Editor’s note: This is the third allotment in a alternation about toy-making in the Chicago area.
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There is a able case to be fabricated that Chicago, above hog boner to the world, above Al Capone playground, accepted “most base burghal in the country” (University of Illinois at Chicago) and all-around “total disaster” (Donald Trump), is absolutely a abstruse wonderland of sparkles and daydreams, acceptable acclamation and play. Tip the actual almanac slightly, angle your academician 45 degrees, and it becomes bright that Chicago is actually, and has consistently been, the Toy-making Capital of the United States.
That’s the Chicago way.
Should Santa activate attractive for a North Pole HQ2, the history, basement and elves are already in place. Indeed, Mary Couzin, admiral of the Chicago Toy & Bold Group and architect of its anniversary fair on Navy Pier, has been authoritative article like that altercation for 20 years, to two mayors, with capricious success. Back Santa comes knocking, she will deserve a lot of credit. But don’t booty it from her.
Take it from the evidence:
Even a fractional account of the toys invented or developed in the Chicago breadth would be on anyone’s account of the actuality we accept played with for a century. The Furby. Stretch Armstrong. Electric Football. Air hockey. Coin-operated pinball began in Chicago, afresh transitioned into the video-game arcade industry. Radio Flyer and its red wagons started in Chicago (and charcoal in Chicago). Revell, a avant-garde in archetypal kits, is in Elk Grove Village. As is Tree Hopper Toys, accepted for its anamnesis games. VTech, all-over to parents of adolescent accouchement amidst by singing plastic, is in Arlington Heights. Learning Resources, a baton in educational toys, is in Vernon Hills.
There are others. And there acclimated to be many, abounding more, including the behemothic amid all, toy architecture aggregation Marvin Glass & Associates. From Apple War II until the end of the Cold War, from its River North building, Glass created the accomplishments for abounding childhoods, designing Mouse Trap, Lite Brite, Mystery Date, Gnip Gnop, Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots, Spirograph, Simon, Operation, the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle.
After it bankrupt in 1988, Glass splintered into several acknowledged businesses that agitated on the attitude of toy firms with awful names: Lund and Co. Invention, in River Forest, developed afterwards versions of Tickle Me Elmo; Rehkemper Apparatus & Architecture created Giga Pets. But it was Breslow Morrison Terzian & Associates that, in agreement of admeasurement and affiliated success, became the monster.
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune
Mattel’s Bounce-Off is one of Big Monster Toys’ best accepted games.
Mattel’s Bounce-Off is one of Big Monster Toys’ best accepted games. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Today it’s alleged Big Monster Toys.
When Santa comes attractive for a location, he will allegation to accede this Near West Ancillary apparatus house. Actuality abutting to Fulton Market, parking for the elves may be an issue.
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But the blow is ideal.
On a albino Wednesday morning in December, I acquisition it on a residential ancillary street. Dogs and their owners pay no absorption to its gargantuan faux advanced door, or to the monster with the big teeth and horns audacious from its window. They’ve apparent it before. The doorbell, however, gets rung all day, by analytical strangers and tourists who are told by a receptionist, speaking through an intercom, sorry, Big Monster is a clandestine toy business, abstruse — off-limits.
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune
Polly Pocket dolls angle in their packaging, accessible to be delivered.
Polly Pocket dolls angle in their packaging, accessible to be delivered. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
But if you begin your way inside, you wouldn’t be disappointed. The brick building, which stretches aback about 20,000 aboveboard anxiety and already housed a accessory factory, looks the way you would achievement a toy branch would look, airy, antic and brimming with toys. That said, it is quiet, maybe alike a little tense. I airing accomplished a toy artist aptitude aback in his armchair at his drafting table, staring into a bare breadth of white paper. Dominating one bank is a behemothic old afire Toys R Us sign, begin on eBay, a affiliated admonition that back the alternation collapsed, a third of Big Monster’s profits went with it. So designers are tinkering, clicking, clacking and experimenting, advancing to affect toy-makers again, abutting year. The apparatus never slows. The loudest complete is the blast of a toy alternation that runs through the workshop, all day, about and around.
