Thursday, December 29, 2016













Here's what my exhibit looked like in Moscow in 1992. It was in the Designers Union Building which was right on famous Pushkin Square. This was still before capitalism had completely taken over their economic system and soon the biggest MacDonald's in the world would be built across the street.

My name in lights, in English and Russian
All my English descriptions were translated into Russian


Before the internet, this was the first glimpse of American design for some . Admittedly it's not any representative 
cross-section, still it's the eclectic work of one first-generation American with a Russian surname...and somehow it represents the freedoms we enjoy.


My museum projects as well as toy and art ideas were included.




Yuri Skokov, head of the Designer's Union explains my work





The BarBEARian





The Brooklyn Museum Archeology Backpack was a big hit.


'Purposeful Writing' Game from the Hawaii Curriculum Center

Me with 'Leon Neon'

The BarBEARian with Hussein Abbo's wonderful drawings



The show was written up in their Design Magazine













Monday, December 26, 2016

IGRUSHKI ZA MIR (TOYS FOR PEACE) 1989

BACK TO THE USSR



No, they weren’t sending me into exile.



As usual, lots of things were happening in the company that I knew nothing about. It seems that in the two years since I’d returned from Moscow, Mattel’s International division had begun to think differently. They had already hired an expatriate Russian, Stan Levin to explore the opportunities for us there, and when Yuri Soloviev’s proposal for American and Soviet designers to work together to create toys for children of both countries again arose, Mattel corporate thought it was a great idea. My, my, how things change. It was decided that Mari Kaestle, Stan Levin. and I would go to Russia for ten days to collaborate with their designers. Sometime later, we would invite three of their designers to join us at Mattel to continue the process. Mari is an incredibly talented designer, who, before coming to Mattel had worked personally with Jim Henson designing some of the original Muppets. At Mattel she’d been very successful having created two acclaimed lines, My Child and Hot Looks.  



Now the fact that Mattel corporate was behind this project made the atmosphere surrounding our preparations totally different than they were on my previous trip. We had the support of the Mattel ‘machine’, everything from press releases to our travel arrangements. We also had time to prepare and develop ideas we wished to explore there. Having Mattel’s involvement made everything so much easier and was a great asset. Or so I thought.

PREPARATIONS

I had a couple of ideas I wanted to develop a bit before we left. When I looked back over the Soviet toys I had seen years earlier, I realized that one category not represented at all was what we call ‘male action figures’. Examples were G.I. Joe, He-Man, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles etc.


I decided to develop a line of characters, accessories and stories where the heros were an American and Soviet team who work together secretly to right some of the worlds environmental wrongs. I had some comic book covers drawn up and prepared some general story lines for discussion.

My other idea wasn’t really a toy proposal. I wanted to create a doll of Mikhail Gorbachev as a tribute. He and President Reagan were changing the world and indirectly made our trip possible. Then I realized that if I pasted the letters GO over the first two letters of the word BARBIE I got ‘GORBIE’. How cool was that.


With the talent in our group, Mari, Hussein Abbo, Mike Lehman and others, we created the first, and only, GORBIE doll.

I had fantasies of personally presenting the doll to Gorbachev himself.


LEGAL

Now remember when I mentioned how great it was to have Mattel’s full support? Well, when Mattel’s legal department heard about this trip they did what lawyers do, they drew up a document, maybe 10 pages long, saying essentially that Mattel was not obligating itself to anything associated with this project; not obligated to produce anything that may come from it, not licensing anything to the Russians, not, not, not..

It was legal overkill and probably unenforceable, nonetheless they insisted that we get this document signed by the Russians before we proceeded with the project.

I sent the whole thing over to Stan Levin to take care of. After all, he was the business guy, right?

AND WE'RE OFF

The three of us headed to New York where we boarded a Pan Am flight direct to Moscow. There we were met at the airport by the Soviet designers we would be working with. It turned out that they were all members of the Ukrainian Designer’s Union and we would all be leaving on the next flight to Kiev and then on to Artek, a renown Children’s camp in the Crimea, on the Black Sea.

We barely had time to say hello before we were taking off again. This Aeroflot plane was quite amazing. It was huge, all coach (no first class) but more interesting was that there was no baggage check-in. Everyone carried their luggage up the steps into the belly of the plane, and then seemingly threw everything into a big pile in what looked like a huge room with plywood walls before climbing some more steps into the main cabin. It was great.

We landed in Kiev where there was a van waiting for us for the trip to Artek.


ARTEK

We arrived at night and in the morning we awoke to see our amazing surroundings.

Artek was a huge and wonderful creative camp for lots of children from all over the Soviet Union and the communist world. I gathered that it was quite an honor for children to be selected to spend some time there. It was right on the Black Sea and our rooms were in a building carved into the rocky coast. In fact, the natural rock formed some of the rooms’ interior walls.

Our Ukrainian hosts had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to put all this together. With all these kids surrounding us in this magical place, I thought this whole experiment might actually succeed.




THE FIRST DAY

Breakfast was the first time we really got to meet out Ukrainian hosts.

There was Yuri, VP of the Ukrainian Designers Union and their team leader, Leonid R., Leonid B., Larissa, Piotr, and Dimitri, their translator. They were very proud of having organized their portion of the project at Artek and had even prepared an original, creative logo and stationary for our joint venture. It seemed like we were all delighted to have actually made it this far, and were all looking forward to what was to come next. And then we hit the (legal) wall. Stan Levin took out the agreement that Mattel legal had sent along with us. Since this had never been discussed before the Ukrainians were at first surprised, then confused and then just plain angry. “Why wasn’t this done before....Perhaps we should be the ones making YOU sign...etc”. Believe me, everything is much more complicated when everything has to be translated. Stan Levin did his best to explain, but it was probably impossible for him to explain our lawyer’s obviously one sided concerns. At times the whole thing looked like it was going to collapse right then. I kept hoping that the second half of this project, with three of their designers coming to California, was enough of an opportunity for them to keep everything from falling apart. The whole discussion took hours, with their distrust and disappointment growing to the point where I wondered if, even if they signed, there’d be any real point in continuing. After we were all talked out they reluctantly signed the papers.We went to lunch hoping to repair the damage.



