“Yes, that was fun.”

November 4th, 2013by Jill AustinFiled under: Collections, Exhibitions

Chicago toy inventor Marvin Glass (1914–74) loved kids and loved fun. Even better, he loved thinking up more and more kooky ways for kids to have fun. He and his brilliant creative team not only conceived original games that became instant hits, they were the masters of “spin-off” pop culture products in the toy industry. In a 1967 interview for Chicago magazine, Glass observed, “The success of a toy depends largely, I have come to believe, upon the contemporization of basic ideas.” The Chicago History Museum’s new Unexpected Chicago artifact represents the legacy of this genius.

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Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, Transformers edition, c. 1985
Museum collection, ICHi-67244

Take two toy icons—Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, one of the most coveted toys of the 1960s and 1970s, and the massively popular Transformers, which debuted in 1984—and mash them together to make one game twice as fun. Here’s what happens: Two kids square off in the ring by manipulating mechanical boxers using a handheld thumb trigger. It’s like a version of thumb wars where robot avatars take the hits. Eventually, one player knocks off the opponent’s robot’s head, and the round ends.

If you thought the original version of the game was awesome, the Transformers edition was even more extreme. The futuristic characters—Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, and Megatron of the rival Decepticons—sprang to life, plastic, touchable, and suddenly under the control of dueling children. It was a proven formula for decades: Boxing + Robots = Fun.

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Advertisement for the original game, 1964
Museum collection, ICHi-67131

Better, too, for toy sales. The game stayed in production, riding the wave of video game–era merchandising. Glass and Associates foresaw the success of video games in the early 1980s and kept the company current by transforming virtual- and TV-based fun into a world of “real” contraptions and old-fashioned board games.

Back in 1966, the US Patent Office had issued a patent to Marvin Glass and collaborators Harry Disko and Burton Meyer for Toy Boxers, the original name for Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. Robots lent a current, forward-looking appeal for kids fascinated by space-age dreams, who also happened to like to hit things. Glass had strong opinions about violence and toys as well as about ways to channel children’s aggressive energies onto inanimate objects rather than each other.

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Figures for Toy Boxers, Patent #3,235,259, filed in 1963
Museum collection, ICHi-67239

Marvin Glass was an Evanston native and graduate of the University of Chicago. He began work in toy design in 1941 and nurtured a multimillion dollar studio on North LaSalle Street that represented the best minds in toys. After Glass’s death in 1974, the firm continued under the leadership of the other partners until 1988; three of whom then founded Breslow, Morrison, Terzian, & Associates, now known as Big Monster Toys. The Chicago History Museum took in the Glass and Associates collection in 1989.

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Marvin Glass, c. 1965
Museum collection, ICHi-40329

On one occasion when asked what makes a good toy (which surely happened often), Marvin Glass replied that he anticipated an aura of relaxation that would come upon its players, followed by a simple, “Yes, that was fun.”

Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, Transformers edition, is on display in the Museum’s Kolver Family Lobby through December 2013.

> Read more about toy manufacturing in Chicago

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