The Kohner Brothers; an appreciation



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I had Mary Couzin’s great posting on toy industry families on my mind when I heard that Frank Kohner had died on February 6th at the age of 100.   The Kohners, Frank, Paul and Michael, were and still are a great toy industry family.

 

Frank and his brother Paul were true toy industry innovators who played a major role in shaping the modern toy industry.  These men were pioneers in the use of television toy advertising and brand development.  They were also innovators who created classic games like Trouble with Pop-O- Matic and Hi Q Games as well as pre-school and infant toys like the famous Busy Box

 

When I heard about the passing of Frank, I called Michael Kohner.  Michael respectively Paul’s son and Frank’s nephew, has continued to make his family name synonymous with toys by becoming one of the industry’s most prolific and respected game agents.  I asked him to share a little of his family’s rich toy history.  Here is what Mike had to say:

 

Kohner-logo-2 Kohner Bros. was started in 1940 as a wooden bead company by my father Paul Kohner who had escaped the Nazis from Czechoslovakia.  He brought his family to the United States including his brother Frank (10 years his junior) shortly thereafter.  Paul made Frank his 50% partner upon his arrival. They made pocketbooks and necklaces out of colored wooden beads (the family business in the old country) that fortunately for them became the height of fashion during the war years. 

 

With the knowledge of wood, their first excursion outside of beads were wooden toys (pull toys, specifically one called Tricycle Tom) and in the mid-forties Paul obtained the rights to push button puppets from a Swiss inventor.  These puppets (the now familiar ones you push from the bottom and they wiggle on top of a base) proved to be a big success and further propelled the company into 140 the toy business. These same push-button puppets were later to be made of plastic and marketed in every conceivable character license including Disney, Hanna Barbera, King Features, and Marvel to name just a few.   These puppets were sold in every discount chain in America from Woolworths to McCrorys. To reminisce, all one has to do is go to Ebay and hit “Kohner push button puppets”

 

Kohner Brothers was also among the first companies to convert to plastic and once they did that, there was no turning back from success…  It took a lot of guts and entrepreneurial spirit to take them to this next level.

 

Paul and Frank wanted their business to grow by promoting their products on television.  They needed a vehicle and racked their brains and everyone else’s for an idea.  They had a seed.  They grew up with a game in Germany in the early 1900’s called Mensch Argere dich nicht which was similar to Parcheesi.  They challenged their VP of R & D Albert Stubbmann to come up with a promotional feature which gave birth to the “Pop-O-Matic” (no loose dice randomizer).

The brothers’ first television promoted product therefore was the Trouble Game featuring the “Pop-O-Matic” device.  In those days, television advertising was much simpler than today.  An advertising agency would tell a company like Kohner Bros. how much it would cost to run a reasonably successful T.V. campaign in a given regional market.  Based on that information, the manufacturer added $2.00-3.00 per unit to the selling price in order to cover the cost of the campaign.  For example, if Kohner Bros. ran a television campaign in the tri-state area it might cost $200,000.00. Based on that figure, Kohner Bros. knew it had to sell 100,000 pieces in order to cover that cost.  Any sales over that really meant gravy.

 

Scan0118 Paul and Frank knew that while Mensch Argere Dich Nicht (Trouble as we all know it today) was great unto itself, “Pop-O-Matic” (with the no loose dice feature) was even bigger. After its initial acceptance, they quickly realized that they could add other games with Pop-O-Matic.  In that way, a commercial for one Pop-O-Matic game was for all intent and purposes a commercial for all Pop-O-Matic games.   The TV jingle, “ TROUBLE, TROUBLE IS THE NAME OF KOHNER’S POP-O-MATIC GAMEsoon became a recognizable tune and by 1975 the company was selling over 1 million pieces a year Milton Bradley now owns the rights to Trouble and it is still a very strong staple.

