Archive for October 2016

Ten Halloween Costumes That Time Forgot

October 31, 2016

The sweaty, itchy masks. The teeny-tiny eye holes that were too far apart, too close together, or otherwise misaligned with your actual pupils. The flame-retarded, glow-in-the-dark pajama costumes with the flimsy tie-strings and the cheesy designs. The smart-aleck grown-ups who insisted you do a trick before handing over the treat.

Ah, the joys of Halloween! Remember returning home victorious, hoisting your bulging bag and dumping your stash of sweets on the table for the all-important inspection?  Immediately followed by three solid hours of glucose-induced gluttony. It was the emotional climax of the holiday.

But the process of choosing a Halloween costume came a close second. The annual pilgrimage  to the local five-and-dime store to pick out a costume required careful consideration. Would it be Batman? Space Ghost? GI Joe? Or, would we cave in when our mom suggested something hideously lame, like Casper the Friendly Ghost or Peter Rabbit?

The dilemma dominated lunch table conversation for weeks. Girls always seemed to have an easier time, because, let’s face it, their choices were limited: Cinderella, Snow White, or 37 variations of a witch (although the situation improved markedly with the arrival of Penelope Pitstop and Josie and the Pussycats.)

The three major costume companies, Ben Cooper, Collegeville and Halco, battled it out to snag the most popular licensed characters. Halco always seemed to draw the short straw for some reason, offering costumes that no self-respecting kid would be caught dead in, like Professor Potts from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or the (uber politically incorrect) China Man. On the plus side, they did score the Lone Ranger and Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke.

Even with a solid stable of stars, predicting which costumes would strike gold was tough. Kids are a fickle lot. The popularity of any given TV character can disappear faster than a Snickers bar in the hands of a six year old. For every Captain America, there are countless Atom Ants, Fearless Flies and Milton the Monsters who enjoy a brief blip of fame and then flame out, never to be heard from again.

Which brings us to the 10 Halloween Costumes That Time Forgot. Originally launched with heady hype and high hopes for monster-size profits, these ill-fated costume characters quickly faded into oblivion, and now languish in their final resting place, in all their flame-retardant 100% rayon glory, on one of the spookier, dustier shelves in the Brand Museum:


1. The Red Skull


2. Bugalu


3. Funky Phantom


4. Spooky

5. Fleabag


6. Witchiepoo


7. Gone and Fred Gonk


8. Shazzan


9.Dr.  Solar

10. Peter Puck



The Smile Seen ‘Round the World

October 27, 2016

Quick. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a little round yellow smiley face?


Give it up and go back to your Angry Birds, kid.

Wait, you said: “Have a Nice Day” buttons from the 1970s? 

Groovy! You win a lime-green shag rug. And we’ll throw in a day-glo inflatable chair.

Like the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” signs of a later generation, sunny yellow smiley faces with the puzzling exhortation “Have a Nice Day” suddenly emerged in the spring and summer of 1971 as the latest pop culture fad.

Buttons … bags … keychains … lollipops … those little squeezable change purses your mom got from the bank… no item was safe from the marauding merrymaker with the oblong eyes and goofy grin.

Where did he come from? And why was he telling us to have a nice day? Nobody knew. Nobody cared. Heck, it was just good to see somebody smiling.

Smiles were in short supply in early 1971. America had been hoping to catch its collective breath after the assassinations, riots, and rage of the 1960s. But the previous year had delivered more of the same.  The Vietnam War slogged on towards defeat. National Guard troops killed four student protesters at Kent State.  The Beatles broke up. And Apollo 13 nearly broke up too, halfway to the moon. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison  all died, all at 27.

Enterprising souls saw dollar signs in all this disfunction.  Sell smiles like soap flakes? Why not? Brilliant!

