In September Kris Paulson attended the "worldwide launch" of an animatronic creature named iZ at the Toys "R" Us in Times Square. Nine inches tall and shaped like a squat bowling pin, iZ has big wide eyes, trumpetlike ears, three legs with disk-shaped feet (it can balance on any one of them, appearing to be in mid-sproing), and--maybe most significantly--a line-in jack for an iPod or other music player. A store employee showed Paulson how you could play music through iZ, how the toy contributes its own sound effects and commentary, how its built-in beats and lead and rhythm tracks could be used to make music, how it giggles wildly when its belly is "tickled" or tapped rapidly.
Paulson listened politely. Then he told the demonstrator, "Yeah, I made that."
Paulson is an inventor for Big Monster Toys, an independent toy-design firm that occupies an 18,000-square-foot converted trucking garage in the West Loop. A toy train runs above the main workspace on a track suspended from the ceiling, and the kitchen looks like a caboose. Around the perimeter of a large, open area enlivened by potted palms, employees sit in brightly colored cubicles with workbenches that look like oversize Playskool toys. On the outer wall of the otherwise unmarked building, facing Racine, there's a window built to look like a big yellow door straight out of Toontown, with a furry purple monster peering out of it. Once inside you can see that the monster, a little guy reminiscent of Sendak's Wild Things, is balanced on alphabet blocks so he can get a better view.
Founded in 1988, Big Monster Toys is a direct descendant of Marvin Glass & Associates, whose windowless company headquarters were at LaSalle and Chicago. Some of the most famous toys of the past 40 years were dreamed up by Glass's team: Lite-Brite, Operation, Mousetrap, the original rubber puddle of vomit. Glass, who died in 1974, was known for being paranoid, intensely secretive, and obsessively committed to toy invention. He was one of the first independents to pitch products to companies that had previously relied exclusively on their own employees for new ideas. Glass in effect founded the small community of indie toy designers that's still centered in Chicago today. BMT's founders--Jeffrey Breslow, Rouben Terzian, and Howard Morrison--all worked for Marvin Glass & Associates for more than 30 years before starting their own firm. Terzian and Morrison retired in 2003; Breslow now heads up BMT with three new partners.
BMT's 30-odd inventors turn out four to five hundred prototypes a year, anything from plastic clothing for miniature dolls to action figures to board games--but no video games, and nothing violent. A small number of these inventions--maybe 20 to 25, Breslow says--end up getting sold to companies like Mattel and Hasbro, and of those only a tiny fraction go on to become household names. Timing is everything, Breslow says. When BMT developed an electronic board game based on The Apprentice for Hasbro last year, he got the Donald to record the voice track, on which Trump boasts that this is the "best game ever invented" and, inevitably, breaks the news when players get fired. "A very sophisticated toy," Breslow says fondly, but it hit the market nine months too late and didn't become the smash hit BMT or Hasbro had hoped for. "It's a business where you have to learn to accept failure," he says.
Almost every part of toy prototyping is done in-house at BMT, from programming and sound design to the molding of plastic pieces. All the employees know how to work the lathes and milling machines lined up at the back of the room. There's a woodshop and a room dedicated to equipment for making rubber molds. Upstairs, shelves are stacked with plastic bins full of prototypes that didn't sell; every so often one gets exhumed and reintroduced or reworked for a client.
Usually after BMT sells a toy to a manufacturer, the buyer's in-house designers will tweak it so that what ends up on the shelves may bear scarce resemblance to the prototype. iZ, however, is a special case. "This is our baby," says Robert Civettini, a nine-year employee of BMT who worked on the project with Paulson and two other inventors, Todd Kurtzer and Dino Crisanti. "We really had 100 percent control over what it did and what it looked like and sounded like."
iZ is the lead toy for Zizzle, a new toy company based in the northern suburbs. Roger Shiffman, who founded Zizzle in January of this year, has been a big-league player in the industry for decades. His former company, Tiger Electronics, gave the world Furby, which had mothers fighting in the aisles. Shiffman sold Tiger to Hasbro in 1998, worked for them for a few years, and went into early retirement. In 2002 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor; it was removed and he's since made a full recovery. Before long he was thinking about getting back into the toy biz. Last December, before he and his partners had even decided on a name for their new venture, Shiffman called Breslow, who'd handed Tiger hits in the past.
Breslow knew Shiffman would want something electronic and character based. "He had done that before and he had been enormously successful, but he wasn't going to buy Furby again," he says. "Talk about pressure. Because if we didn't give it to him, somebody else would." Breslow sat down with Paulson, Civettini, Kurtzer, and Crisanti, who had contributed to another toy design he'd taken a shine to--one that did some of the same things iZ would eventually do, but wasn't character based. Breslow told the guys to see what they could come up with, fast.