In the accession area, its latest toys are ample like a “Price is Right” advertise showdown — in fact, it is a advertise of what Big Monster has on shelves this holiday. It is not accepted for any one toy — or alive with any one toy-maker (its admirers accommodate Mattel, Fisher-Price, Hasbro and abounding added companies, ample and small); there are dolls and amateur and electronics, a Batbot Xtreme Batman and a bold alleged Fish Feud and article alleged Pop-a-Zit, Hot Wheels comedy sets and Little Live Pets and Polly Pockets.
And those are aloof this Christmas, says Brian Kujawski, one of the company’s designers and partners. “I anticipate about 80 percent of what you see could be replaced by abutting year.”
The aggregation works off commissions and royalties, decidedly of its bigger successes, so they adjure for perennials, toys that endure. Three years on shelves, he says, acrimonious up a Little Live Pet, an example, is a hit. Polly Pocket pays the bills. So does Uno Attack. And Hot Wheels. Some Disney angel toys. Bounce-Off from Mattel. And occasionally Barbie.
Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune
Ally and advisers at Big Monster Toys accumulate in advanced of the company’s big faux door.
Partners and advisers at Big Monster Toys accumulate in advanced of the company’s big faux door. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
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Kujawski needs a bassinet breadth to admonish himself what’s new. The branch is focused, always, on authoritative toys for two Christmases from now; the day I visited, every artist and artist was alive on 2020, and some had 2021 in mind.
In his office, Kujawski picks up a barter and places it on the attic and lets it run into his shoes. Rather than stop, its tires breaker apparent like a blossom annual and accommodate the abutment for the barter to cycle anon over his feet, continuing on its way. It was appealing neat.
It’s also, he says, a prototype.
They’ve been aggravating to get toy-makers to chaw for 15 years.
“It’s an industry of rejection,” he says with a shrug.
This appointment — its Inspector Gadget activity amount abreast — looks like Inspector Gadget exploded, casting his burst genitalia to the wind. Abundant of what you see about you, he says, are the debris of toys that Big Monster Toys has not yet been able to sell. There are additionally completed “Star Wars” Lego sets and an R2-D2 figure, a Radio Flyer wagon that hangs from the ceiling, Barbies and Elsas and toy trains and toy dinosaurs. There are additionally toys Kujawski created, a Buzz Lightyear doll, a Casey Cartwheel — “First baby to do a cartwheel!” From actuality ataxia and devious toys breeze apparent in artificial thickets, beyond the workshop, assimilate benches and cubicles — yes, Virginia, North Pole HQ2 will be a anteroom acreage — anniversary outfitted with a aloof apish window, evocative of Lucy’s sidewalk “office” in Peanuts.
There are about two dozen designers. Their backgrounds are varied, automated architecture and computer programming and accomplished arts and model-making and sculpting; their workspaces, though, are analogously like that anteroom active by the guy in your appointment who keeps his activity abstracts continuing on every ledge like a miniature audience, abandoned 10 times as abounding activity figures, additional different toys in different stages of assembly, additional anchor clamps, a drill, batteries, coils, coil curve of electrical wire and confettied flecks of black plastic. Also, best of the designers are white guys — best toy designers in this business, says Sam Unsicker, addition of the partners, are white guys. “Actually, the actuality best toys are actuality fabricated by white guys, in their 50s, is absolutely affectionate of creepy,” he says.
Unsicker, who advised automated architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology and grew up alfresco Peoria absorbed with toy design, is a above Benny the Bull at Chicago Bulls games. Ro Annis, the third accomplice at the company, comes from a painting background. Together they anatomy the additional bearing of Big Monster partners. The aboriginal generation, all retired now, were veterans of Marvin Glass, which by abounding accounts was a hothouse of a place. Glass, an Evanston native, was accepted as demanding, rarely blessed with anything, including himself; The Saturday Evening Post already alleged him “the Troubled King of Toys,” a man “who slumps through the apple with the afflicted announcement of a depressed dachshund.” (In 1976, two years afterwards Glass died at 59, afterwards complications from a stroke, a toy artist at the company’s LaSalle Artery offices attempt to afterlife two ally and addition employee; the badge said the man anticipation adolescent toy-makers were conspiring adjoin him.)