A new sitcom premiered on TV urging us to “Come on, Get Happy!” The same month, two entrepreneurs from Philadelphia, the Spain brothers, had an idea. They’d seen these little smiley faced buttons drifting around the marketplace for years. Why not redesign it a little, attached the slogan “Have a Happy Day” and trademark it?

They did exactly that, churning out promotional products, from buttons and T-shirts to key fobs, which sold in the millions, then tens of millions, as the fad caught fire across America.(“Have a Happy Day” eventually evolved to “Have a Nice Day”)

The Spain Brothers raked in the cash, but not the credit for the inspiration.  That smiley face that restored sagging spirits in 1971 actually originated in 1963, at the State Mutual Life Assurance Company in Worcester, Mass.  Following its acquisition of another company — always a recipe for workforce tension, especially if you’re the company getting gobbled up — a vice president suggested an internal “friendship campaign.”

The marketing director, Joy Young, contacted local freelance artist Harvey Ball, requesting he create a little smile to be used on buttons, desk cards and posters. Ball drew a smile but, not satisfied with the result and concerned that it could be turned upside down and used as a frown, he added two eyes, making a smiley face. The iconic design that charmed America out of its doldrums and lives on half-a-century later in trillions of texts was produced in    — ready for this? Ten minutes.

The smile button campaign, launched on January 3, 1964, seemed to strike a chord. Employees clamored for more. Then customers wanted them, too. Gradually they found their way onto thousands of lapels across the northeast.  A promotional products company based in New York, R.G. Slater, appropriated the likeness for political buttons.

But it took Bernard and Murray Spain to launch smiley into the stratosphere. The Spains adjusted Ball’s design to feature two identical eyes appearing as vertical ovals, balanced by a symmetrical smile (Ball’s original featured two eyes of different sizes plus a lopsided grin, as he later reported, “to give it some character.”)

As the decade went on, the fad fizzled. But smiley had earned immortality as the indisputable icon of 1970s kitsch. Then, in 1982, he was reincarnated as a computer icon, which eventually morphed into the emoticon and emoji that graces gazillions of texts today.

The smiley face has also made its mark as an international symbol of goodwill and the spokescharacter for the largest company in the world, Wal-Mart. Which led, ironically, to a lot of badwill, with bitter trademark disputes raging in the courts for years.

One person who wasn’t frowning through all this was Harvey Ball. Although he certainly didn’t get rich from his humble creation. The only remuneration he received — ever — was a grand total of $45, his fee for the original design work. He never trademarked it,  certainly a forgivable oversight in 1963. Heck, who could have predicted it would go beyond a few insurance company  buttons?!

For his part, Ball, a World War II combat veteran, seemed content to simply be recognized as the rightful father of a global icon. He died in 2001, living long enough to see it immortalized as an international symbol of goodwill, satirized in Forrest Gump, and emblazoned on the chest of every Wal-Mart employee around the world. The Harvey Ball World Smile Foundation lives on to extend his legacy of kindness.

Ball never did embrace the “Have a Nice Day” tagline, though.

“Personally, I think it’s insipid,” he said. “I would have gone with, ‘Have a Great Day.'”













Munro: Bringing Table Hockey to the Masses

October 4, 2016

Munro (the toy brand, not the muffler company) may not be as recognizable as Mattel, Kenner or Ideal. But it has a place in the pantheon of toymakers nonetheless.

If you were a boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line and you owned a hockey stick, chances are you bugged  — and begged — your parents until they relented and bought you a table hockey set. And there were even odds that it was made by Munro (the other major manufacturer was Eagle.)

When my brother and I  spied the iconic “M” logo peeking out from the over-sized box as we tore through the wrapping paper on Christmas mornings, we knew we had scored a slapshot. Getting a new hockey set was as much of a Christmas tradition in our house as drinking eggnog — which gives you some idea of the wear and tear we subjected the sets to in the previous 364 days.


The action-packed game was a common fixture in American homes, especially in the cooler climes where kids actually played hockey on frozen lakes and ponds. And in Canadian households, table hockey sets were as ubiquitous as maple syrup and Molsen’s ale.