"NOTHING"

After that completely draining morning session we settled down again to start our project. We decided to just go around the table with each of us introducing any ideas we wanted the group to consider. I volunteered to go first.

I showed my Russian/American superhero line and comic book pages. I explained how, in America, male-action figures were a big category of boys toys and sales, and how stories introduce characters and ‘playpatterns’. I talked about how Mattel produced ‘lines’ of toys, not ‘items. When I was finished I waited for some response from the group.

“I’ll always remember the next thing I heard: Leonid R. simply said “This is nothing. Let’s get back to the toys”. And one of the Ukrainian designers started showing their ideas.

“Nothing” I thought as I sat down quietly and didn’t hear anything anyone said for a while. Was this a response to our earlier legal disagreements? Did I not explain my idea clearly? Were our cultural differences too large to understand each other’s toy context?. Maybe.

“Nothing!”  It was going to be a very long ten days.



THE NOTE

The meeting goes on for several more hours and although I’m disappointed, I’m also relieved that everything creatively seems to be going forward. Finally, after dinner, we all call it a day and head off to our respective rooms. 

I’m just about to close the door to my room when Leonid R.  stops by to say goodnight - extending his hand. I’m hoping this is a friendly gesture to make up for his earlier “nothing’ remark, but as we shook hands I felt a note being passed into my palm.

This doesn’t really happen, does it?  I quickly shut my door and leaned against it with my back. I opened the note. I read:

Dear Mr. Resnicoff... I have admired your country for so long....my family would like to emigrate...could you possibly...

Holy Shit! My first thought was  “Do I have to eat this note?” All of a sudden I’m “Back in the USSR!”. Intrique...secrets...the KGB...defections...

Fortunately, I was too tired to think too much more that night and I fell asleep.



OPPOSITION

After that tumultuous first day things settled down and we made progress working together on our toy ideas. We started to know each other better and soon became friends. I acknowledged Leonid’s note only by the smallest nod of my head. I wasn’t sure how I might be able to help him or if I even could, but there was time to figure that all out.

We spent the days talking about ideas and also meeting the kids at Artek and showing them
the toys we’d brought along from Mattel. Even though things were moving along, one thing that bothered me was that almost always the Ukrainian designers seemed to object to, or fight against any ideas that we proposed.

Frustrated, I finally asked just why that was, not really expecting an answer. “It is because by opposing you. we make you stronger” Piotr said, pressing his palms together isometrically to illustrate his point. Now I understood. It wasn’t because they disliked a specific idea, it was cultural and perhaps economic too. At Mattel, conversations and decisions were ultimately limited by the need to, essentially, get the product on the shelf for Christmas. In their society, with much less emphasis on consumer products, (and no Christmas) debates could go on forever. We discussed all these things and the more we learned about each other the better it got.


STAND !

At one of our group meetings I happened to bring up the subject of Soviet dolls not smiling.

“So?”, Yuri said, “Your Barbie cannot stand by herself.”

Checkmated! I’d never thought about that symbolically. What he was essentially saying was; “Hey, maybe our dolls don’t smile, but your American Barbie can’t even stand on her own two feet.

Shut me right up.



UNIDENTIFIED

One evening we were invited to show the Mattel toys we had brought to a group of young Artek campers. Putting American toys into the hands of Soviet kids was always a joyous, smile generating experience. I had seen it before on my previous trip so I thought I knew what to expect. I brought my video camera along. The kids were having a great time playing with our toys when someone rushed into the room and yelled something. Immediately, all the kids DROPPED THE TOYS TO THE FLOOR and they all ran outside. “What did he say”?, I asked. The answer.....”U.F.O.!



In an instant I was outside too...and there it was, a light in the sky..moving strangely. I tried to steady the camera and save battery power just in case ‘they’ landed.
It was there for 15 minutes or so and then disappeared. After it left the kids went back inside to continue exploring our toys which had somehow become a little less interesting because nothing, nothing beats a U F O !



MOVING ON

Finally our time at Artek was up and we packed up our ideas and headed back to Kiev for a couple of days before going on to Moscow and then...home.



THE CHICKEN FACTORY

We had a couple of days in Kiev. I had mentioned that my dad was born in a little farm town not far from Kiev, then called Ravishker. His familly left there (escaped) when he was 5 to come to America. Leonid R., (‘Lennie’, by now), volunteered to get a car and driver and take a trip into the countryside to search for Ravishker. These towns were decimated during World War II and, if they still existed, renamed during the Soviet era. We set out on a very snowy day.



Once in the Ukrainian countryside it quickly became very rural. We came upon a big sign that turned out to announce a Collective Chicken Farm. We stopped there to ask where we might find the oldest person in the area who might remember my family name Resnicoff.
The ladies of the collective weren’t expecting a visit from an American that day but they were very friendly and helpful. They told us of an old man who lived in a farmhouse not too far away and we went off to find him.



PEARS

The old man sat at his treadle sewing machine. He didn’t remember anyone with the ‘Resnicoff’ name but seemed to enjoy having me as a guest in his home. At one point he ambled to his oudoor cupboard and returned with two beautiful pears for me. I realized that I hadn’t eaten all day and demonstrated my appreciation by ejoying those pears right thern. They were delicious.

Then I hoped that we weren’t too close to Chernoble.



LIBERTY

On the way back to Kiev I thanked Lennie and his friend for putting together this trip for me. As a tiny symbol of my appreciation I gave them each souvenir pins I had brought along. I haven’t mentioned the pin thing before but many Soviet people, especially the kids, liked to collect and trade these things.