 

What consumer today doesn’t know the name Busy Box which was the flagship of the Busy brand of toys which Kohner marketed so successfully?  Little do people know that the Busy Box came to the Kohner Bros from a pair of brother inventors who brought them a table top full of various activities for a child to do.  The Kohners were extremely inventor friendly and turned this idea completely around into the crib toy we know today.  The inventor and his family earned huge royalties as a result.    Let’s not forget the Il_fullxfull_212125477 HI-Q brand with its flagship game of HI-Q Solitaire where a player jumps one peg at a time to see if they are a “Genius”.   You could probably say that it was the Kohners who were the geniuses for seeing the value in game that was both so wonderfully simple and yet so complex.

 

Paul passed away in 1965 at the early age of 65.  His son Michael at the age of 22 came into the business and began to work together with Frank.  The business continued to grow until 1969 when it was sold to General Foods at which time Frank went on his way to start a new a new and highly successful house wares   business.    Michael stayed on with Kohner Bros. as a VP of General Foods where he was in charge of many facets of the family business as well as one of the most successful international licensing programs that were legacies of his father and uncle. Michael stayed with GF until 1975 when the company was sold to Gabriel Industries.

 

Paul and Frank Kohner certainly deserve a moment of thought and gratitude for their contributions to making the toy industry what it is today.

 

14 thoughts

  1. Albert Stubbmann (who invented trouble) is my grandfather. And I’m learning about my family’s history.

  2. Hi,
    I love vintage anything. I can get lost for hours researching something just to know the history. I have recently bought a Shapees game by KOHNER BROS. INC. N.Y. 12 N.Y. It is a complete game and shows Patent Pending on the front of box. My question is; When was this game put on the market? This is such a neat item! If you can enlighten me at all, I would appreciate it.

  3. Very sad to hear about the passing of Frank. I have very fond memories of Kohner Bros. My dad worked for the company for years (Ernest Neubauer). Afraid to ask about Marta??? Regards to the family.

  4. Besides being a fan of Kohner Brothers and a dear friend of Michael, I was deeply impressed that he knew the song, I Cried, by Jackie and The Starlighters. Michael and his lovely wife and children have made my life brighter. I knew Michael’s Dad, Mom, and sister, and am a richer man for knowing The Kohners. Love to them all.

  5. To September 2nd question, The toy this person is writing about was an Early Kohner Bros. item called TV WIGGLE BLOCKS. I think the technology was caled lenticular lenses which when you move the blocks a little left/right or up/down a differnt picture appears. Only 2 pics per lens. Probably used in advertising and promotion or as novelty pins, i.e smile/frown, closed mouth/kiss but Kohner Bros. saw it as a cute toy idea. This toy has to date back to the late 50’s early 60’s. I think there may have been 9-10 differnt blocks in an open window retail box. I was just a little shaver at the time. Don’t see any samples on EBay. Best, Michael Kohner

  6. In answer to the August 5th question on Wooden pegs, it was probaly the late 60’s early 70’s when German wood pegs became too expensive and Chinese quality wasn’t good enough. A little hazy on that but close enough!!

  7. I have 5 blocks that look like TVs On the back there is a big k with what looks like a ball above it and it says kohner down at the bottom it says vari-vue with a circle with a R in it then pat. pand. the front look like a TV and it says color TVand the screen moves when you move the block. Can anyone tell me anything about these or where I might find more info?

  8. From one toy family to another teh Albert family has always loved to Kohner family and the toy business is a better place because of Michael and his family!!

  9. My many year business relationship and wonderful personal friendship with the Kohner family was paramount re: my long career in the toy industry. Frank Kohner was a brilliant and innovating industry pioneer the likes of which, unfortunately, we will never see again.
    Bob Gellman, Broadway Toys

  10. My condolences to Michael and his family. Kohner Bros. was a great company. Many of it’s innovative products and pioneering marketing concepts have influenced the global toy industry till this day.
    “Trouble, Trouble walk don’t run. Trouble Trouble it’s lot’s of fun! ”
    The Kohners have played an positive and meaningful role in my father’s life, Shelly Greenberg, as well as mine. Thank you.
    Rick Greenberg

  11. Trouble…Whilst Sales Director of TOLTOYS in Australia, we sold between 1966 and 1977 one million pcs.exclusively to Woolworths…
    an amazing quantity considering a total population of only 18 million during this period.
    Trouble is still a volume product for Milton Bradley in Australia.

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