Christopher Bensch is TOY TITAN #1 in this interview series; Marlene Sharp questions him via video chat.
Welcome to the inaugural installment of GLOBAL TOY NEWS’ TOY TITANS interview series! I am Marlene Sharp and it is my pleasure to serve as your tour guide throughout the playful jaunt. Expect to hop, skip, jump, and alight on milestones from several storied careers. To suggest a jolly giant for future spotlights, then please dispatch your pitch(es) to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our first Toy Titan is equal parts historian, collector, communicator and kid-at-heart. First, let’s set the scene.
Once upon a time, and nestled within northeastern thickets of the USA, just past Hansel and Gretel’s cottage and Barbie’s Dreamhouse, sat the Taj Mahal of playthings. Actually, it still sits there and constantly expands like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The benevolent king is Christopher Bensch, Vice President of Collections, and the castle is The Strong Museum of Play.
Perhaps the above appears hyperbolic, but it is thoroughly thought-through and based on conclusions from an interview of 30+ year Strong Museum stalwart Bensch. Below are the questions and colorful responses (paraphrased in some spots) from Christopher himself.
GLOBAL TOY NEWS: How did you begin your career in the toy business?
Christopher Bensch: I backed into the toy business . . . I started at The Strong in 1989, when the museum still revolved around artifacts of American life from 1820 – 1940. In 2002, we embarked on a board of trustees multi-year study and discovered that we were best suited to add toys to our mission statement . . . and ditch the old mission! We were (and are) uniquely qualified to be play people due to the doll and toy collection of founder Margaret Woodbury Strong. In terms of museums, there are far fewer that cater to amusements, recreation, and the like. I transferred what I know about Chippendale chairs to Monopoly boards . . . which is much more fun!
GTN: What is your favorite toy and why?
CB: It’s the Kenner Girder and Panel Building Set circa mid-1960s. It perfectly complemented the friction toy car fleet of my childhood.
Kenner’s Girder & Panel Build-A-Home & Subdivision Set: favorite boyhood toy of Christopher Bensch.
GTN: What is your proudest moment?
CB: The Strong’s acquisition of inventor Charles Darrow’s original Monopoly game board – created for his family and circular due to the shape of his kitchen table – is particularly memorable. This item is the formula for every Monopoly version thereafter. After exceeding the Strong collections committee cap with his bid, our curator of board games won the set at Sotheby’s auction of Malcolm Forbes’ Galleries. The response from our president was, ‘Yes, we’ve gotta have it!’ It has become an iconic part of our collection and central to our guest experience, who we are, and what we do.
The original Monopoly game board – a DIY project – by Charles Darrow.
GTN: What are your goals for the future?
CB: We are committed to increasing the diversity – race, gender, ability, ethnicity – of what we represent in the collection. Also, alongside co-founders Howard Blumenthal (WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN SANDIEGO?) and Bob Boden (FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK), I consider The National Archives of Game Show History to be one of my big endeavors now . . .
The Any Number game: a set piece from iconic American TV series THE PRICE IS RIGHT.
GTN: To humor this true crime obsessed interviewer, could you share at least one toy-centric scandal, mystery, or urban legend that might be unfamiliar among readers?
CB: The scandal that most easily comes to mind is the one that has to do with the Slinky. Maybe you’re familiar with this one . . .? In the 1960s, mechanical engineer and inventor Richard James abandoned his wife Betty, their six kids, and their debt-ridden James Industries. He disappeared with his mistress into the jungles of South America and became a Bible salesman. He was never seen or heard from again. Betty, on the other hand, is one of the great ladies of the toy industry and an example of triumph over adversity!
To read a snippet of Slinky history, see The Strong Museum’s National Toy Hall of Fame entry: https://www.museumofplay.org/toys/slinky/
To learn more juicy Slinky saga details, please patiently await the probable podcast from the lawful ladies of DOGGONE CRIME . . .
We slink into the sunset to cover the next Toy Titan! Stand by for TT Part 2 . . .