Rocket USA founders John Eisner and Michael Perry want to revitalize the lost art of tin-toy manufacturing and bring about a full-scale robot invasion. They have to make up for lost time--a lot of lost time, about 50 years. Tin toys and windups, once a staple, haven't really been a retail force since the 40s or 50s, when World War II and its aftermath depleted metal reserves and forced U.S. toy makers to scramble for low-cost alternatives--first paper, then injection-molded plastic.
Banking on an unusual business plan, Eisner and Perry are making the kind of toys they'd want to play with. Interested in craft, they choose to work mostly in tin, using both vintage and new designs: metal products have more parts and need to be more carefully engineered than plastic toys. Rocket USA items are manufactured in China and Japan, countries that never really abandoned tin-toy production.
"We're young enough as a company that we still have a sense of humor about what we're trying to accomplish," says Perry, the company president. "And we don't scrap any of our ideas--we'll commit to developing anything that might turn into a viable product. There are only a couple of companies doing what we're doing right now, and our focus is even more specific: an odd, seemingly incongruous mix of children's products and adult-themed toys," like a model of Bender, the lecherous robot from Matt Groening's prime-time animated series Futurama.
"We have big goals, but we're still a small company in terms of size. And that allows us to take certain liberties," adds CEO Eisner. "Since we've positioned ourselves somewhat to the left of the mainstream, we tend to do some edgier stuff that other, large toy companies wouldn't even touch."
In the five years Rocket USA has been in business, it's produced dozens of products, from windup space buggies and UFOs to magnetic dart travel games to Robot Sam change banks. It's also branched out into related avenues, including high-quality tin signs released under the moniker "Metal ART." But the company's bread and butter remains robots: original Rocket USA designs, reproductions of vintage Japanese toys from the 50s and 60s, and miniature versions of two of the biggest fantasy figures in the sci-fi pantheon: Robby the Robot from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet and B-9, Dr. Smith's bumbling assistant from the 60s TV show Lost in Space.
Rocket USA's toys aren't really robots per se. They don't exhibit any signs of artificial intelligence. And they haven't been created with the purpose of serving mankind. Still, when you turn their keys and wind them up, they do all sorts of magical things: walk, dance, wobble, light up.
A perfectionist, Eisner made lots of prototypes for Bender, a half dozen of which now inhabit a de facto shrine in the reception area of the company's Forest Park offices. And he made plenty of calls to Perry on his partner's trips to Asia, making sure that Rocket USA's manufacturing plant got the designs just right. Eisner's eyes light up when he's discussing Bender, but he's equally enthusiastic demonstrating the new gyro ballerina and game designs using marbles, like Horse Race Derby. When asked which of the company's products is his personal favorite, he doesn't skip a beat: "I love them all."
Perry describes Eisner as the company's resident romantic. Toys have always fascinated Eisner, who was born in Berwyn in 1961 and grew up in Downers Grove. He spent his weekends as a teenager and college student scouring garage sales, estate auctions, and flea markets for toys to add to his growing collection. "You learn a lot about yourself at a place like the Kane County flea market--you begin to realize what you like and what you don't like," he says. "And my love of toys remained constant. If I found an item that I liked, I'd buy it, bust it open, take it apart, and fix it, just so I could learn about the mechanics."
After graduating in 1983 from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a BA in film and photography, Eisner bounced around for 13 years as a commercial photographer. "Advertising is sort of the Eisner family trade," he says. "Most of my family has been involved in advertising in some way or another. I have a sister at Leo Burnett, and my older brother is the head art director for another agency. My father, too. It was a terrific experience, though--I still do the photography and copy for the Rocket USA product catalog."
Eisner's wife, Gail Golberg, also worked in advertising. They married about a year after they met at a Buddy Guy concert in 1990, then opened a store in Oak Park called Pumpkin Moon, featuring a wide range of toys and novelties. Now, of course, they carry the entire Rocket USA line. Eisner divides his time between the two businesses. "It's tough during big retail seasons, when I'm working 70 hours every week and there's still not enough time to clear out all of the ideas and concepts lingering in my mind," he says. "But I love popping into the store from time to time, just to see kids playing with the toys. It was always part of my dream, and following your dream is a pretty cool thing."
Like Eisner, Perry has an interest in film. Now 42, he grew up outside Detroit and attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he majored in film and video production and was active in campus film societies. After graduating he headed to New York, where he quickly found work in the movie industry as an electrician. "In New York, it seemed like everybody wanted to be involved in the production side of the business, but I very much wanted to experience the technical side. Still, working on a feature film is a lot like enlisting in the army: you're on location for ten weeks, 14 hours a day, six days a week. By the time you're done on Sunday morning at 4 AM, it gets a little old."