The pins I had with me at this time were of the Statue of Liberty. I passed them to the rear seats and went back to watching the snowy landscape pass by when I heard a strange sound behind me. I turned to see Lennie and his friend staring at the little pins...and crying. Crying just for the idea of America.

That said it all.



CHASING GORBY

Back in Moscow we had just a couple of days before heading back to America.

This was the first chance I had to try to get my Gorby doll to Gorbachev, but it wasn’t like I could just pick up the phone and set it up. For one thing the Designers Union provided our accommodations and they were in an apartment attached to a factory quite far from the city
center. And for another thing, phones (and phone numbers) were still hard to come by. Finally I got in touch with the American Press corps in Moscow who thought my Gorby doll was interesting enough that they tried to put me in touch with Gorbachev’s press secretary. They said he had a sense of humor, and that if anyone could make it happen, it’d be him.

But as luck would have it Gorbachev was, at that moment, on his way out of the city for some important meeting and wouldn’t be back until after we were gone. I was disappointed but we were heading home tomorrow and right then that was pretty much all that I was thinking about.



DECISIONS

Before we left however, one thorny issue arose.

The second half of this project was for the Soviet designers to join us at Mattel in California for ten days to continue our work. The way this was structured was that the Soviets would cover all our expenses once we landed in the USSR and we would reciprocate when they landed in the USA. The unspoken issue, until now, was that three of us had come to the USSR, meaning that three Soviets would be invited to America. Three out of six. See the problem?

It was very clear that coming to America for them was an opportunity beyond anything they could imagine. 

"Of course I must be included for I am the team leader"...."I must go to translate"...."I should go because..." And then there was Lennie's note too.

There was pressure on me to decide right then and there but there was no way that I was going to do that so they all just had to settle for my "let me see what I can do when I get back".

And the next morning we took off for America.

THE GIFT

Flying to Moscow from California (and back) was a long long trip. It just so happened that before I left LA, Nintendo had just come out with their first Gameboy that featured the wonderful, and time consuming, game TETRIS which was actually created by a Russian designer. It made the flight go a bit faster. Now before I left to head home I had the pleasure of meeting Lennie's family, his beautiful wife Svetlana and two young sons Ken and Steve. I just happened to have the Gameboy with me (which they had never seen before) and naturally they were enthralled. Now, I really wanted that Gameboy to ease the boredom of my return flight but after seeing their boyish excitement, and appreciating the kindness Lennie showed me, I decided to give it to them as a present. 


HOME

Coming home was always great. This time our return just happened to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Big changes again. Mattel sent out a press release about our trip and when the press found out about the Gorby doll it was all over the media, including a big picture in USA TODAY.


As you can imagine my phone started ringing off the hook with reporters asking questions about the doll and our project.  This was so exciting. I was actually on my phone to a London newspaper when I got a note that the head of the Mattel public relations department wanted to see me. I’m thinking...he probably wants to coordinate efforts with me.




“Well Stan”, he started, “We’re getting A LOT of calls about the Gorbachev doll”. (so far, so good). “In fact, we’re getting a lot more calls for a product we’re NOT selling than for ALL the products we are.” (uh-oh). “So we think it would be a good idea if we all just didn’t promote this anymore...”

They didn’t have to ask twice. I was very appreciative of Mattel’s support for my ‘ideas’ and didn’t need to bite the hand...

I went back to our office and told Susannah. “What should I do?” “Just take it out of here”, she said. “Can I have it?” “Sure”.

So I did. 



UNFINISHED BUSINESS

By the end of my trip I knew I really wanted to help Lennie and his family if I could. I knew two things that would have helped: if I could offer him a job at Mattel or if I was his direct relative. But neither was possible. I did write a nice letter of support for his emigration to the United States. Then I picked up my phone and called the US Embassy in Moscow. This was still a time consuming operation, but so much easier from my desk at Mattel.

Finally someone picked up, (the connections were always poor), and I began to say who I was and where I worked. Then on the other end I heard “Hey - quiet down everybody, I’ve got Barbie on the phone”. You could just tell they were all smiling in Moscow. I explained about our Artek experience, which they had actually heard about, and how I really thought Leonid would be a credit to our country and a great American. I said he had submitted his papers already and I’m sending a letter of support from Mattel. The man I spoke to said “OK, thanks for letting us know, let me see what we can do here”. I thanked him and hoped for the best.

    Then I spoke to Jill and Susannah regarding the issue of how many Soviet designers we would be able to invite to California. After adding up our projected costs they both agreed that we should go ahead and invite all six. Boy, were they going to be happy in Kiev.



USSR IN CALIFORNIA

A month or so later six tired but wide-eyed Ukrainian landed at LAX. We rented them a house near the beach and after getting settled in, I took Yuri to the supermarket to pick up some supplies. California supermarkets are generally beautiful places but to those from the Soviet Empire, the abundance of products and choices we have can be overwhelming. Yuri came to a stop inside the automatic doors and scanned the place.

“Do you think they have it here, Stenley?” he asked. 
“What Yuri?”
"I’ve only heard and read about it!"
“What are you talking about?”
“Maybe it’s here?”
“WHAT!”
“Alka-Seltzer” Yuri said.

The Ukrainian designers met and worked among us for a week or so and got to sample California life. Mattel threw a really nice luncheon for them and had a show of all the Soviet toys they had brought with them.We even made it onto the evening news.



 By the way, Lennie happily told me that he, and his family, had been given the ok to emigrate to the US. He seemed to think I had something to do with it. Maybe I did. 

When it was over we said our good-by’s and they headed home. At about the same time as our trip the Soviet Union would break-up and the Ukraine would become independent.

