry officials estimate, fewer than 50 have the potential, as one puts it, "to hit the long ball" and concoct a novelty like the Pet Rock that can change the way Americans think about worthless hunks of stone.

And, the depressed economy has hit the industry like a GI Joe attack. Some major companies have consolidated, shrinking available markets for inventors.

Head for the toy fair

Each February, independent creators flock to the toy fair in New York City, hoping that retail buyers from such mega-chains as Toys R Us, Spencer Gifts and Target will see their invented babies as the next Barbie.

They do the revolving-door dance with big manufacturers, hoping against hope to sell their rights.

"But every toy creator knows the abysmal odds for success," says Ronald Weingartner, director of inventor relations at Milton-Bradley and co-author of "Inside Santa's Workshop: How Toy Inventors Develop, Sell and Cash In on Their Ideas."

"They know that for every 100 outside ideas a toy company receives, they're lucky to see one get produced."

As a result, inventors say, the industry can become a realm of spy-vs.-spy secrecy.

Then there's the lawsuits. In 1978, a New Jersey inventor sued Mattel Inc., claiming it had infringed on his patent for the snap-together plastic track parts that the company used for its Hot Wheels miniature vehicles.

This summer, a federal appeals court overturned a 1990 judgment for $24.8 million against the toy maker.

Such cases chill independent creators, turning many into suspicious, clandestine operators who jealously protect projects and who, in some cases, become neurotics convinced that a slip of the tongue could cost millions.

Big money's at stake

The inventor's creative carrot is the high of producing a monster-selling toy.

"I've always felt more like a gambler than an inventor," says Mark Setteducati, a New York City inventor who fashioned travel versions of the popular television games "Jeopardy!" "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Dating Game" and who teaches a college course on toy and game inventing.

"Every time I sell a toy, I feel like I'm that guy who went to Vegas with a nickel and came home a millionaire. You can't beat the rush. But money isn't everything. Inventors want to create a novelty that will be played long after they're dead. That's immortality!"

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