Some jobs don’t sound like work. A perfect example: Jeffrey Breslow’s decades-long career as a designer, developer, and partner at one of the most successful toy- and game-making companies of the last century—Marvin Glass and Associates (MGA). In his book, A Game Maker’s Life, Breslow recounts his years at MGA, which produced Lite-Brite, Mouse Trap, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Simon, Operation, and a host of other beloved playthings. His time with the company was, unsurprisingly filled with fun and merriment, but also, on occasion, tragedy.
Born in Chicago, Breslow grew up on the northwest side in Albany Park, eventually moving to Skokie. Childhood was a time of mechanical exploration.
“I was a curious kid, I took things apart all the time. I had to know how they worked,” he recalls. “My dad bought a nickel slot machine from a bar…and it was all spring operated.” He asked his dad if he could open it up and see the machine’s inner workings. His dad gave permission as long as he didn’t take it apart. “I might have been 10 years old, and I opened the thing up and I was blown away by all the springs, the escapements, and I spent weeks playing with it.”
Technological fascination notwithstanding, Breslow’s grades tanked in high school. Graduating in the bottom quarter of his class in 1960, he originally picked University of Illinois as his college of choice (“even if you were at the bottom of your class, they accepted you at that time,” he says), but his guidance counselor suggested he try a smaller school. He chose Bradley University in Peoria, but didn’t do much better there. Placed on terminal probation within the year, Breslow’s prospects brightened on a trip to see friends at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.
“I went to the fine arts building,” he remembers. “And I saw a display of industrial design in the corridor. And I was blown away.” Fate gave the failing student a nudge, directing him to the office of respected professor/designer Edward J. Zagorski’s office across the hall.
“I knocked, and in 20 minutes, he changed my life, and went on to become my mentor for 65 years.” Breslow returned to Bradley, worked harder, and made the dean’s list. Transferring to U of I Champaign and restarting as a freshman, he studied graphic and industrial design. Sophomore year he took Zagorski’s class, which featured different design projects. One was toy design. Breslow built a set of modular cubes a kid could turn into a desk, bench, or easel. The projects were jury-graded, and Breslow’s cubes came in second. First prize went to John Spinello, an older student who created a small box wired to buzz when it was touched by a probe. Breslow asked about his plans for the box. Spinello had an uncle who worked for a hugely successful Chicago toy designer named Marvin Glass, and he hoped the buzzing box would get him a job. Glass wasn’t hiring, but he offered $500 for the idea. No small sum for the time, but Spinello later regretted it. The box inspired the wildly successful game of Operation
“Obviously, John never forgave himself,” says Breslow.
Still, a toy-making career sounded like a great way to make a living. After graduation he designed medical equipment and supplies for American Hospital Supply Corporation while building a portfolio of toys and games. In time, Breslow got his interview with Glass. He still remembers the date: April 11, 1967, Tuesday, at nine o’clock a.m. Glass admired his work and offered him the job, asking what he wanted for a salary. Breslow asked for $10,000 a year. At 23, and for the time, the amount was ludicrous, but Glass agreed and told him he’d start the following Monday.
“I didn’t ask any questions. And when I got home—I was newly married—my dad was there, and he said, ‘Do you have an office?’ I don’t know. ‘Get medical?’ I don’t know. ‘What about vacation?’ I didn’t ask him anything. I was so happy. I got the job.”
Breslow became an MGA designer, signing over the rights to any toys or games he came up with while in Glass’ employ. He and the company’s other designers, model makers, and engineers spent their time coming up with new ideas, building prototypes, and pitching them to clients from Fisher-Price, Hasbro, Milton Bradley, Ideal, Parker Brothers, and other notable toy and game merchants. MGA didn’t sell toys to the general public themselves. Instead, they designed, patented, and licensed them to the companies, who paid royalties according to sales. Breslow’s first idea was Bucket of Fun, which tossed colored balls around a room, causing kids to scramble and retrieve them. Developing the idea with a model maker, he planned to present it to Milton Bradley at an upcoming pitch meeting. Clients came to the Chicago office to see new toys. Prototypes were difficult to transport, which meant a client could see more designs at one whack in MGA’s offices. Also, secrecy was paramount for Marvin Glass. Toy designs were kept hush-hush to prevent industrial espionage. Whatever Breslow and the others worked on during the day was locked in a walk-in company vault at night.