PS:  Lennie’s family emigrated and settled in Northridge, California in 1994, just in time for the Northridge Earthquake. They all were ok. Welcome to California !

Note: Now in California Lennie worked with me on many projects including the award-winning GeoSafari CD-ROM series and illustrating my epic poem 'THE BIG PARADE'. Check out that part of the story under the title CAPITALISM on this blog. And those boys? Well, Steve told me that the first thing they did when I gave them the Gameboy to take it apart and study every little chip and component. He said it was one of the best days of his young life!. And today, both boys are happily married with families, Steve is an engineer and Ken a doctor. What else can you say? God bess America.
















Sunday, December 25, 2016

IGRUSHKI ZA MIR  (TOYS FOR PEACE)

1987

Not to oversimplify too much, but back in 1987 politically things were simpler. We had one strategic enemy; The Soviet Union, the USSR, and between us, the ‘Iron Curtain’. And when we saw pictures of the Russian people it was, more often than not, as lines of people waiting for foodstuffs or some other commodity we had in abundance here in America. They had been our nuclear-armed adversary for decades. I was one of those elementary school children of the nineteen-fifties who, with no warning, was commanded to ‘TAKE COVER’ and quickly crawl under our seats, with our faces turned away from the windows, to prepare for an atomic attack and vaporization. 
But in 1987 I wasn’t too concerned with vaporization, I was a director in the ‘blue sky’ group at Mattel, the ‘toys of the future group’ and one of our tasks was to identify new businesses for the company. One day I was just thinking of things and I went into my boss’ office and asked “Do you think they have toys in the Soviet Union?”

Susannah didn't now anything about it and she suggested I send a meno to the president of he company about it. I had sent ideas to the president of Mattel before, with great results, and so I sent one off. My interest was solidly squashed by a handwritten memo back from him telling me that “we would “never do business with these people”! I felt kind of embarrassed so I crumpled up the memo and threw it away. And that put an end to that. 

Almost.

TICKET TO RIDE

A year or so after I threw the president’s memo into the garbage there was a change in the air. This was still more than TWO YEARS before the Berlin Wall came down, but Reagan and Gorbachev were talking. And there was even a new president of Mattel. But the clincher for me came with a picture in a news magazine. The American media always used to show pictures of Russians waiting on long lines for bread or meat or something, but just then the US News and World Report had a picture of Russians on line in front of what looked like…a TOY store! Bingo!

When I showed my boss, Susannah Rosenthal the picture, her exact words were “that looks like your ticket to ride”. What a great boss!

Something else happened at that exact time. A Seattle group called the Soviet-American Peace Committee was putting together a group tour for people in the media arts to Moscow for a two week, person-to-person creative idea exchange. There were people going from PBS and NPR, musicians, (Kris Kristofferson), the producer of Rocky IV (Bob Chartoff), author Sam Keen and about 20 other creative people who were to meet with their Russian counterparts. Believe it or not this was the first group of American creative types ever to be let into the Soviet Union. I knew I should be in this group representing toys. Susannah and I took my proposal to Jill Barad who was Mattel’s president at the time. Jill was great. She OK’d my trip but she looked me right in the eye and said “but DO NOT take Barbie with you!” Wow! I was taken aback and deflated. I really wanted to take Barbie, the quintessential American icon. “Why?” I questioned. Jill: “Because I don’t want to see a picture in the NY Times one day saying BARBIE GOES RED!” 



That will give you an idea of the thinking at the time.

Anyway, the group was leaving in just a week or so....not much time! I made up a TOYS
 FOR PEACE logo (and had a sweatshirt embroidered) and I filled a giant duffel bag with typical Mattel toys. I took two Barbies (I just had to). I started the paperwork to get a visa and papers to enter the USSR. The nearest consulate was in San Francisco, but they never answered their phone.




By the way, one of the toys I took was specifically personalized for my trip. My friend, John Handy had created ‘REAL MEN’, a kind of soccer-playing puppet glove where your fingers became the legs of the players. We created a USA and CCCP (USSR in Russian) player. The coolest thing was that, after playing you could actually, and symbolically, ‘shake hands’ with the puppets.
.

Back to the story. When the day came to leave I still had not received my visa. The people at the Soviet –American group said that I should go to the airport anyway. I’m standing on line at the Finn Air counter when a man in an odd fitting suit appears next to me and whispers in a heavy accent: “Mr. Rez-ne-kov?” When I nod ‘yes’ he slips something into my hand which, when I look, is my visa. And when I look up again he’s nowhere to be seen.

That’s exactly how my trip started.

THE GROUP

The main focus of this group was the media and the arts and while other cultural exchanges had happened before this, for example symphony orchestras, their visits were closely controlled and, well, orchestrated. We were going to be permitted to “freely” mix and mingle with contemporaries in our respective fields to a degree not possible before this. It seemed that many of the others in the group were well organized, had planned this trip for some time and already had lined up multiple meetings in Moscow. I, on the other hand, was headed into the Soviet Union with a big bag of toys semi-totally unprepared, which is nothing new for me.



HAMMER TIME




I did try to do a little research before my trip. I read (skimmed) the biography of Armand Hammer, which at the moment happened to be on the best-seller list. Hammer now ‘owned’ an oil company (Occidental Petroleum) and was an international arts patron (Hammer Museum) and much much more, but of special interest to me was his history as a statesman who grew up partially in Russia, and still had unique  and important business ties to the Soviets for an American.

Practically speaking, the book offered little insight into my upcoming trip. Poetically speaking, his father once owned a pencil factory in  Russia. Years and years later, when Armand was to meet the Presidents and leaders of Russia, they all reminisced about how their earliest memories of grade school included using pencils with his name on them.

Pencil Power!

                                                                    HELSINKI

After a seemingly endless flight we landed in Helsinki, Finland for a nights sleep before going into the USSR. The next morning we had one final meeting before heading to the airport.

