Tuesday, August 15, 2017


This is an example of the ALF Marblehead. When I was polishing it late at night, as I rotated it it's mouth appeared to be opening and closing. It was an optical illusion but at first I was sure I was having an hallucination.

   Here’s the story. In 1989, my friend and co-designer John Handy  observed that each of us in the ‘Blue Sky’ group at Mattel designed in different ways. Jurgis imagined complex doll mechanisms in his head, Ed’s ideas flowed out of his magic markers, Mari sewed fabric into characters full of life and I, he said, designed with language. It wasn’t a criticism, just an observation, and perhaps one reason we all co-existed so well together. And he was right. After I came up with ‘LEON NEON’ and The BarBEARians, it seemed logical enough.

  At about the same time I happened to read that the National Marble Shooting Championships were about to be held in Wildwood, New Jersey. Marbles? Who had even thought about marbles. This was 1989; right smack in the Nintendo era. Now one of the ‘truisms’ in the toy business is that new toys are easier to create than new play patterns. Well, marbles seem to have been around forever, and perhaps there could be a new idea added to make the idea fresh again. Another thing: Although video-games were hugely successful, the action was primarily, at that time, in the thumbs. It was high tech, but in the biz, lots of times a ‘hi-tech‘ phenomenon  is followed by a ‘high-touch’ trend. It’s a subliminal ‘hunger’ to have the tactile experience of touch....and nothing is more tactile than marbles.

   So, my idea was.... MARBLEHEADS! Marbles with the heads of famous people, sports heros, cartoon characters, movie stars  etc. etc. Kids would be able to play all the historic marble shooting games as well as collecting and trading. And with Mattel’s added creativity I was sure we could add some new fun twists to the experience.

   Susannah liked the idea enough for us to take the next steps; do some research, make some prototypes, develop some accessories (the line) and get a presentation ready for the next Concept Design Review (CDR), where the company would decide whether to go forward or not.


   Well, not exactly plastic or paper.  In this case it was plastic or glass, and that is where, my friends, I began to drive the train off the tracks.
   Being somewhat of a purist, I believed that marbles should be made of glass. At this time I had no idea of how marbles were actually made but I knew they were inexpensive to produce, took a lot of abuse, stayed scratch-free and most importantly to me had the right ‘feel’. Cool and heavy. ‘Authentic’.
   Everyone seemed to agree that these were all really good reasons why marbles should be made of glass. Only one small fact argued in favor of plastic, and that was for the last 50 years or so Mattel had made PLASTIC products, knew PLASTIC, engineered PLASTIC and generally felt, shall we say, comfortable with PLASTIC. Glass? Not so much. We knew essentially nothing about glass, from the manufacturing to the safety issues! Mattel engineering knew they could make the PLASTIC marbles, but for the glass ones there were no promises. Still, I fought for the glass version and Mattel, being a very ‘can-do’ company,  decided to simultaneously pursue both manufacturing tracks , glass and plastic, to see what the facts, and costs might be. If I had just kept my mouth shut you’d probably have Marbleheads around your house someplace now.


   Off I went to Wildwood, New Jersey for the National Marble Championships. 

   While marbles were barely still in the vocabulary of kids in a lot of other places, the sport of shooting marbles was alive and well here. More than alive. Kids from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and all over Appalachia had converged on Westwood ready to compete. There were many large  raised concrete blocks erected on the beach with painted circles on their surfaces where the individual games would take place. Small bleachers were set up for the finals. Lots of families. Lots of action all around.

And the kids! With their handkerchief-wrapped hands twisted around into what looked like unnatural shooting positions, they fired their marbles at their opponents targets with the focus and concentration of any serious athlete. It was great fun to be there and watch all the skill and action. Some of the adults found out I was with Mattel and while I couldn’t discuss specifically what we were considering, they were all enthusiastic thinking that anything  Mattel would do would bring attention to their sport. If we went ahead with Marbleheads I could imagine Mattel sponsoring this whole competition and bringing it national exposure. Then someone mentioned that the boys winner a couple of years ago chewed tobacco constantly and had tattoos all over his body.

Anyway it was just plain fun and those kids had real skills.


   The next task for us was to create some sample marbleheads. The greatest thing about our group, and Mattel as a whole, was the enormous amount of talent around. Two sculptors, Hussein Abbo and Mike Lehman. set out to sculpt some small heads (of famous people) that we could cast inside plastic marbles.

