All Photographs Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
The previous year had been one of change at Colorforms. Meanwhile, in placid New York State, far from the hubbub in New Jersey, I concentrated my efforts on two new lines, Colorforms Games and “Plasticine”. Both appeared at Toy Fair 1979.
Now located in their huge new factory in Ramsey, with Harry’s sons, Adam and Andy on board, Colorforms was clearly growing. Their range of products was expanding, and with expansion came complications. One complicated quandary that had, for years, been simmering just beneath the surface, came to the fore. The name Colorforms, itself, was now a problem. What did it mean exactly? Was “Colorforms” the name of the company, or was it the name of the toy? It had been used as both from the beginning. Like “Kleenex” the word “Colorforms” was in danger of becoming generic, signifying plastic pieces that stick to a shiny surface. Many people, who bought any toy manufactured by Colorforms expected to find plastic stick-on pieces inside. This worked to our advantage when it came to introducing Colorforms Games.
No category in the toy industry was more difficult to break into than that of games. It was no longer competitive, as Hasbro now owned both of the leading, and formerly competing, game companies, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. Mattel had tried to enter games for years and failed. On the other hand, provided they were made of cardboard and had no molded pieces, Colorform’s new plant at Ramsey would be appropriately equipped to manufacture games. So, that was my assignment… Invent some Games!
The basic rule and concept was that each should include some plastic stick-on pieces, which would, in theory, give us instant acceptance and credibility, as these would be “Colorforms Games”.
The Games that I came up with ranged from original and slightly clever to tedious and lame. But all included Colorforms plastic stick-on pieces in one way or another; and it worked. Helped by a little TV advertising, Colorforms had a whole new category. People were buying Colorforms Games!
The first (and best) was called, “Don’t Tip the Waiter”. It began with the sketch below. Here my WWII childhood stood me in good stead. So many of the few toys there were then were made of paper, including, under the Christmas tree one year, a Lionel train made out of cardboard. Now I would try to do 3-Dimensional games made out of cardboard too.
Mike and I worked together on the games. First I would “invent” the “play” and “comp up” the interior. Next Mike would create the cover. Then I would go back again and alter the interior, if necessary, to better match the cover. The object of Don’t Tip The Waiter was to stack as many dishes on the waiter’s tray, one player at a time, without tipping him. The player, who does tip the waiter, has to tip the waiter by placing a Colorforms dollar in his hand. When you’re out of money, you’re out of the game. Ain't that the truth! To see the TV commercial: CLICK HERE.
“Cock-A-Doodle Do” was a simple spinner game, no reading or brains required, just dumb luck! Watch Out for the Fox! For once, Colorforms had out-foxed the odds. These games actually sold.
“What’s Cookin'?” was a guessing game for two, based on the principle of: What hand is it in? It featured Colorforms food, sliding panels and picture perfect pots with cardboard lids.
“Happy Hippo”! Be the first Monkey to feed the Hippo. Wow, real Plastic bases and a spinner! Colorforms was investing heavily in molds. Good Lord! Fatty, here, just realized, 30 years later; All these games were about FOOD!
The second Big Push for the year was “PLASTICINE”. This product was a huge departure for Colorforms.
Speaking of departures, around this time, or the year after, Colorforms sales manager Stan Schwartz chose to make his departure in order to begin his own Business as “Stanly Associates”, Colorforms Sales Rep in the New York Metropolitan Area. He was replaced as in-house Sales Manager by an exceedingly personable person named Chuck Cohen.
Stan prided himself in being a Toy “Maven”. He was fond of spouting profound platitudes, like “Farm toys Don’t Sell!” At times, this could be most annoying (and tended to drive Harry wild), all the more annoying, because most of the time, Stan was always right. Time and again, he steered the ship of Colorforms through troubled waters, and saved it from crashing on the rocks. Stan was all about wise merchandising decisions and carefully planned products.
Chuck Cohen was a different kind of guy, happy go lucky, with an irresistible personality. I doubt he ever met a man who didn’t like him. Hence, he could sell anything to anybody, and did. His specialty was plying toy buyers with gifts and goodies, greasing palms, and making under the counter deals. I recall one toy buyer from a major toy chain had a fetish for expensive tailored trousers. Chuck always kept him well supplied. On the other hand, Chuck was no expert in merchandising, nor did he pretend to be.
So the Helm of Colorforms was taken up by Captain Andy, who aided by his First Mate, Adam, stepped forward to assume the task of steering the company in the right direction. They proved themselves up to the job and preformed their duty admirably. Sales soon began to soar.
Meanwhile, getting back to Plasticine. This excellent product was always the ultimate non-drying modeling material when I was a kid. Like Kleenex and Colorforms, its name had almost become generic. Then, for some reason, it disappeared from the USA, but remained alive and well in England. After much deliberation, Colorforms decided to reintroduce it here.
Not only did Colorforms reintroduce it, they actually manufactured it in their new plant in Ramsey NJ. This was a huge and daring undertaking. A vast area of the new building was walled off and separated from the rest of the plant by walls of glass. Enormous vats were installed to hold the chalk and Vaseline, the main ingredients of Plasticine. Along with vats there were massive mixers, extruders, and conveyor belts as well. There were also stacks of racks for drying trays, and dispenser bins full to the brim with an eye popping array of dazzling colors. From the offices above, one could look down through a wall of windows on this industrial landscape, a bustling beehive of activity, sifting, stirring, pumping out, and packaging Plasticine.
Did I say Packaging? The full weight of responsibility for packaging and merchandising this product fell on me. A Herculean task that led even the most resentful of Colorforms employees to agree was meritorious of a royalty.