They told us that a lot of people in our government considered  that the USSR “Peace Committee’ was just another front for the KGB. They said we’d probably be ‘watched a lot’ and that our interpreters were probably KGB. They cautioned us not to ‘talk down’ America, and be wary of making comparisons. They said the Russians respected strength. They said the Russians respected strength. They advised us not to get involved in any illegal activity - like trading currency with people. They told us you can’t take Russian currency out of the country. They mentioned that picture taking wasn’t allowed in Red Square, The Kremlin, trains, subways or airports. They gave us some tips like not talking to the interpreter, talk to the person you’re addressing and let the interpreter do their job after. And they gave us a list of common phrases to get us thru some basic situations. In response to a question as to whether our possessions, cameras and such, would be safe in our rooms, they laughed and assured us that our stuff would be safe simply because everyone in Russia, besides watching us, was watching each other. Also they said the penalties for stealing (from us) and getting caught were serious enough that it probably wouldn’t happen. In closing they mentioned that the Soviet Union was the only country that people referred to as ‘going into’ and ‘getting out of’.

“Sounded ominous.  But I’m thinking “OK, fine but I’m a toy designer, not a spy”. We headed to the airport.

GOING IN

Moscow USSR!

It’s drizzling. It’s the greyest place I’ve ever seen. I didn’t realize it at first but it’s amazing how grey cities become when you take away all the advertising.

The Rossia Hotel was the biggest hotel in the world at the time and it was literally across the street from Red Square and the Kremlin - and the phenomenally colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

THE ROSSIA HOTEL  1987


Overall it’s dreary, but it’s different and actually being here after all the talk is absolutely exhilarating. WOW! MOSCOW!


THE FIRST DAY
We arrive at the Rossia. As we enter this huge baroque lobby, the group leaders tell us that right now we’re going to a dinner reception in the dining room, and we should just  pile our luggage against on one of the columns... saying it will be delivered to our rooms later. Everyone seemed apprehensive, but we were assured it would be ok.


While I left most of my baggage like everyone else, I kept one small bag with me. Despite repeated assurances that it would be safe, the last thing I needed was to somehow lose my special toys, including my Barbies, before the trip even started.

Maybe it was a bit unusual, me having the only ‘carry-on’ black bag at dinner. but I didn’t care. 

Things seemed to be going fine when three members of the Soviet Peace Committee came over to meet me. They said they knew of the ‘famous’ Mattel Toy Company and invited me, and me alone, to join them in an adjacent ballroom for a drink.

I didn’t exactly like being separated from the group, but I picked up my bag and went.

Now the Peace Committee members, two men and a woman, were, unlike many Soviets, very, very stylish. They spoke English fluently, dressed in French tailored clothes and looked like models. So now it’s just us sitting in the middle of this giant ballroom. There’s some toasting and small talk and then they asked about what was in my bag. I was happy to show them my special toys and in no time they were laughing and playing finger soccer on the table. Then, out of nowhere, two new men joined us. They looked like wrestlers or laborers. A bit thuggish. I don’t recall introductions. They also seemed fairly humorless and, after seeing all the toys, said something in Russian that the Peace Committee lady translated as  “Can we have these toys?”

I was pretty surprised but managed to smoothly explain how these were my ‘personal’ toys which I would need for the rest of my trip and I just couldn’t part with them. Then they said something else in Russian which made them all laugh, and when there was no translation forthcoming I asked the lady what was said. She brushed off my inquiry saying “it was nothing”. “No...tell me what did they say”, I repeated more than once and finally, reluctantly, she said “He said, “we could force you to give us the toys’

Naturally I’m kind of shocked by this remark, but I just laughed and said that it was my first night in Moscow and it would be good if they didn’t scare me too much. I’m not sure they understood that translated and soon afterward we broke up and I went back to the group.

I know it’s a cliche, but I just kept thinking that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Anyway room numbers and keys were passed among us and when I finally found my room, all my bags were inside waiting for me, just like they said they would be.


MY ROOM


I had a single room, small, but neat and clean with a black and white television, no phone, a dresser with large mirror, closet and a bed. There was a small bathroom and shower with a dishtowel masquerading as a bath towel. And it was on a high floor with a great view. But the thing that stopped me in my tracks was, when I opened the closet I found two handmade wire coat hangers.

They said so much with so little. Whatever my thoughts were about the ‘meaning’ of these hangers, I knew one thing for certain - I had to have them. As a collector. As an artist. I’m not sure why.


So now I’ve been in the USSR just a couple of hours and I’m already thinking about stealing something.  I decided to ‘trade’ their hangers for two of mine, and I left two beautiful and varnished wood hangers (the ones with the brass rod on the wooden bar to hold the pants) in their place as I stashed theirs away in my luggage. I hoped I didn’t have to use my ‘trade’ defense at my trial.

I hung up the rest of my clothes and then decided to set up all of my toys in the room, and when I’d finished I had quite the display, three or four toys high going across the dresser and mirror. After a day of grey it was probably the most colorful place in the USSR.



STROLLIN'

It was still early so I headed out for a walk.The lobby was an explosion of cultures and costumes with people from every corner of the Communist world. I looked around to see if anyone from my group was there but I didn’t think so. Out on the street there were plenty of people on this nice September evening, and for whatever reason, I felt pretty safe. I had no idea where I was headed, but I was enjoying myself. And then, there it was! the toy store! The same one that was in the news magazine that made my trip possible! I laughed. Sometimes, not knowing where you’re going is the only way to find what you’re looking for.

It was closed because it was the evening but it was big and had lots of display windows on the street. TOYS! There they were. It was obviously ‘back to school’ time with lots of school supplies evident but also a lot of everything else: dolls, trucks, games, construction sets, art supplies. Maybe they were kind of ‘dull’ by our standards but they were all super-amazingly interesting to me.