Playing table hockey required expert hand-mind coordination, exacting dexterity, and the reflexes of a mongoose.  Hands and wrists were a blur of motion, twisting, whacking, twirling and yanking the skinny metal rods through their motions in order to pass the puck from player-to-player and slap a shot into the goal. It was a miracle of multitasking. You worked up a sweat. You grunted, cursed, giggled and shouted expletives at your opponent. It was a blast.

Donald H. Munro, Sr., the company’s founder, pioneered the game of table hockey. Like many of mankind’s greatest innovations, necessity proved the mother of invention. With Toronto, Canada deep in the throes of the Great Depression, Mr. Munro, owner of a Fish and Chips restaurant, lacked the money to buy his kids gifts for Christmas 1932. So he decided to make them a present instead, scrounging around his house for any odds and ends he could find: clothespins, old springs, scraps of wood, and potholder tops.

His ingenuity paid off. The handmade table hockey game he cobbled together was a hit with his kids. He realized it might have commercial potential. One day he visited a local department store, which agreed to give him a store credit in exchange for a game. When he arrived home later that day, he  already had a message waiting from the store: they wanted to buy five more sets.

He applied for a patent in 1936, and Munro Games Ltd. was born.

Munro’s original game only had pinball machine-like flippers and the puck was a steel ball bearing. A convex table top enabled the ball to roll toward one side or the other. By 1956, Munro and Eagle, its Montreal-based competitor, had evolved the concept to more closely resemble a real hockey match in miniature, with tin cut-out players, a wooden puck, and a surface that looked like an ice rink. Many of those upgrades, including the introduction of metal rods to move the players back and forth, were the brainchild of a Swedish company.

Each player was attached to a thin metal rod extending beneath the rink’s surface. Pushing the rods enabled you to slide your man forward in his slot: a narrow groove cut into the rink’s surface. While your player’s range-of-motion was limited to his slot, by twisting the plastic knob on the end of the rod, you could twirl him and his stick 360 degrees, allowing him to pass the puck to another player or, with a perfectly-timed snap of the wrist, slap a shot into the goal.

While Munro got into the marketplace first, Eagle scored some major coups. Eagle reached an exclusive  licensing agreement with its hometown Montreal Canadiens, and then with the entire NHL. So Eagle sets could feature actual NHL team logos, uniforms and likenesses; Munro had to settle for a more generic look with the team cities on the uniforms. However, Munro was able to score lucrative endorsements from two of the game’s biggest stars, Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.

The NHL, which only had six teams, doubled in size in 1967. Table hockey sales soared. Munro and Eagle were sold to American companies in Sept. 1968:  Munro to Servotronics Inc. of Buffalo, and Eagle to Coleco Industries Inc. of Hartford.

Its new parent company kept the Munro brand name alive. And for a while, it continued to thrive. Its Bobby Orr Hockey became its signature product for the 1970s and biggest-selling product ever. In 1973, Munro introduced a Peanut’s branded set, and in 1974, an air hockey game.

But times and tastes changed. In the mid-1970s, slicker games like air hockey, foosball and electronic pinball invaded the home and competed for kids’ attention. Then came Pong, Atari, Nintendo. Financial difficulties forced Servotronics to shut Munro down in 1977. The other legacy table hockey brands, Coleco and Tudor, disappeared a decade later.

Today, Munro lives on in the hearts of those of us who owned a Munro Hockey game and spent countless hours in stick-to-stick combat as we lived out our fantasies of becoming real pro hockey players. Various shrines to Munro hockey games have popped up on the Internet, and original games in decent condition fetch a pretty penny on ebay.

Not too shabby for a game originally built out of scrounged odds and ends and cobbled together by an ingenious dad who couldn’t afford to buy a gift — but who also couldn’t afford to see his kids disappointed on Christmas morning.