Breslow presented his Bucket of Fun at the pitch meeting. Milton Bradley went for it. Within 18 months he invented the game Ants in the Pants (pitched and sold to Schaper Toys). Glass, perhaps sensing a golden goose, asked Breslow to become a partner with the firm. In his time with MGA he designed and oversaw the development of toys and games like Masterpiece, The Game of Jaws, Guesstures, and others. He also met his share of interesting characters. One was stunt performer/motorcyclist Evel Knievel.
Among young boys in the 1970s, Evel Knievel was more popular than God. He performed elaborate jumps over cars, buses, trucks, rattlesnakes, canyons, and actual sharks. Sometimes he made it, sometimes not, often receiving multiple fractures upon (crash) landing for his troubles. In 1972, Knievel performed a jump at the Chicago International Amphitheater in Canaryville. A mutual acquaintance knew someone who knew someone who knew Evel, who was interested in expanding his brand. The next day he came to MGA’s offices to talk. Breslow remembers meeting a living embodiment of the word publicity.
“He blew everybody away,” he recalls, “He had a jumpsuit on—red, white, and blue—and was a very handsome guy. Marvin signed him up.”
Before Evel, Glass never wanted to work with outside brands—no Mickey Mouse, Barbies, or Hot Wheels for him—but he found Knievel interesting enough to sign up. He did so even though MGA had no Evel-based toys or games in the hopper as yet. They pitched Evel to Ideal Toy Company, and as it turned out, Ideal they’d developed a toy motorcycle kids could rev up and release to do amazing stunts. But they lacked an action figure for it that could inspire sales. Problem solved when MGA created an Evel Knievel figure that gripped the handlebars and stayed on, even when it crashed as hard as the real Evel sometimes did. The bikes and other Knievel-themed toys were hugely popular for years, but Knievel’s star gradually fell. Toy sales dried up, he went bankrupt, faced legal troubles after assaulting his promoter with a baseball bat, and eventually faded from public view. He died in 2007. Breslow is blunt about his memories of the man.
“I didn’t particularly like Evel. I mean, he wasn’t a likable guy. But he was a showman.” He remembers visiting Knievel in Florida long ago to tell him the ride was over. “At some point. We had IRS people coming in and taking the money… So, it was kind of sad, but it was a terrific toy, and it was very successful. He was very much a person of his time. Right time. Right place.”
A Game Maker’s Life describes dark days at the firm as well. MGA’s odd, driven, workaholic, but brilliant founder Marvin Glass had a stroke in the summer of 1973, leaving his left side paralyzed. In time, he recovered enough to walk, but with a limp, while his left arm dangled and the left side of his face drooped. Especially unhappily, his speech was slurred, which inhibited his ability to work with clients and manage employees. On January 7, 1974, Glass passed away at 59. Evel Knievel was a pallbearer at his well-attended funeral.
Tragedy struck even harder on July 27, 1976, with something that only seems like a modern pandemic: a workplace shooting. Anson Isaacson, managing partner since Glass’s death; Joe Callan, a licensing specialist; and toy designer Kathy Dunn were shot and killed, and two other employees were injured by Al Keller, an electrical engineer at MGA, who then shot himself. For years, Keller was considered a quiet, polite, and likable individual, but he’d declined into delusions about conspiracies and potential attempts on his life, and became more argumentative at work as well. Disturbingly, Keller was connected with the creation of Tin Can Alley, a popular shooting game with an flash-light rifle carried by Ideal.
Breslow avoided being shot through sheer luck. Receiving a call a few minutes before Keller’s arrival, he left the meeting room where Isaacson and Callan sat to take it in another office, keeping him out of sight. Afterward, homicide unit commander Joseph DiLeonardi showed Breslow two notes stuffed in Keller’s sock. Amongst rantings about nonwhite people moving into his neighborhood and his neighbor’s alleged attempts to seduce his wife, Keller made a list of 14 “enemies” at MGA who were supposedly out to kill him. Isaacson was number one on the list, while Breslow was number two. Rarely interacting interacting with Keller beyond saying hello in the halls, he still doesn’t know why.
