Howard Morrison: A Giant in the Toy Industry (To Be Honored at Chitag 2013)

Guest-blogger

Please join me and many industry colleagues for one or all
the events during Chicago Toy & Game Week November 21 – 24. www.chitag.com One of the events, the magical
and celebratory Toy & Game Inventor of the Year Awards (the TAGIEs), is
honoring Howard Morrison for Lifetime Achievement – an incredible person.                 – Richard Gottlieb

Read
on…

Howard and his Mickey Mouse Telephone via Pauline and Howard MorrisonWhen you ask what folks remember most about Howard Morrison,
they’ll tell you it’s his smile, his sharp wit, and the twinkle in his
eye.  They’ll also tell you he was a
giant, prolific, creative brain and a tireless champion for everyone he worked
with.  He encouraged the creativity of young toy designers, engineers and partners
alike.

Up until his retirement from Chicago’s BMT
Toys in 1997, Morrison was an alchemist, uncovering potential, turning ideas into real toys that delighted millions of
children around the world.

He had a knack for finessing
rough, early stage concepts and was a team player who always looked for
possibilities before problems.

A Path to Toys

Howard Joel Morrison’s toy story begins in 1932 on the north
side of Chicago, where he spent his childhood playing with mechanical and
building toys like Erector sets, Tinker Toys and blocks.  He loved to experiment and take toys apart to
see how they worked.

His parents provided him with a workshop in their basement
when he was around 11 or 12 years old, where he spent his free time making
models and then building and repairing bicycles, motor scooters, and eventually
moving on to motorcycles and cars.

When he was about 13 years old, he built his own motorized
scooter.  He recalls riding it one day
and getting pulled over by the police. 
The officer couldn't believe Morrison was only 13 or that he had built
the scooter himself.  He hauled Howard
down to the jail, arresting him for not having a valid driver’s license.

Morrison was entrepreneurial from the beginning.  As a young boy, he made small wooden toy
wheelbarrows to hold building blocks.  He
sold these to a children’s shop near his home.

He learned how to make dolls, by
hand, out of yarn.  His mother would crochet hats and clothes for
them and he would sell them out on the street for 25 to 50 cents each.
 He would sell out every time.  After a while, Morrison figured out how
to
improve his manufacturing process by making a crank machine that allowed
him to
wrap the yarn faster.  Instead of making
the dolls one at a time, he could then make them 12 at a time!

As a teen, he loved physics and creative subjects in
school.  And he loved model-building.

A pivotal turning point that began his path in earnest
toward the toy industry was a job he got delivering orders for a friend’s
liquor store as a teen.  He had a buddy
who worked there with him who was going to school to learn electronics and how
to repair televisions and radios.  This
was a high demand job and an opportunity to make good money.  Morrison was intrigued and decided to do it
too.  He obtained his 1st
Class FCC license.

He attended Lane Technical High School,
graduated from Senn High School in Chicago and had
a varied college education at University of Illinois, at Navy Pier,
Chicago, U. of I. Champaign,  Deforest Trade school for Industrial
Electronics, Illinois
Institute of Technology for electrical engineering and then three years
at
University of Wisconsin for Electrical Engineering.  He studied
architecture, liberal arts, and
electrical engineering.

Morrison began his career using those skills working with
electronics and high voltage engineering at Underwriters Laboratories, where he
tested electrical products for safety. 
He then spent eleven years at a small electronics firm that specialized
in custom test equipment for industrial applications.

He became fascinated with toy invention and, in 1963, became
Chief Product Engineer for Strombecker Corporation (owned by TootsieToy) working on electric toy road
racing.  After four years, Morrison left
for a position with Marvin Glass and Associates (MGA), in 1967.

Morrison became an immediate contributor to MGA’s success,
and became a partner in the firm in 1969.

The Soul of the Place

One of Morrison’s early hits with MGA was the Super Sonic
Power Racers (SSP) product line for Kenner Toys in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Consisting of ten different, colorful hot rod
cars, SSPs captured the imagination of children, producing high speeds with
their unique gyro wheel/T-handle pull cord mechanism. They debuted in 1970, and
the popular Smash Up Derby play set was introduced in 1971.  The SSP Racers were a Kenner best seller for
over a decade.

 

 

He is also the creator of the classic “Inchworm” ride-on toy
by Hasbro Romper Room in the early 1970’s.