   The first thing they realized was that putting anything inside of a marble was like putting it inside of a three-dimensional magnifying glass. The heads had to be TINY and they had to be really accurate since every imperfection would be seen magnified. But like I said, their talent was inspiring and we soon had tiny sculpted heads of Michael Jackson, the Hulk, Batman, Bart Simpson and many others. We weren’t concerned with the business of licensing at this time because these were samples to use for testing and market research only.

   We took their original wax sculptings, made molds from them, and cast multiples in plastic with a hole in the bottom of their necks. Then a small, clear plexiglas rod was inserted into the hole so you essentially had a head on a clear post. We painted the heads.

   Finally we made a silicone rubber mold of a sphere with a small hole at it’s bottom. the post went into that hole, (holding the head in the sphere’s center) and we closed up the mold and filled it up with clear resin. 

   When we opened the first mold, there it was, the first marblehead....and it was beautiful!

   You couldn’t see the post because it was clear like the rest of the marble and it looked just like a head floating in space. They still had to be finished and polished but that was a labor of love. I spent many hours in the shop casting and polishing, but each new marblehead was an absolute joy to behold.

   One evening I had stayed late to polish some new marbles and was a bit tired. I was in the process of polishing a new Alf marble when I saw something startling! As I rotated the marble...Alf’s mouth moved!

  This was impossible. Had I gone mad? Breathed too many plastic fumes? I sat down to think about this. Then I saw why. Unlike the other heads, Alf had a protruding snout that came closer to the surface of the marble than the head itself. That meant that turning it sideways made it appear that the mouth was opening. Amazing!  In the toy business that was called ‘an action feature’.  And we were getting it free. Magic

  Another great marble I made was the ‘Invisible Man’. By casting the head in clear, and painting just his hat and glasses, it turned out beautifully.


Engineering put together a team to go to West Virginia to visit marble factories and see if glass marbleheads were feasible. They returned with bad news, good news and bad news. First they found marble-making to be a rather ‘primitive’ industry with ancient, simple (but reliable) machinery, not particularly suited to the kind of quality control we would require. They also described the plants as hot and ‘hellatious’; infernos with the heat and fumes of molten glass. Not so good. But then they reported that they had met one marble-making company that was updating and creating a brand-new, state-of-the-art, computer-controlled marble machine and factory - and they were interested and enthusiastic about our project. Back to good news. The bad news: they were moving their current plant from West Virginia to the State of Washington, where they would be assembling all their new equipment. Moving was going to take them three months. Three months. I should have shot myself then.

   By the way, just in case you didn’t know how marbles are made, check this video out. Pretty cool, huh?


   Things were starting to happen all over the company to prepare for the presentation to upper management. Marbles were being made as well as accessories.Time for a memo so I put out the:


   It wouldn’t be marbles without shooters and it wouldn’t be a Mattel shooter if it wasn’t cool. Caleb Chung. literally ‘chewed out’ shooter after shooter tests, each different and unique.

Finally he created the ultimate...the LASER1:MAG LOAD 5! It had a five-marble magazine for rapid fire and a red l.e.d. that put a red dot on the target marble. Very cool.

   One interesting thing about the design of this product was the fact that, by company policy, Mattel did not make toy guns or things that ‘shot’ out projectiles, and this fell into that category. The Safety and Reliability Group was a team of really cool engineers who tried to make our toys as safe as possible.  Even though the prototypes we were proposing were far from production models, they worked with us, and it was decided that simply by leaving off the bottom of the shooter (so it had to be on a flat surface to work) we could satisfy all the shooting safety concerns.


A lot of things now started to come together on the project. Still, it’s important to note that in the overall business profile of Mattel’s priorities, Marbleheads was essentially nonexistent. The big action at Mattel was primarily the doll category, (Barbie), the big Boys brands of Hot Wheels and Male Action Figures and Preschool.  Marbleheads was  a novelty, and Mattel wasn’t really a novelty company.


