By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
The '70s and '80s were the boom years. Kenner, as a part of General Mills, cranked out Baby Alive, Care Bears, Play-Doh, and the original Star Wars action figures. Tonka reinvented itself by poaching people from Hasbro and Mattel, and produced GoBots, a competitor of Transformers. Tonka had another huge hit with Pound Puppies in 1986.
One could argue that Tonka became too successful for its own good. By the late '80s, the industry was already beginning to consolidate. Hasbro bought Milton Bradley. Mattel acquired Fisher-Price and Tyco. General Mills cut Kenner loose, which then purchased Parker Brothers. Eager to expand, Tonka bought Kenner for $622 million, nearly all of which was borrowed against the money made from Pound Puppies. The deal made Tonka the third-largest toymaker in the country.
"That put Tonka on the map," says Mike Marra, a Tonka engineer who got his start at Hasbro. "We were expanding the lines into all kinds of things—dolls, playsets, action figures."
But Kenner's impressive collection of tried-and-true brands couldn't save Tonka from its massive debt. In 1990, Tonka posted a $10 million loss. The following year, word spread through the industry that Tonka was being sold to Hasbro at a bargain price. Marra was laid off, with orders to fire 65 employees on his way out the door.
"In one day I had to let them all go," he says. "It wasn't easy."
The upshot of Tonka's demise was that the Twin Cities were suddenly saturated with a bevy of toy inventors, model builders, and artists with lots of free time on their hands. Many went into business on their own and started seeing one another in the same lobbies at pitch meetings all over the country. That bolstered a community the Girschs and a former Tonka guy had dubbed "Elvin Bash."
"It was a celebration of the Northern toy elves," explains Moodie.
The group formed an uneasy alliance. When one of them knew a toy executive was flying into town, the Girschs would arrange a room at the Embassy Suites. In the course of one afternoon, as many as nine design teams would come in lugging their boxes, give one another a wary but collegial nod in the lobby, then head into the exec's hotel room to pitch.
"Other cities talked about it but couldn't do it because the inventors didn't want to talk to each other," says Charlie Girsch. "There was too much mistrust."
Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels was a partner in a tiny company called Red Racer Studio. He remembers the scene in the lobby, when a parade of "nerdy geniuses" competed to get their toy made.
"Often we'd be up half the night the night before getting something ready. There would be the smell of glue or paint," Samuels remembers. "There was so much opportunity that the competition was not direct."
There was Scott Crosbie, a.k.a. Professor Marvel, a musical impresario with a handlebar mustache. His biggest success was an exploding-cap Hot Wheels car he thought up while drifting off to sleep one night.
Then there was Moodie, who invented the Rap Master Microphone and the Bad Eggz Bunch during the sticky novelty craze.
Marra invented a three-dimensional board game called 13 Dead End Drive that went on to be produced in eight different languages and sold four million copies worldwide.
And of course there was Rick Polk, the son of the General Mills VP who had led the company's expansion into toys. Polk invented and sold a remote-control car large enough to drive his one-and-a-half-year-old son around in—though it never made it to market.
"The lawyers said parents might drive their kids into traffic," he says with a shrug.
But while the Northern elves were cooperating warily, that didn't mean the toy execs were in on the fun. The pitch meetings were often brutal.
Samuels remembers his worst pitch. It was the '90s, when color-changing toys were all the rage, and in the middle of a sleepless evening Samuels came up with what he thought was a fresh new take on the trend.
"It looked so good during the night," he remembers.
The next day during Elvin Bash, he pulled out a conceptual drawing of a child gleefully playing with the latest color-change technology—a vat of bleach. As soon as he took it out, he saw his partners' faces drop.
"They must have thought, 'What is he doing?'" Samuels remembers with a giggle.
And there were, of course, always accusations of idea theft, which came up more readily at the social gatherings that grew out of Elvin Bash, often at Crosbie's whimsical, antique-filled St. Louis Park house.
Crosbie remembers pitching a building set made of foam tubes and connectors to a Fisher-Price executive. He told the man to turn around.
"I'm going to build a structure in 45 seconds that will almost fill this room," he told the man, who dutifully turned and waited. Crosbie whipped up a giant boat-like structure that even rocked back and forth.
"He turned around and went, 'Wow,'" remembers Crosbie. "Six months later and here's the same thing in their showroom."