There was something about all the toys I was seeing that felt ‘off’ to me but I just couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. I took some pictures of what I could and then headed back to the hotel...feeling wonderful about having found the toys by dumb luck. It seemed like a good omen.

On the way back I passed some interesting buildings, one of which I found out much later was the actual headquarters of the KGB. Spooky!


DITSKY MIR
(CHILD WORLD)

We had all been given schedules of meetings, speeches and panel discussions starting that morning. There were many media sessions but, of course, nothing involving toys. I went to the first one and found myself in a lecture hall with speakers talking about things obviously interesting to some, but not to me. So, having followed my life rule #1: ‘Sit near the door’, at the first opportunity I was out on the street heading to Ditsky Mir.

Walking into Ditsky Mir was absolutely wonderful. It was a combination of a 1940’s department store and shabby chalet. It had a giant wooden fairy tale clock-tower reaching two stories up at it’s center. But much more important than it’s architectural or business features was the great fact that it was packed. There were parents and kids everywhere in this giant toy store. It was alive with a multi-generational joy. Toys are universal.



And everything was different.  For one thing the price of the toy was stamped into the plastic and that price would be the same whether you bought it here or in Vladivostok.  And nothing was self-serve, every toy was behind staffed counters and the system to actually buy something was complicated to say the least. It seemed like it was one person’s job to take the toy to the counter, another’s to put batteries in it, another to test it, another to....well you get the idea. Seemed more like a full employment program.

I eventually figured it all out and bought lots of stuff (but not before I had made some people mad by screwing up some queue or other). And I took lots of pictures and video. I wondered whether someone would confiscate my camera but this was too good a visual not to bring back to Mattel, and aside from some remarks that I didn’t understand anyway, nobody bothered me.

My overall impression of Ditsky Mir had nothing to do with how much ‘better’ our toys were or any other comparisons I could make. It was simply the noisy warmth of all the love in that room.





BABUSHKAS

I walked back to the hotel feeling pretty good about my first foray into the alternative toy universe of the Soviet Union. I opened my room door and was surprised to find two older cleaning ladies, ‘babushkas’, who were quite literally swooning over the toys that I had set up. If I had thought for a second that they were stealing, that thought was instantly wiped away by the big smiles on both their faces.  “Americanski?” they inquired. “Yes, Americanski,” I replied. More swooning. Without understanding what they were saying it was pretty clear that they loved these toys. Then they both reached into their apron pockets, pulling out rubles, pleading for the possibility of buying something - anything. As nicely as I could, I explained in words and gestures that these toys were for showing, not for selling, and although they couldn’t understand my English they got the message and, still smiling, nodded their understanding as they headed for the door.

They were almost out of my room, with their backs already towards me when I quickly grabbed two Hot Wheels packs and quietly slipped them into the back of their hands. Feeling something, they turned around to see what had just been put in their hands, and when they saw the Hot Wheels their faces exploded with surprise and joy. Just as they were (I imagine) going to thank me profusely, I put my finger to my lips as the universal signal for silence - this was to be ‘our secret’. They got that message immediately but their tiny nods and the smiles in their eyes delivered their great thanks. And that was that.

Except....whenever our group would get together to discuss how things were going for each of us, I noticed most of the group complaining about something about the hotel...no hot water...no towels etc. I smiled knowing the reason was probably that all the towels and hot water were in my room, along with morning tea and cookies. Delivered.


WHOSE SIDE AM I ON?

Once in Russia I didn’t get together with the members of my group very often. One afternoon when we all happened to be together for lunch the American girl sitting next to me seemed surprised when we started talking. Then she told me the reason: she had thought that I was one of the Russians sent to accompany them on the trip. 


KIDS AND TOYS

The Peace Committee had organized an fancy reception for our group with lots of important invitees, and as part of it they had arranged for some kids from a local (bi-lingual) school to attend to play with the Mattel toys I brought. They said that the event would probably be covered by Soviet television. This was exciting.

You can see for yourself from the video the kids loved everything...the See n’Say’s, the Popples, Hot Looks dolls etc and etc. I noticed that the See n’Say was the first talking toy these kids had ever seen. 


I even had a chance to do a little 'market research'


And the soccer-playing hand puppets were a big hit!


The event was taped by Russian TV and that night, on the news there was coverage of the reception which not only showed lots of footage of kids playing with our toys, but the broadcast concluded with the ‘Real Men’ soccer players, the USA and CCCP characters, first kicking the ball around, and then.....shaking hands!



BARBIE GOES RED

The next day I had nothing planned so I thought I’d go out and shoot some video.

I had actually forgotten what they had told us about photography before going into the USSR....it was not allowed in most places. I unpacked the Astronaut Barbie I’d been toting around all this time and headed to...Red Square.

It was early and Red Square was still pretty empty. I set Barbie up against one of the stanchions and then I laid down on the bricks to get a great perspective shot of her with the Kremlin in the background.



I began to attract a little attention but I really took notice when these big black boots appeared right next to my head  - especially since when I looked up they were attached to an unsmiling solder with a kalashnikov. This didn’t look good, especially from this angle. 

“Photographie?” He asked. “”Yes. Photograph...OK?” He shrugged, which I took for an OK. I went on. “I’m  American and this is the Barbie doll”. By now a nice size crowd had gathered to see what was going on. The guard said “Cosmonaut?” I said “No. Astronaut”. The guard said, a little more forcefully,”Cosmonaut!”. Now I shrugged, smiled and agreed “Cosmonaut”.

Just then a loud alarm went off inside the Kremlin and a big door opened and a black sedan sped out across the square. I was really happy when they weren’t coming for me. 


I figured that I had pressed my luck as far as I needed to so I took Barbie and got out of there, but I got some pretty good pictures that morning.