   About this time a book was on the best seller list titled ‘Cultural Literacy’. It contained a list of important facts and information the authors maintained were necessary for a citizens to be literate or knowledgeable of their cultural heritage. I saw the Marbleheads as having the ability to introduce some characters like Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton and Edgar Allen Poe. Of course I also knew that the best sellers would probably be The Three Stooges: Moe, Larry and Curly. (I wanted the rarest of all marbles to be the ‘Shemp’)

Nonetheless, some beautiful work was done to put together an idea of what the Marblehead ‘Line’ would look like.



   3B was the design presentation room. It was laid out a little like an amphitheater. Designers presented from the front to a basically semi circular wide table behind which the president and all the vp’s sat. Right behind them was a raised row with more execs. Behind them was a solid glass wall.  Behind the glass wall, with it’s own entrance was a room for others, mainly designers, to watch, but not participate in, the presentation. By this time Marbleheads had been around so long that everyone in upper management had probably heard of, but not seen them. I had a reputation of giving ‘interesting’ presentations which I didn’t want to lose. I rehearsed. Sometimes less is a lot more. Finally it was time. After everyone finally got seated, I stood at the head of the table with a opaque plastic vase-like container in front of me. “Today I’d like to introduce you to...” At this point I purposely (but acting as if it was a mistake) knocked over the container. As planned, the Marbleheads inside splayed out all across the table towards the startled executives. I could see the designers behind the glass laughing at my ‘disaster“ (we all enjoyed presentations gone amuck).  “Marbleheads!”, I said.  Not only did the execs catch my marbles, but without me saying anything else they were all now showing them off to each other, trading them and doing everything I had hoped for.... with big smiles on their faces. My reputation was intact.

   Anyway the presentation was a ‘success’ but there were still many questions about manufacturing and price as well as the plastic/glass issue still being unresolved. The ‘success’ was the beginning of the end.


   Engineering was making progress perfecting the manufacturing process of the plastic marbles, but with all the steps involved, the price estimates were coming in a bit high. After what seemed like forever in toy years, the marble plant in Washington State was finally up and running and ready to try making Marbleheads. The challenges were all there: making and painting the heads and getting them into the center of the marble. There were lots of variables to be worked out but that’s how it is with most new things and the people at the marble factory were optimistic about the challenge. Mattel was paying for these initial experiments.  The glass tests started. After some initial tests, the marble engineers decided that to properly place the head into the glass stream they needed a specially machined short pipe. Now normally this wouldn’t be much of an issue except that because of the heat and caustic nature of the glass, this pipe had to be made out of....PLATINUM! And it was going to cost $50,000. FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS! OK. Let me say this. While fifty grand is not a lot of money when it comes to toy tooling, this was different. First, this was just for a test, not final tooling, and second, the idea of paying fifty thousand dollars for a platinum pipe was so ‘ridiculous’ that news of it spread thru management like wildfire. Engineering agreed to cover the cost of the pipe because, if it worked, we’d be able to make marbles at a fraction of the plastic price.  But there were also those opposed to the whole project and they used the pipe as an example of just a plain waste of time and money.

   So while the tests went ahead, you could feel it in the air that this was it. Either this worked or it was over.


   A couple of weeks later the pipe was finished and the tests started. 

  The pipe bent. Nobody wanted to hear anymore about the pipe, platinum , glass or Marbleheads. Sometimes, even without the pipe issue, a project that stays around too long begins to feel old and tired. Even to me. It was over. Time to move on.


   That Platinum pipe was the project’s Achille’s heel. I felt pretty bad about the whole thing until one of the engineers mentioned to me that after the pipe bent they sold it back to the company where they’d bought it. During the time we used the pipe the price of platinum had gone up...and WE”D MADE $500. PROFIT ON THE TRANSACTION. 


   While of course I was disappointed with the outcome (I still believe Marbleheads™ would be a great plaything and collectable) I also learned during the process that this wasn't a particularly new idea, with examples made in the 1930's, and especially when a vintage Christopher Columbus marble turned up on the cover of the Smithsonian magazine.

Recently I proposed to Mattel that they take another look at MARBLEHEADS. After all, it's their intellectual property and with the success of collectables like SHOPKINS® I'm thinking MARBLEHEADS would be a natural...collectability AND games, but in their corporate wisdom, the idea was once again quickly rejected. Too bad. "I coulda been a contender".

