By Jesse Marx
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"The people could be the players," he thought.
Guyer headed into the "bullpen" where all of the other designers were busy sketching. He laid out a large piece of corrugated cardboard and drew a grid. He rounded up the accountant and a secretary, and cajoled all the artists off their stools.
"You're the blue team, you're the yellow team," Guyer said excitedly.
Soon, eight people were pressed together on the 6-foot-by-4-foot grid, trying to move past on another.
"We didn't get very far because everybody was laughing so hard," Guyer remembers.
Guyer brought the idea to 3M. At the time, conventional business wisdom said that in order to thrive, businesses had to diversify. Many big local corporations decided to expand into toys in the '60s, including 3M and General Mills. Another huge name in the toy business was the Tonka Truck factory in Mound, a metal garden tool company founded in the '40s that morphed into an extremely successful maker of sturdy toy trucks, all designed and manufactured in Minnesota. Small, family-owned companies were also booming—a fishing-lure maker named Herb Schaper invented Cootie, and Lakeside Games had a hit with Barrel of Monkeys.
But 3M was not interested in the people-as-players idea. They did only traditional board games, Guyer was told. But Milton Bradley in Springfield, Massachusetts, was not so close-minded. Guyer and his designers replaced the squares with dots and added a spinning wheel.
"We were calling it 'The Pretzel,'" says Guyer. "Turns out we couldn't get that name. So they called it 'Twister.'"
Sears Roebuck Co., Milton Bradley's biggest retailer, was horrified when they saw "Twister." With just days before the start of the busy Christmas shopping season, they informed Milton Bradley they had no intention of peddling such a "risqué" game. Guyer got the call that all the ads had been canceled. He was devastated.
Except no one thought to tell Johnny Carson. He'd already agreed to play the game on The Tonight Show. In 1966, the glamorous Eva Gabor risked her perfect blond beehive to play Twister with Carson. The next day, all the remaining copies of the game flew off the shelves.
"It was joyous," says Guyer. "It was wonderful."
He was hooked. A short year later, Guyer, now running his own toy company, found himself knocking around another people-as-pieces game, this time with a caveman theme. His employees cut boulders out of dense foam to use as a kind of dodgeball. It was a total drag.
Out of boredom, one of his employees started bouncing the foam boulder up and down and taking shots at a net. Guyer suddenly stopped him.
"That's the game," he said.
It was the first ball kids could throw in the house, and it was christened "Nerf." Between Nerf and Twister, by the early '70s Guyer had more than enough money to concentrate on a painting career.
"I had the ability to go on and do some things I'd always wanted to do," he says. "So I did them."
His company produced several protégés. One of them was a onetime Catholic priest named Charlie Girsch, who took over one arm of Guyer's business with his wife, Maria, a former nun.
TIM MOODIE WAS was a consultant for a recycled paper products company when his project partner shoved him into a room with the Girsch Design team.
At the time, Moodie was designing gag products for the paper company—a coffee mug that said "Danger: Mold Experiment in Progress," toilet paper with social security cards printed on it—and wasn't interested in toys. His partner was convinced that a game Moodie designed could be a hit outside of the novelty world. Moodie brushed him off. Without telling him where they were going after lunch one day, the partner drove Moodie to the Girschs' office, marched him into the room, and slammed the door shut.
The pleasant-looking couple politely asked what Moodie had to show them, and he sheepishly sketched out his idea for a game with an "office politics" theme. They both shook their heads.
"What else you got?" Charlie asked.
Moodie and the Girschs got to talking and they invited him to come back once he had some more ideas. Moodie started driving to their Summit Avenue mansion in St. Paul, where he'd sit in the driver's seat madly sketching until he had 10 ideas before going inside.
Eventually, some of his ideas were good enough to sell. Moodie still has a crumpled design from the first idea he ever sold with the Girschs—a travel trivia game you could play in the car, with 10,000 questions that Moodie wrote himself.
"I made 250 bucks off that," he says bemusedly. "It just didn't sell that well."
Over time, the Girschs gained a reputation as the "godparents" of the local toy inventing scene as the industry swelled in the Twin Cities.
"There was a serious number of toy companies and toy executives and toy talent floating around the Twin Cities," recalls Girsch. "It was wonderful. It was seat-of-the-pants. The big corporations hadn't gotten involved yet."