 

Inchworm - MGA Howard Morrison 1973 Patent

 

When tragedy struck the company, not once but twice, in the
1970’s, longtime business partner, Rouben Terzian, says it was Morrison’s ideas
that kept the company going financially through those turbulent times.  Company founder, Marvin Glass, passed away
suddenly in 1974. Then, in 1976, the company was marred by disaster again, when
an employee entered the office with a gun, murdering three employees and
injuring two others before taking his own life.  Morrison’s steadfast resolve to keep the team
intact and productive sustained the firm as it weathered these catastrophic
events.

MGA remained a key player in the industry until 1988, when
its partners disbanded and dissolved the company.  Morrison and two longtime partners joined
forces, forming Breslow Morrison & Terzian and Associates (BMT Toys).  BMT remains a toy invention powerhouse today,
generating over $250 million in global toy sales annually.  According to one estimate, 70% of all
children in the U.S. have played with a toy, game, or doll created by BMT.  Today, BMT is known as Big Monster Toys.

Jeffrey Breslow, the original “B” in BMT Toys, says that Morrison
was “the soul of the place, and a father figure who, when he asked, ‘how’s the
family?’ he genuinely wanted to know!”

Rouben Terzian, the original “T” in BMT Toys, recalls that Morrison’s
gift was humor.  “He always incorporated
humor into his ideas whether it was a talking plush character, an electronic
toy, a game, or other mechanical novelty.”

 “I can say without hesitation
that if it hadn't been 
for some of the products Howard created after Marvin Glass passed away, there would have been no BMT, and there would have been no toy inventing culture in Chicago. We owe a lot to Howard. He was instrumental in the blooming of the Chicago toy invention community.”

 – Rouben Terzian, partner at
BMT and MGA for combined 33 years

Sean Mullaney and Brian Kujawski
worked closely as designer/engineers with Morrison in the early days of
BMT.  They recall that he always made
sure there was a party going on. 

He would instigate impromptu
matinee movie outings, happy hours on Friday afternoons, calling everyone to
knock off a little early and gather for refreshments in the conference
room.  He opened his home to his
employees and was a gracious host who made everyone feel welcome and at ease.

“Howard was
genuine – 
that was what
I appreciated most about him.  
When I was
brand new at BMT and feeling a little overwhelmed, 
he stopped by
my desk and said, 
‘Ruthy, this
is toy design. If you’re not smiling, you’re not doing it right. 
You should
have fun doing this!”  
– Ruth Green-Synowic, designer at BMT 1990-92

Morrison is not a tall person, but he was always incredibly
fit and physically nimble.  In fact, he
was quite proud of his vertical leap and loved to demonstrate that by literally
jumping from a standstill up onto the workbench tables of his staff – which
were waist high.

He was incredibly disciplined, with willpower and stamina
that astonished his staff. He would hit the gym at 4 a.m. before coming to the
office each morning.  A single chocolate
cigar – a gift commemorating the birth of Kujawski’s first child – once sat on Morrison’s
desk for a week. He would take a single half-inch bite each day until it was
gone. That was his “treat.” 

Morrison was always encouraging to those around him.  He had great respect for the creative process
and all of the wacky and absurd twists and turns that the path could take.  He was an open-minded visionary who always
sought to uncover all the possibilities of an idea. 

This collaborative attitude toward creativity resulted in
over 100 toy-related U.S. patents for Morrison and others.

 “He saw something
good in everything, and he could work with and got along with everybody,” said
Terzian. “He always saw the best in products, and only brought up negative
feedback at the end after an idea had been fully explored.”

A Genius Larger than Life

The story of Howard Morrison is not complete without
including one of his most iconic creations: “Simon,” one of the earliest and
all-time bestselling handheld electronic games. 
2013 marks the 35th anniversary of the debut of this turning
point in gaming innovation.

 

Partnering
with video game pioneer, Ralph Baer (inventor of Pong, the first TV
video game), Morrison perfected this first handheld electronic version
of a memory game experience.  Lights, colors and sounds of “Simon”
captured the magical fun “gotcha” moments experienced by attempting to
duplicate an opponent’s sequence of actions in a portable device.  The
versatile game could be played with a friend, or as a solitary game
against the machine. 

Breslow recalled when Morrison first showed him the
concept.  “He came into my office. I had
a coffee cup, a glass and a vase on my desk. 
He lined them up and tapped them each once, then told me to repeat what
he had done, so I did.  Then he tapped
them in a different order, tapping the coffee cup twice, and told me to repeat
what he had done.  I did.  He tapped them again in a different sequence
and I repeated it.  And then he told me
that we were going to create that experience electronically with lights, colors and
sounds.  He and Ralph Baer programmed the
chip and Simon was born.”