For toy mock-ups BMT designers will often poach parts from existing toys, a process they call "kit bashing." Kurtzer, for instance, has an iDog--a canine-shaped speaker for an iPod--on his bench right now, ripped to pieces. "We take everything apart," he says. "We were those kids who took apart TVs and managed not to kill ourselves." One of the first things the designers did to create the iZ mock-up was buy a bunch of talking Bill Clinton dolls and dismantle them. They knew the Clinton dolls had a mechanism that was "very quiet, very responsive," Crisanti says. Meanwhile Civettini ripped up a plush purple monkey and put its feet on the new character.
iZ, which went on sale at the beginning of October for $40, has an irreverent sense of humor. It farts, burps, and shouts recognizable phrases like "Oh yeah!" as well as strings of nonsense you can't help but attempt to translate to English. (Its parting shot, audible every time you turn it off, sounds to me like "Good-bye don't catch your boned up midnight.") Its eyes jump up and down and the horn in its mouth flashes colored lights. Command central is the belly, a circular panel not unlike the iPod's click wheel; from here you adjust volume and tempo, select a beat, and save any musical (or cacophonous) mix you've come up with while noodling around. By turning the ears you can choose from seven different rhythm and lead tracks. Hitting the rubbery appendage on the creature's head generates scratching and other effects. (Throughout the design stages the guys at BMT referred to the appendage as the dingle, but it'll be hereafter known to the public as the flicker.)
Paulson, who is both the youngest (28) and newest BMT employee (he celebrated two years there in late September) to work on the project, is exclusively responsible for iZ's final aesthetics. It's the first toy he's designed that has made it to final production, he says. He used a modeling program called Rhino to design it entirely on the computer, which nobody at BMT had ever done. For inspiration he tried to imagine what an iPod might look like if it was a cute character. And he tried to give it a look that might appeal to older kids. "There's really nothing like this on the shelves," he says.
To create the iZ mock-up's sound effects, the guys played with Apple's GarageBand software. (Later they would hire Roger Ruczanka, a local musician, to do the music, the only part of the design that wasn't provided in-house.) They all contributed some starter voice tracks, but Kurtzer eventually ad-libbed most of iZ's vocals single-handedly. "He's the most energetic of us," says Crisanti, who's been with BMT for 14 years. "He kind of spazzes out in front of the mike." Kurtzer's voice was then "warped electronically" and coded so that the pool of phrases would be pulled from randomly.
A few weeks after Shiffman's initial call to Breslow the guys had a prototype ready--admittedly crude, and more egg shaped than the final version, but with the basic technology in place. Breslow and his partners agreed that it was strong enough to show Shiffman. Crisanti recalls that Shiffman took one look at the prototype and said, "We're gonna make this."
Zizzle had planned to introduce iZ as its lead toy next year, but retailers pressed Shiffman to get it into stores for this Christmas. So BMT went from that first crude prototype to production in nine months, record time for the firm.
Designed to appeal to a broader market than most toys--from five-year-olds to the mercurial tween market to toy-collecting adults--iZ has a multimillion-dollar promo campaign behind it. Breslow says it's almost unheard-of for a toy to have a huge release party like the one thrown for iZ in Times Square (pop stars Rihanna and Lifehouse performed, and there were three eight-foot iZs on display); Crisanti says that in all his years at Big Monster Toys he's never seen anything like it. In October iZ secured a coveted spot on the "Hot Dozen" holiday list in the trade magazine Toy Wishes. That list soon showed up in dailies nationwide, and Toys "R" Us and KB Toys also included iZ on their lists of winners. Rubbing shoulders with iZ on all three lists is Hasbro's revamped Furby, which now has facial expressions and, in addition to its own garbled language, "Furbish," the ability to acquire basic English skills from its owner. It's still too early, however, to judge whether sales of iZ or any of the other hot-listers will live up to expectations; some reports suggest it's going to be a tough season.
As for the non-character-based toy that helped inspire iZ, the guys from BMT won't say word one, because it's different enough that it might yet find its way into production. Neither will they say anything about the other toys they've already sold to Zizzle (there are four or five) or anything else they're presently working on.
"You can't talk about anything with anybody until it's public," Kurtzer says.
"We're secretive because we want it to get made and get produced and we don't want to jeopardize it by talking about it," Crisanti says. Not even to their friends and spouses, apparently.
"They don't even know where we work," Kurtzer says, straight-faced. "Our names are aliases, actually."
Paulson adds, "We drive to O'Hare and then fly into Midway, and then take a train to work."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Merideth.