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Magic Slate, Created 64 Years Ago, Gains New Status in an Era of Super-Sophisticated Spying

April 11, 1987|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Times Staff Writer

It was to be a super-sensitive inspection tour of the new U.S. Embassy under construction in Moscow. But how to keep some discussions during the visit hush-hush?

Well, there's always Magic Slates.

Magic Slates? For 64 years, kids have used these toys to send secret messages back and forth. When mom or dad walks in the room, just lift up the translucent page and the message disappears.

So why not use it to thwart the Russians. After all, American journalists meeting with Soviet dissidents in Russia have occasionally used Magic Slates as a way of communicating. And last week, even the U.S. government bought the idea.

In fact, Rep. Dan Mica (D-Fla.) and Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) received special instructions from the State Department to take the 99-cent toys with them on their recent inspection tour of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. "An aide ran out to the local Toys 'R Us store and picked up a dozen," said John Gersuk, Mica's press secretary.

Indeed, it is a toy maker's dream come true. But the company that makes the Magic Slate, Western Publishing Group Inc., of Racine, Wis., knows that the sudden swirl of publicity may disappear just as quick as the messages on its slates.

"Put it this way," said William O. Nahikian, vice president of marketing at Western, "I'm not expecting to get some big government contract tomorrow." Even so, when the company found out that Magic Slates were being used by the visiting members of Congress, it sent the State Department 25 cases.

Now, not only has the child's toy put an unexpected kink in the multibillion dollar world of espionage, but it also has the $12-billion toy industry taking notice.

While competing toy giants can only watch, "the least-hip toy company I know is getting all the publicity," said Rick Anguilla, editor of Toy & Hobby World, a toy industry trade magazine. "I just love it."

Western Publishing executives admit they are tempted to re-jigger their Magic Slate production plant in Fayetteville, N.C., and start producing Magic Slates with pictures of Russian spies and American super sleuths. But that would take a month--at least. "And we'd have to turn the company upside-down to do it," said Nahikian. By that time, he said, the whole fad could be nothing more than a Trivial Pursuit question.

A better Trivial Pursuit question might be where the Magic Slate came from. That's easy. In 1923, a caretaker named R. A. Watkins apparently had plenty of time to kill at an abandoned corset factory in Aurora, Ill. With scraps of corset plastic lying all around, he slapped some on the front of a wax board, and developed a time sheet that could be used over and over. He brought the device home, and when his children took an interest in it, he knew he was on to something.

Along with a partner, he slowly built a business manufacturing the slates. The company was sold to Western Publishing in 1958, which was, in turn, bought by Mattel in 1979. In 1984, Mattel sold it to private investors for $110 million. Then, one year ago, Western Publishing went public. Its stock is traded over the counter, closing Friday at $13.875 a share, down 37.5 cents from Thursday.

Western ranks among the world's largest publishers of children's books. Its well-known Golden Books division published its billionth book late last year. Western is also one of the world's top producers of coloring books and jigsaw puzzles. The company's net income last year was $17.6 million; annual sales came to $300 million.

But the Magic Slate accounts for just $3 million of that. So, Western has no big plans for it. The company will plow ahead with its planned production of about 6 million Magic Slates this year. If sales pick up, Nahikian said, "we can always make more."

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