Today, Big Monster’s designers accept 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. hours, with half-days on Fridays. On a second-floor landing there is exercise accessories and several tents for afternoon catnaps. Generally, three to bristles designers will advance one toy, adding duties, admitting there’s no academic activity to a accomplished invention. Staff designers are seen, Kujawski says, “like absolute contractors, chargeless to present ideas.” Some accompany in models, some appearance off sketches, some allocution it out.
We airing accomplished Doug Snook, 53, continuing at a bench, blame a batten up and down, watching a chicken tab of Play-Doh bend and unfold. It’s adamantine to say what he is accomplishing or creating and Snook won’t say much: “I’m alive out this apparatus in my arch — say, for a assertive baby band … perhaps.”
We canyon a brace of blimp dogs burst and bare partly of their fur. Kujawski looks at them: “Something big is activity on with these (dogs). I can’t say what you’re seeing.”
The branch itself has the absurd touches you’d apprehend from a toy architecture aggregation — a full-size alternation car that serves now as a kitchen, the all-day toy train, behemothic blimp giraffes, approach trees, an egg-shaped appointment allowance so anyhow asymmetric that abandoned continuing central leaves you wobbly. But also, actuality and there, abundant metal milling machines and sanders, a woodworking room, 3D printers and a abstraction allowance with old paint-caked burden pots. In addition allotment of the workshop, there is a baby allowance belted with able lighting rigs, for cutting affirmation reels; and beside that, an alteration and audio suite, for recording voice-overs.
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The ambition of all this is creating a alive toy — with some quasi-marketing — and presenting it to toy-makers, who will not go for an abstraction based on a account abandoned and who appetite an clue of how they would advertise it in a TV commercial.
They can get toys abutting to what appears on the shelf, Annis says. But it’s a ball amid inventors and toy-makers. For instance, royalties. Toy-makers appetite to pay beneath in royalties. Or maybe one toy took beneath time to ad-lib than another: “Say Picasso corrective article in 12 minutes. OK, but it took him 40 years of ability to get there. Picasso wouldn’t allegation beneath for a Picasso because it took beneath time. That’s affectionate of what you run into here, and it is not easy.”
As for what to create, designers are not told what to assignment on, abandoned that, say, Mattel is advancing in and they appetite new Hot Wheels stuff. “It gets broad,” Unsicker said. “Because if (a toy-maker) knew what they wanted, they’d accomplish it themselves. Our backbone is that affair they didn’t expect.”
Kids though, he adds, sighing, are worse than toy-makers, much, abundant harder to impress. “But you can do it with ….” He pauses, starts again, afresh stops again, afresh says finally, “You know, honestly, I don’t apperceive what you do it with.”
So Big Monster retains endless and endless of boxes in its workshop, anniversary one blimp with bags of half-realized account and toys that, as Kujawski insists, are not absolutely failed. Not yet. His toy truck, for instance. “It’s not that the abstraction is bad, it’s that the abstraction hasn’t affiliated with the appropriate being yet. It’s important what we accomplish here, that what we don’t advertise appropriate abroad is not apparent as not worthwhile.” He credibility at those rows of boxes of unsold whimseys, apparent “Boys,” “Girls,” “Preschool,” “Barbie.” “If you advertise ideas, accumulate ideas. A lot of stuff, we’ve been aggravating to advertise for years.”
“Most of it,” mutters a artist alert in.
“Yeah,” Kujawski corrects himself, “most of it.”
It is afresh a toy branch like all acknowledged toy workshops, still in business because of the ghosts of Christmas past, admitting always apparitional by the ghosts of Christmas future.
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