Tuesday, March 28, 2017




Original GeoSafari
The GeoSafari CD-ROM series was based on the original multiple award-winning 'plastic/electronic' GeoSafari introduced in 1987. It was an extraordinary educational experience and was hugely successful in the school and specialty educational store market. I believe it sold over a million copies. My group's challenge was to transform this experience into the new multi-media CD-ROM format, adding all the digital features it offered: voice, animations, video, record-keeping and much more: Simply put, we wanted to bring GeoSafari into the coming digital age.

We  created four GeoSafari CD-ROM titles. GEOGRAPHY, HISTORY, SCIENCE and ANIMALS. To give you an idea of the fun, learning and gameplay here is an ANIMALS game called 'Animal Sound-Off'. Now, GeoSafari was designed for ages 8 and up, as reading was required for almost every game, but as you'll see here Stephanie Ortiz, age 5, found a game where reading wasn't required and got pretty good at it. In this game she's playing against her older brother Jasson, age 22, who has never seen the game before and she's 'showing him the ropes'....

Another note: When Stephanie is trying to tell Jasson that the right answer is 'the Penguin...the Penguin' it's because she can't read yet and when she can, she'll not only see the written name but find that for every entry in every game there is a full glossary page with great information about that entry. Chances are she'll never forget the Kookaburra again. And probably neither will you.

Next I've picked out a couple of questions from three (of fifteen total) of the Animal games, NAME THAT BIRD CALL, SHARKS and SKULLS to give you an idea of the various formats, playpatterns and 'payoffs' we built into all our GeoSafari titles.

Ok.Hopefully that will give you some idea of the fun and learning in the GeoSafari CD-ROM series. I didn't even mention the educational 'GeoFacts' that popped up for every question or the medals you earned in your medal case if you answered all the questions in a game correctly on the first try or the digital trophy you earned if you completed all the games  perfectly. And most importantly, GeoSafari was designed to be played by families as well as individuals. The 'answer clock' could be set for shorter times to 'handicap' older players. Learning and fun (for everyone) was guaranteed with the GeoSafari CD-ROMs.

Next I've selected a couple of questions each from the SCIENCE, HISTORY and GEOGRAPHY titles to give you just a small taste of the content, gameplay and fun we've included.

The Original GeoSafari

“It was the best of jobs, it was the worst of jobs”….that’s the way I felt trying to put together the product that was to become the award winning GeoSafari CD-ROM series. You see, this was the early days of the CD-ROM revolution and what I didn’t realize was that while the original plastic GeoSafari was a great, great product and a huge hit, Educational Insights’ markets were the schools and ‘specialty’ toy and education stores….not the mass market (Toys R US)… and not digital products at all. So while some schools had Apple computers at this time (1991), a pitiful few had CD-ROMS attached to them. The only way to make a product like this successful was to get it into the mass market which meant Apple and Microsoft Windows versions available at Best Buy, Comp USA and other mass market retailers… and this just wasn’t anywhere near Educational Insights’ 'comfort zone'.

So although I had a ‘go-ahead’ to develop the CD-ROM, it was with a certain shall I say, lack of support, or at least apprehension from the company. And rather than start directly on the project, I was directed to work on other, non-digital products while the CD-ROM project was ‘discussed’. A year was lost.

Now I had a vision of what the game would look and feel like and the technology was around so that we could have a human voice talking to to kids by their own name as they played. I also knew that in a ‘general education’ game like GeoSafari, we’d probably have to be telling kids that their answers were wrong more than once before they got it right. I needed a voice that could tell you that you were mistaken without turning you off, one that could actually encourage you to try again. So one day I’m driving on the 405 Freeway when a song comes on the radio by Richie Havens. Richie Havens! Yes! Now Richie and I go way back. We’re both Brooklyn boys and every so often our paths would cross on something amazing. The previous time was in 1981 when we helped our mutual friend Capt. Michael Sandlofer rescue Physty, a baby sperm whale that came ashore in New York. (You can read about this below in the blog entry PHYSTY and even see Jimmy Callanan’s great movie there). But I digress. 

I found Richie’s agent in NYC and flew in to see if he’d be willing to be the voice of GeoSafari. I honestly didn’t know if he’d even remember me but when he walked into the room he gave me the biggest bear hug and smile….”Stanley, Stanley, Stanley every ten years or so you come into my life with something wonderful….” I was so happy. Richie 
Richie Havens, R.I. P.

loved the GeoSafari idea even though his part was initially to be in the recording booth for hours on end recording thousands of kids names and other comments and questions for the game, while back in California we were assembling all the programming elements and photos, animations and videos that would make up the total experience. That was still more than a year away.