Terzian shared his first glimpse at Morrison’s idea. “Howard
came in on a Monday morning with a deck of cards, and gathered up a group of us
in the office conference room.  He had
the team play ‘Simon’ using the deck of cards, while explaining that it was
going to be an electronic game.  He demonstrated
the concept for Simon to his team using a deck of cards,” says Terzian.  “They presented the concept to Mel Taft of
Milton Bradley and started playing it.  Taft
said, ‘I like it.’  He didn't realize
that Howard was underneath the table staging the rough electronics for the
prototype that was still in development. 
Howard figured out how to make it work.”

In the mid-80’s, Morrison created Bingo the Talking Bear for
Hasbro.  Ten years later, he would create
Bubba the Bear, another mechanical, interactive character that would be a hit
for Tyco, and later be produced by Mattel.

These designs included his signature wit.  The interactive “Real Talkin’ Bubba” Bear
said over 200 different things, all penned by Morrison.

Made by Tyco in the mid-1990’s, the Bubba character plush
toy asked kids humorous questions, then paused appropriately before
automatically commenting in such a way that the child felt like the bear was
really listening and responding.  It also
came in a bedtime-themed version, programmed with playful but purposeful
comments that helped a child get make the evening transition.  Schools and therapists used Bubba as a tool
to help children with autism.

In the process of developing Bubba, Morrison innovated a
mechanism that is now an industry standard featured regularly on many dolls and
plush animals.  Including buttons labeled
“press me” or “push me” in the hands, feet or other parts of the toy to
generate a recorded audio response was Morrison’s idea that hadn't been done
before.

“Howard Morrison showed me how fun the toy
business could be.”  
– Sean Mullaney, designer at
BMT 1989-91

In the 1980's, Morrison designed a series of
quirky and fun novelty telephones that were fully functional including
popular PacMan and Lego designs.  But his iconic Mickey Mouse and Hot
Lips models would be recognized in 2010 as two of the "40 Most Important Phones in History" by MaximumPC. 

More notable products:

Ll

  • Hot Wheels Criss-Cross Racers (Mattel)
  • SSP Racecars (Kenner)
  • Matchbox racetrack play sets (too numerous to
    list)
  • Themed fully functioning telephones –Mickey
    Mouse phone, LEGO phone, Lips phone, Pac Man Phone and others
  • Tupperware – Pick Em Up Truck toy
  • Brainwarp electronic game (Tiger)
  • Numerous dolls, games, plush, vehicles,
    characters


A Family that
Plays Together
Howard and Pauline Morrison 2013

Howard and wife, Pauline, have been married for 42 years.  A blended family with six children (four
daughters, two sons), Pauline says they were like the Brady Bunch with no “Alice.”  Today, they have twelve grandchildren, two
grand-daughters in-law and one new great-grandson, who Morrison says will be
his ski partner in no time!

His son, Scott, followed his dad into the toy industry,
joining Marvin Glass.  Burton Meyers’ son
and Scott worked together at Marvin Glass and then went into business together.

All their children are creative individuals whose talents
manifest in different ways.

Morrison retired from BMT in 1997.  In 2006, he was injured in a motorcycle
accident that left him in a coma for two weeks. 
True to form, he battled miraculously, against great odds, after medical
experts offered little hope for recovery. 
His resilience and will to live allowed him to recover significantly.  He continues to pursue his passion for snow
skiing and spending time with his family.

“My whole
career was about getting ideas and turning them into real things.  
Have hope.
Trust yourself. Learn from your failures.  
Live life
to the fullest and have a great time!”
 – Howard Morrison, November 2013


Michelle-spelmanArticle written by Michelle Spelman
Editor and Inventor Relations @ The Chicago Toy & Game Group

Michelle is a Live Wire!  An urban mom of three boys, she is Editor of
our newsletters and blogs and is our Inventor Relations Liaison.  She is
co-founder of Flying Pig Games LLC, creators of award-winning Jukem Football card game, founder of Cincinnati Game & Toy Industry Professionals group, and the Cincinnati Children’s Toy Examiner.
 Michelle is also an independent marketing consultant providing
contract services, executive coaching and strategic direction that helps
businesses leverage and integrate new media into their overall
marketing objectives.  She’s in her sweet spot when she is working with
companies focused on women and family-oriented products and services.

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