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.
PAPER OR PLASTIC?
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.
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.
THE GLASS CLASS
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?
THE MARBLEHEAD NEWS
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.
THE BEND AND THE END
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".