After the shooting, Breslow became managing partner at age 33. Among his first acts was to bring in a psychologist experienced with mass trauma to help MGA’s toymakers deal with the emotional aftermath. It took time, but the office slowly healed.
The toy industry was about to experience a pivotal moment as well. Another partner, Howard Morrison, approached Breslow in his office with a new idea. Morrison picked up a pencil, clinked a glass on the desk, and invited Breslow to do likewise. He did. Morrison repeated the action, then tapped a cup, then other objects on Breslow’s desk, challenging him to follow along. Finally, Morrison revealed that Texas Instruments developed an electronic chip that could activate a series of lights and sounds. He suggested a game where the player repeated a sequence of sounds and lights by pressing different buttons.
“And that was the beginning of Simon,” Breslow recalls. Morrison created a square prototype with four buttons: red, yellow, blue, and green, but a later designer streamlined the game and gave it its distinctive circular look. One of the first handheld electronic games, I asked Breslow what it was like to see a seismic shift up close.
“It was pure magic. I mean, it was absolute magic when it happened.”
All parties end. In 1972, Glass arranged that when MGA was down to three original partners, it would have to dissolve. With only Breslow, Morrison, and another partner Rouben Terzian remaining, the time had come. In 1988, they started a new toy design company, Breslow, Morrison, Terzian & Associates. Breslow hated the name, thinking it sounded like a law firm. It didn’t matter. Clients came to call the company BMT for short.
Breslow remembers one other encounter with a larger than life character in 1988: Donald J. Trump. Long before his presidency, Trump was known for selling real estate and a book he (actually, writer Tony Schwartz) wrote in 1987, Trump: The Art of the Deal. Terzian presented a copy of the book—a Times best-seller—and suggested building a game around it. Terzian had a possible in with the Trump Organization too. His wife, who ran a string of high-end retail stores, recently opened one in NYC’s Trump Tower. Breslow created a board game where all the play money had Trump’s picture on it and the smallest denomination was $10 million. He’s proudest of the game’s tagline, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s whether you win.”
Setting up a meeting with Trump, Breslow flew out to New York. Arriving at the Tower and prepping his presentation, he was immediately tipped off that Trump, a germaphobe, didn’t shake hands. Two p.m., on the dot, they were brought to his office where he sat with his representatives. Fifty framed magazine covers featuring Trump’s visage covered the walls.
Trump skipped the chitchat, saying, “Hello, let’s see what you got.”
The game box art replicated The Art of the Deal’s cover art, drawing a smile from Trump. Another followed when he saw his face on the play money. The tagline, of course, was a huge hit.
Trump had no interest in playing the game or hearing the rules, cutting Breslow off with, “I like it. What’s next?” The meeting lasted all of 10 minutes.
Back in Chicago, Breslow left and pitched the game to his friend Mel Taft, a senior vice president at Milton Bradley, asking for a 12 percent royalty rather than the usual 5 percent. Taft was reluctant but said he’d pitch it to the higher-ups. Eventually, they agreed to the terms, not wanting their competitors to make the game. Breslow met with Trump once more, proposing a 50-50 split.
“He said, ‘I don’t do 50-50,’” Breslow recollects. “He says, 60-40, and I said, ‘Okay, we have a deal.’ He could have said, 70-30. He could have said 80-20, or less. He knew without him, I had nothing to sell.” Breslow agreed to the terms. They didn’t shake on it.
Nine years later, Breslow brokered another deal on the board game version of Trump’s The Apprentice show. A better game, he says, with a device that played back recordings of Trump’s catch phrase, “You’re fired,” among others, but admits it didn’t sell as well.
Years passed and Morrison and Terzian retired from BMT. Breslow followed on June 5, 2008. The three already left BMT to a new group of partners, who renamed it Big Monster Toys in 2003. Breslow currently spends his retirement working on his new gig, sculpting. Of course, he’ll never forget his 31 years as a toy and game maker.
“It was fun,” he says, with a cheerful air. “It was an exciting, vibrant business to be in, making things to entertain children.”
A Game Maker’s Life is available at most bookstores and through the publisher.