I remembered as a child, seeing modest modeling clay sets in boxes. The covers tended to be grandiose wondrous paintings, fascinating and intimidating. They depicted children building Plasticine palaces, and all around them, entire villages, people, cattle, animals and trees, purportedly all made out of clay. These ambitious visions were hopelessly beyond the abilities of any child to replicate, especially, with what was in the box, a small amount of clay, and a little wooden stick for modeling, not enough to make a single cow, let alone a castle.
I envisioned packages made entirely of Plasticine with many suggestions for objects that a kid could really make. All would be based on basic shapes, so there would be no sculpting skills required. A simple instruction panel would show them all they had to know. Even the logo, "Plasticine" would be made of Plasticine.
A supply of Plasticine was sent to me from England, and I began to play, creating several objects every day. I often started with just a piece of colored clay and let it tell me what it wanted to be. But for the package fronts, I actually drew what I had in mind ahead of time and then recreated it in Plasticine. English Plasticine is a marvelous material. The only hard thing about working with it is keeping the colors clean.
Meanwhile, a technician from the Plasticine Company in England set up temporary residence in New Jersey to oversee the process of getting the manufacturing process up and running in America. Everything looked picture perfect. Nonetheless, there were problems. The material was not setting up the way it should. First it was too hard. Then it was too soft. Then it was brittle. Things were not working out quite as intended. The product that Colorforms was producing wasn’t quite like the English Plasticine. Working on the packages I ran out of several colors, and discovered that I couldn’t make those little figures using American Plasticine. More of the good stuff was shipped over, and I continued.
In the end the Plasticine that Colorforms produced, through no fault of their own, was never quite right. It was finally determined that the American Chalk was the problem. The chalk used in England came from the White Cliffs of Dover. Apparently, there was something unique about it, but importing it was cost prohibitive. The affordable chalk available here was not the same. Thus what Colorforms ended up producing was marginally acceptable, more user friendly than Play Dough, but not quite as good as original Plasticine.
“Mickey Mouse Colorola” was another new introduction for 1979, and another chance for me to plead my case for 1930s Mickey. This was essentially an old item. I don’t know how it walked through Colorform’s door. Andy and Adam might have found it. I got a point for packaging it. This catalogue page shows my original comp.
Things were changing at Colorforms in 1979. Games, Plasticine, and Colorola, led off the catalogue. The “Colorforms” didn’t appear until page 11. By the way, from this time forward, we could no longer refer to Colorforms stick-on toys simply as “Colorforms”, as in “Tricky Mickey Magic Colorforms”. There always had to be a subtitle, as in Colorforms "Play Set”. Colorforms now became the brand name; “Play Set” being the title. This was to prevent the name “Colorforms" from becoming generic.
The “Colorforms Play Set” category led off with three sets that all had fold-out doors, a format that made them “mine”. The first was based on the popular TV show, “Little House on the Prairie”. For an hour, once a week, I actually stopped working to watch the idyllic adventures of the loving Ingalls family, while on the floor before me , between my chair and the TV, my two daughters squabbled like cats and dogs throughout “Daddy’s Favorite Show”. Bill Basso did the artwork.
Now, two all time great Super Heroes, Mike Strouth and Mel Birnkrant, teamed up to bring you this super Colorforms Play Set, “Spider-man and Hulk!” The city opened up for both inside and outside play. How about that cool hole, busting through the wall!
The Third Inside-Outside Play set was “Barbie’s Dream House”. It was more like Barbie’s Nightmare, mocking up this mess, with its forced and phony vanishing perspective was exquisitely agonizing. It featured a portrait of the spiral staircase I still ascend, at least, two dozen times a day.
Going back through boxes of old art work, trying to reconstruct the missing years I spent (wasted?) at Colorforms, has been a revelation to me. I discovered some surprises, things I forgot I did, along the way. One such discovery is this pair of sketches I found just last night. I had forgotten that I had done “Star Snoopy”
What I did for Colorforms, I guess, when all is said and done, I did for money. It was the means by which I could pursue my true love, collecting. Sometimes in the Real World, when mowing the grass, either because I was in the mood, or of necessity, I thought deep and profound thoughts like: “Poverty is cutting your own grass”. No wrong! I take that back. “Real poverty is when you have to cut your neighbors grass”. This little website is sort of like sifting through the clippings, left over from 20 years of cutting Harry’s grass.
Last night, among the piles of decomposing compost, I discovered these two drawings. I am trying to remember how it came to be that I was designing a simple Colorforms Stick-On, without a “special feature”. Maybe it is evidence that the change that took place in my relationship with Colorforms was beginning. More about that later.
Well anyway, “Star Snoopy” is clearly evidence that Colorforms little Star War with Darth-Kenner was still twinkling. The 1979 catalogue reveals that “Space Warriors” did not make it to a second year. So Snoopy Skywalker, light saber in paw, took up the fight. This time, we dared use the name “Star”. Kenner Beware! The Force is with Colorforms too! True or False: Was this set “Forced”? The Answer: True!
Two new properties joined the ranks of Rub n’ Play, “Battlestar Galactica”, and “The Amazing Spider-man”. The Rub n’ Play line was continuing to sell.
And Last of all, a new format for Rub n’ Play: “Magic Transfers”. These were inspired by the 1934 “Mickey Mouse Magic Pictures” toy below. This rare item has a look and play pattern very similar to Colorforms Stick-ons, but predated Colorforms by 20 years.
Each Magic Transfer Set came with two sheets of Rub n’ Play Magic Transfers, a Panorama Background, to create your own scene, and a wooden popsicle stick. The shipping carton became a colorful counter display.
Thus, ends a busy catalogue and a busy year. Meanwhile, throughout it, and the year before it too, I had been working on Maurice Sendak Wild Things Dolls. They were nearly ready now, and about to appear, next year.
MOUSE OVER TO SEE ORIGINAL SKETCH