MOSCOW TOY FACTORY # 7

“One morning one of the translators that I had never spoken to before came up to me and said “Now we go to the toy factory”. I stammered out a who? where? how did this..she cut me off with a humorless “This is what you wanted, yes?” I just said “Yes!” and ran upstairs to pack all my toys and we were off.

Maybe thirty minutes later we pulled up to Moscow Toy factory Number 7, which looked unbelievably similar to Mattel’s building from the outside (except for the complete lack of a parking lot full of cars). This was exciting. This is what the whole trip was about. We went inside.

 The lobby was kind of dark and empty but there were display cases with interesting toys around us. We were met there by the factory’s director, who, as I recall, was smiling and interested in my arrival. I got the impression from the ensuing conversation that no one had told him that I was coming, but nevertheless I seemed welcome.

Then two new men appeared, definitely not smiling. I was introduced to them and learned that they were the party representatives for the factory - the Communist Party. They too had not been officially informed of my visit, and still unsmiling, said that I definitely was not welcome and should leave now. Thereupon began a rather heated argument, which lasted for quite a while, none of which was translated for me. It ended with the party leaders allowing me grudgingly to proceed, and, if I interpreted it correctly, essentially saying to the director and interpreter...’You’ll be sorry". After the confrontation in the lobby things went well. The manager took me through the whole plant, allowing me to videotape everything. See for yourself.


Then we went to meet the designers, and when we entered their studio I felt right at home. The sketches on the walls, the prototypes, the fabric swatches and models all seemed so familiar.

After introductions things got really interesting when I opened my duffel bag and took out my toys. It was immediately like I was no longer there as they explored every facet of every toy. And if they were interested in our toys, they were absolutely amazed by our packaging. Their packaging consisted of little more than the cheapest cardboard, with minimal printing - sometimes just a label pasted on the box front. Mattel’s packaging was colorful and complex constructions of glossy paper and clear plastic - with lots of visuals on every side. The Russian designers were especially curious about our concept of ‘cross-sell’, where pictures of other toys in the same line appear on the box. (“Collect them all!”). Perhaps their only disappointment with our toys came when they discovered the words MADE IN MALASIA’ on the box. Although I explained that we designed these toys in California but manufactured them all over the world, it seemed as if, to them, it made the toys less “American’.



After awhile they seemed to realize they’d been fawning over the American toys for awhile and they began to open drawers to proudly show me some of their best work. It was exciting.

They passionately explained to me that they felt their best designs never made it into production. I smiled sympathetically and explained that this was the same at Mattel, with many of our designers feeling exactly the same way. They understood.

We each had questions about how the others’ system of design worked. They explained to me that when they had an idea for a new toy it went before numerous committees who would determine if it would be made, and if so, where it would be made. They explained that a price would be set, not based on the cost to produce the toy, but on how many people a committee felt should be able to afford it.  And, as I already knew, that price was stamped into the toy. One price. Everywhere. For everyone.

 I did my best to explain how our system worked and when they asked how many designers we had at Mattel, and I mentioned something like 300, they immediately turned to their manager, babbling away in Russian. I gathered they were complaining about their workload when he looked at me shrugged and said in broken English..”you had to tell them?” But he was smiling.

“One of the other things they seemed amazed at was that Mattel had a store in the building where all the employees and their families could buy Mattel toys at a discount. I was surprised.

At the end of the day any apprehension we may have had towards each was replaced by a sense of camaraderie. Toys and gifts were exchanged as well as good wishes. It was a great visit.

So I’m feeling pretty good on the way back to the hotel. I’d just, more or less, accomplished what I’d set out to do, and even if nothing else happened, I’d have some real interesting video to show back at Mattel. Then I realized that my interpreter had made this all happen, possibly at some risk to herself. I asked her about the day and whether she might get in trouble over her role in it all. And without missing a beat she replied. “Best day of my life!”

Whew.


OPTIMISM

After a little while I thought I would ask another question.

“Now you know my parents came from around here so...do you think that I could pass for a Russian native?”

“Ha!”, she laughed at me, “Never!”

“Number one”, she said, “your clothes” (OK, I’m thinking, that’s easily overcome), “Number two...you smile too much” (OK, I can smile less), “And number three...you walk with optimism!”

Wow, I thought, ‘walk with optimism’. Wow.

She dropped me off at the hotel. It had been a great day and I probably walked with optimism back to my room.


SMILE

Remember when I mentioned that something about the Soviet toys was bothering me and I couldn’t put my finger on it?  All of a sudden I realized what it was...they weren’t smiling! The faces on the dolls and animal characters were, for the most part, just not smiling.



Like my translator mentioned, the smile was a real part of the American psyche, and not of the Russian culture and it sure wasn’t part of their toys.


SMILE

Remember when I mentioned that something about the Soviet toys was bothering me and I couldn’t put my finger on it?  All of a sudden I realized what it was...they weren’t smiling! The faces on the dolls and animal characters were, for the most part, just not smiling.

Like my translator mentioned, the smile was a real part of the American psyche, and not of the Russian culture and it sure wasn’t part of their toys.



DESIGNER'S UNION

The Soviet Designer’s Union had great offices right on Pushkin Square  with window displays showcasing all their ‘modern’ design products and prototypes. There was sports equipment, kitchen appliances, transportation, furniture there all seemed dated by our standards.

An appointment was set up for me to meet the director of the Soviet Designer’s Union, Yuri Soloviev. Mr. Soloviev was a respected member of the international design community and a proponent of design education and cooperation. Unlike many Soviets he had travelled to the west many times for conferences and such. 

I think the first question he asked me was whether I was the president of Mattel. I replied that I was just a designer in the New Concepts group, and jokingly added that if I came back alive, more senior people would probably follow. My interpreter (by now our relationship was more personal) gave me a look and explained that even to suggest this would be an insult and she helped me out by just translating that I was a director of design.