Lots of people know Richie from his legendary Woodstock performance and from his great music but he always was doing something positive for kids and even had started his own environmental group called the NATURAL GUARD in Connecticut. 

One anecdote: I had Richie’s office send me a cassette of some of Richie’s commercial ‘voice-overs’ to play for my boss and owner of the company (it was a family-owned company) Bert Cutler. I expected him to love my selection and see how great Richie’s voice could be for GeoSafari. His response? “It’s terrible! You can’t even understand what he says.” and he walked away. We were stunned. My team members asked me what we were gonna do now. “****-him” I said. He’s just wrong. We’re using Richie.” That’s all I knew. Fortunately Bert’s son, Jay, the VP, knew of Richie and maybe he convinced his dad of his greatness. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I would have quit if I couldn’t have used Richie. His voice was the glue that held GeoSafari together and also made it beautiful.

Look. I made many, many mistakes in putting together GeoSafari, It was a lot harder than I thought it would be and maybe I should have made the games simpler. I also initially put all the subjects on one CD-ROM (technically easy but a big marketing mistake) but maybe mistakes are the price you pay for trying to do something great. I certainly paid ‘em. My team Marcia Shank, Pat May, Denise Heyl, Erin Rosenthal, Krista Santacroce, David Liebowitz, Dennis Kerr and many  others were so committed to the product that they worked endless hours on it.

Finally we had working demos: GeoSafari Geography, History, Science and Animals. One thing I didn’t know but soon learned was that Educational Insights now wanted to become a public company and to do that successfully, you had to convince the Wall Street types that your company had a ‘future in the future’. So all of a sudden these well-dressed young business men were paraded into my little basement area to see our entry in the new digital world. One look at our rag-tag team and they were all skeptical. “Why do you think you can put out a product that can compete with Electronic Arts?” they all asked, in one way or another.

“Well, I don’t know if we can.” I answered, “let’s let you play GeoSafari and see what you think, OK?” “Oh and, by the way, we had Richie Havens record over 2000, names so GeoSafari will talk to the kids by their name. Lets try it, what’s your name?" The Wall Street guy answered “Ahmed”, as he turned around smirking to his cohorts, sure that that name wouldn’t be in our game. “Gee. I don’t know…..until I clicked on it and Richie’s beautiful voice rang out with “Ahmed, Is that you? Click on OK to use this name.” By this time his mouth was open and as we played the game and Richie would say things like “Ahmed, that’s three right in a row, keep it up” or “no, that’s not it but don’t worry, you still get two more tries.” We had ‘em. They all left impressed and the IPO was a success. And so was our project. We got great reviews and were even featured on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America”.

But things were changing. The 'world wide web' was just becoming popular and was replacing CD-ROM sales just by it’s scope and uniqueness. Also Educational Insights was sold to a bigger educational company, Learning Resources and that was pretty much the end of the line for me and for a digital version of GeoSafari.

One more thing I want to mention. GeoSafari CD-ROM was never only for kids. It’s most beautiful use was when families got together to play. It did more than teach you about Gila Monsters or who Emma Lazarus was. It brought families together.

And when I finally got to show Richie Havens the final product, after he played with it for awhile he said to me, and I quote, “I think this is the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

Well, It’s 25 years later and since our 1995 discs don’t play on current computers this was all ancient history and resumé material for me until just recently. I now have a 5 year-old running around my house and I realized I’d like to see if an obsolete computer could be ‘hacked’ so that she might try the GeoSafari CD-ROM experience. I was curious. My friend and engineer Pat May (who was part of the original design team) was able to find a vintage Mac and with some creative work-arounds install an obsolete operating system and boom! there was GeoSafari again. You’ll see Stephanie’s reaction in the blog. If nothing else comes of this I’ll have given her a valuable gift that has already made her (and her friends) smarter and will continue to do so in a most enjoyable way.

I’ve also drafted an e-mail to the heads of Educational Insights and Learning Resources to let them know about my blog and, while it’s only my opinion, I think a modern web version of their GeoSafari franchise would be both a wonderful educational experience and a profitable venture, far into our digital future. What do you think?