Perry was able to reconnect with some college friends who'd moved to New York, including his future wife, Michiko. "Actually, she gave me my first freelance job in New York," he says, "working on a Japanese television shoot for the New York International Toy Fair. It's kind of funny, since I've been back there many times since with Rocket USA. I guess toys have always been bouncing around in my head, too."
In the late 80s, Perry and Michiko (who is fluent in Japanese) began a business in New York, MSI Resources, acting as intermediaries between U.S. businesses and Japanese manufacturing companies. They relocated the company to Oak Park in 1990, after the birth of their son, and have lived there ever since. Their first offices were above the Pumpkin Moon storefront, so Perry and Eisner regularly bumped into each other in the hall.
At their first real meeting, both professed their love of vintage toys and their interest in importing and marketing toys from Asia. "We started talking over a bottle of tequila, and by the time we were finished, we were going to conquer the world," says Perry with a grin. "But I think we've always had a pretty good balance. There are some reality issues that I can confront, and some passions that John pushes through. Both of us have pretty strong opinions, but for whatever reason we back off where each other is concerned."
Eisner and Perry began Rocket USA in 1996, giving it a narrow focus. Perry knew Japanese business practices while Eisner had Japanese contacts (made while adding to Pumpkin Moon's inventory), and they entered into discussions with Japanese toy maker Masudaya to redesign and repackage some of that company's products for the American market. Initially Rocket USA sold reproductions of Robby the Robot, B-9, and the Gang of Five robots, a line first produced in the 50s by Masudaya. Soon after, Rocket USA began making an original line, Mars Patrol, that includes tin rockets, flying saucers, and a space buggy.
Original Gang of Five robots in mint condition--Machine Man, Radicon Robot, Sonic Robot, Target Robot, and Non-Stop Robot--are extremely rare and valuable. Even without their original packaging, these 12-inch-tall, battery-operated toys are highly sought after; in a recent Sotheby's auction, an original Machine Man fetched $74,000 (it's widely acknowledged there are only four or five such pieces in existence). Rocket USA's miniature windup versions, with new packaging designed by Eisner's brother George, became a hit with hard-core collectors and helped the company turn a profit in just its third year.
Among Rocket USA's growing legion of admirers is cartoonist Matt Groening, whose creative staff approached Eisner and Perry about doing Futurama products. Securing the license was a huge coup. And the response to their Futurama line--which includes six tin signs, two sets of die-cast figures, and larger, mechanical versions of Bender and Nibbler, a diaper-clad alien whose poop is the ship's fuel--has been overwhelming. A piece last winter in the New York Times called Bender "the must-have robot for the Christmas season." And thanks mainly to the Bender toy, which rolled into stores in early December and sold out in a little over a month, Rocket USA had its biggest year ever.
Although Eisner and Perry decline to reveal sales figures or projections for the upcoming year, they seem to be entering a period of rapid growth. Rocket USA moved to a larger space last year, a former dance studio in Forest Park that's mostly occupied by a 5,000-square-foot warehouse with boxes of toys stacked to the ceiling. Since the company began shipping orders to such national retailers as Tower Records and Musicland last year, the warehouse sees constant turnover.
Eisner and Perry have also recently hired another employee, bringing the total to eight: six in their Forest Park headquarters and two in a satellite sales office in Texas. And this year they plan to roll out a series of licensed tin signs based on alternative comics Shi, Grendel, and Cry for Dawn and add a sleek marble game called Baseball Shoot-a-Loop, which Perry designed. After the 2001 International Toy Fair in February and their success with the Futurama products, the company was awarded a license to make a line of Simpsons tin toys and signs.
Eisner maintains that the company's biggest fans are not necessarily kids but often adult aficionados. "What we've become known for is making high-quality products, something that appeals to a hard-core collector," he says. "Based on the materials we're working with, there's no reason that we couldn't mass-market and mass-produce at least some of our products." But Toys "R" Us isn't really their goal. "There's also the very real possibility that that might threaten to change the nature of the products we're offering. Our primary concern is maintaining high standards."
Perry agrees. "I can't imagine a worse fate than shipping a product in mass quantities and having it end up in a discount bin somewhere months later. With the toy industry, you have to have a strategy: either you go in with a product for the masses and hope you hit a home run with it, or you try to plan ahead and look further into the future.
"We're looking into the future," he says. "And the future is bright."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.