We discussed many things.  I found out that he knew about my visit to Toy Factory # 7. He inquired as to what I thought about it and seemed pleased when I told him that, for me, it was a great visit.

He told me that they had all thought so too.

Mr. Soloviev had many ideas for ways that we might work together as designers. One was an international children’s traveling toy museum and another was a joint project between Mattel and Soviet toy designers to develop new toys for the children of both countries. 

I agreed that these were good ideas and explained that I thought my trip was a giant first step and that all things were possible. I said I’d bring his ideas back to Mattel and take it one step at a time.

He understood and said in broken English that he hoped someday “We have ‘joint adventure’”. The translator corrected Mr. Soloviev saying that the correct term was a ‘joint venture'. I then spoke up correcting the translator saying “NO! I think Yuri is right. When it happens it will be a ‘joint adventure’!

Yuri seemed real pleased.


GORKY PARK

That evening there was going to be a small concert put on by Soviet rock and rollers. They were being allowed to 1. play in a public park and 2. collect and keep one ruble admission from everybody. This, believe it or not, was a huge deal for them.  I was somehow late when people from our group left from the hotel by bus but I checked the map and saw it wasn’t far, so I walked and caught up with everyone outside of the park's amphitheater. As I walked up the Russians looked at me strangely. “Did you just come from that direction?” “Yeah” I said. “From the hotel?” “Yes." "Why?” “Congratulations”, they said, “You just walked through the most dangerous part of Gorky Park!”  The concert was great fun for all and afterwards some of us joined the musicians in a little back room. They were sitting on the floor looking at a pile of rubles they had collected. “What’s the problem?”, I said. “What do we do with this?” one said. “You mean you’ve never (charged) before?”  “Stenley” they said, “it wuz impussible”.  By the way, one of those kids sitting on the wooden floor wasmStas Namen, whose band, the Flowers, was to become ‘the Beatles of Russia’, and Stas was to become quite the entrepreneur. You can check out Stas on Wikipedia.


GETTING OUT

After ten days I sure was ready to head home.  I felt my trip had gone even better than I expected. I had lots of cool Soviet toys to show back at Mattel as well as some pretty amazing videos.  I packed up everything. I shut the lights and headed downstairs to the bus that would take us all to the airport.


GETTING OUT ?

So now I’m at the airport on a slow moving line inching towards a door beyond which is the tarmac and the Finn-Air plane. All of a sudden one of the organizers of our group runs up to me, holding a clipboard and asks strangely, “Do you go by any other names?” This is not a question I want to hear now. “No. Of course not...why?” “Because your name’s not on the list to leave.”  Not good. And what’s worse is that somewhere behind me I see and hear an argument between a stocky Soviet sergeant lady and someone from our group. She’s flanked by two big soldiers with kalashnikovs. There’s pointing in my direction.  I’m starting to sweat. A lot. What have I done? My mind flashes to those coat hangers. My videos? The argument is getting louder. I don’t look.  Whoever was in line behind me (I think it was that ‘Mark Twain’ guy) leans over and whispers in my ear “Whatever happens, just keep moving.” Amid my fear it’s clear advice. I take it. I’m moving through that door. I’m walking up the ramp. I’m buckled tightly in my seat. My eyes are closed and my only thought is...close the plane's door.... close the plane's door...

'
WHEELS UP'

After what seemed like a lifetime, the plane's door is closed. Then we’re taxiing, and finally it’s ‘wheels-up’. I breathe again.  I made it. I got out.   After a while the stewardess comes by with drinks and offers newspapers. I haven’t seen or heard any news all week, and when I opened the International Tribune, there on the front page.... 








THIS IS ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! WOW! Since we were the only group of ‘western intelligentsia’ in the country it was clear that he was talking about us. Me! I just then realized that if the head of the KGB said this, that we probably were all followed a lot more than than I thought. Thinking back, I wondered what that meant in my trip.

And as we’re leaving Soviet airspace, I wondered why the head of the KGB would think that I would be a threat to their communist way of life. What did I do?

And then I understood.

Two years later the Berlin wall came down.

POSTSCRIPT 




PROSCRIPT 2: ARMAND HAMMER


A month or so after my return, a friend of mine, Thom Kidrin was able to set up a meeting for Mattel with Armand Hammer. Mattel’s CEO and the President of the International division as well as Thom and I attended.

I’ve never been in an office like this. Giant tapestries and incredible artworks covered the walls. Armand was warm and welcoming. He was 89 years old.

Now at this time there was still no exchange rate between the dollar and the ruble. In addition to that, the laws in this communist state weren’t exactly geared to private enterprise: for example, they didn’t exist.

Armand wanted Mattel to build a toy business in the USSR. When the Mattel executives questioned how they would be able to profit under the current system, Armand’s response was basically, “Don’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it”. When they asked what he wanted from the deal, Armand smiled and said he needed nothing for himself but wanted Mattel to make a contribution to a university in Arizona he supported.

After the business part of the meeting was over Armand happened to notice I had his biography with me and said “Would you like me to sign that? “No”, I replied, “I’d like you to sign this!” and I took out a box of Russian pencils from my pocket. A strange look came over his face and he silently stood up (for the first time) and slowly walked across the office, with all this great artwork, and pointed to a small framed black and white photograph of the original pencil factory his father had built. 

Then, looking at the pencils I’d brought, asked, “can I have this?” “Sure”, I said, and he looked genuinely happy as he held those Russian pencils. Then he signed my book.”



On the way home the Mattel executives basically dismissed the idea.


AFTERWORD 

After all that, things settled back to what passed for normal in our group. I was put in charge of a digital disc project that kept me pretty busy. Two years passed by when one day Susannah called me into her office. I see she has a big smile on her face.  “What’s up?” I asked  “You’re not gonna believe this, but the company now WANTS you to go back to the USSR....”


to be continued .....