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It's the Classics That Keep the Industry Going : Consumers: Everything from old favorites-- Slinkys--to 'Pocahontas' spinoffs and, yes, more action figures are being marketed at the Toy Fair.

February 17, 1995|LESLIE KNOWLTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — People strolling by the entrance on opening day Monday of the 92nd annual American International Toy Fair got a taste of how far manufacturers will go to promote new products.

There on posh Fifth Avenue stood a man sauteeing live earthworms in a skillet with carrots, peas and broccoli.

There was at least one taker--a man costumed as Capt. Dilon of the Klingon Empire--who theatrically swallowed one.

The "Earthworm Jim Gross-Out Take-Out" was the brainchild of California-based Playmates Toys Inc., maker of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other action toys, including this year's Defender-of-the-Universe, Earthworm Jim.

Inside, Barry J. Alperin, Toy Manufacturers of America chairman, told a group that action figures were his industry's strongest performers in 1994, and 1995 is expected to be the same.

As the show opened, more than 1,600 exhibitors braced themselves for the 20,000 retail buyers expected to hit the eight-day show.

This day's crowds milled through displays, which had all the usual new things--Pocahontas products in time for the movie's summer release, plus more Batman, Star Wars and Lion King spinoffs. And yes, dozens more action toys, such as Cap Toys' Vac Overlord and his most evil disciple, the villainous Vac Man.

Yet among the latest folderal were still the old-time classics, those tried-and-true favorites that don't depend on movies or mayhem. Many are in updated versions, but still evoke instant nostalgia--such as Hasbro's Mr. Potato Head (1952), which used to require an Idaho potato but now comes in "crazy-style" plastic, and Milton Bradley's Candy Land Game (1949).

Classics form the toy industry's financial backbone, said TMA spokeswoman Marisa Cascio.

"It's an industry that eats its young," said Hasbro's Gary Serby, fielding questions in the company's showroom. "If a toy lasts three years, it's lucky."

The association lists 55 toys and games that have stood the test of time. The oldest include Milton Bradley's Parcheesi (1867), Duncan Toys Co.'s Yo-yo (1929), Tyco's View-Master 3-D Viewer (1938) and Parker Brother's Clue (1949). The '50s brought Milton Bradley's Scrabble (1953). Newer classics include Kenner's Spirograph (1966) and Pictionary (1987).

Several celebrity classics celebrated milestones in conjunction with Toy Fair, such as Monopoly, at a 60th anniversary party for 350 people at the Rainbow Room the week before the show.

Parker Brothers spokeswoman Carol Steinkrauss said the world's best-selling game was brought to the company in 1933 by Charles B. Darrow, who developed it while unemployed during the Depression.

Initially rejected as having "52 fundamental playing flaws," Monopoly was finally accepted in 1935 and is now licensed in more than 45 countries, printed in 25 languages and has sold more than 160 million sets worldwide.

Although the game was banned in the former Soviet Union as being too capitalist, Russians now play. Cubans do not, as Fidel Castro gave orders to seize and destroy the "imperialistic" game.

During 1995, a limited edition will be available, with each game numbered and dated with certificates of authenticity. The wood houses and hotels are back, with brass tokens from a deluxe 1930s version.

Over in James Industries showroom was another birthday toy, Slinky, which turned 50 and had a pre-show soiree for 125 guests at the 200 Fifth Avenue Club.

Company co-founder Betty James said the toy that walks down stairs originated with a mishap.

In 1943, her then-husband, marine engineer Richard James, was working in Philadelphia's Cramp Shipyard when a torsion spring used in a meter for testing horsepower battleships fell off his desk, tumbling end over end across the floor.

He took the spring home that evening and developed a steel formula that allowed the spring to "walk." Betty James then thumbed through the dictionary for a name, choosing one defined as "stealthy, sleek and sinuous."

In 1945, the couple borrowed $500 to manufacture 400 Slinkys. They sold at Gimbels in 90 minutes.

Betty James now heads the company that has sold more than 250 million Slinkys. Modern Slinkys come in two sizes of coated steel and two sizes of neon-colored plastic, but for this year only, you can buy an original gun-metal colored Slinky in a commemorative box.

"I wouldn't have believed it," Betty James said. "I hoped it'd last a year." Slinky's secret? "Simplicity."

In the Ohio Art Company showroom, Etch-A-Sketch was celebrating its 35th year. Billed at the show as "The World's First Laptop," it was developed in the late '50s in Frenchman Arthur Granjean's garage and discovered by Ohio Art at an International Toy Fair in Germany, said spokeswoman Diana Hoffman.

The toy still features its bright red case, glass screen, aluminum powder, plastic beads and two knobs that help control the movement of the stylus.

Commemorating the anniversary is "Hot Pocket Etch A Sketch," a pocket-sized version available through 1995.

Back in Hasbro Toy Group's headquarters was Nerf inventor Reynolds W. Guyer, who milled around the showroom, looking a little lost. He came here for the "Birth of Nerf--the Life and Times of an American Toy Icon," now in its 25th year.

"It far exceeded my expectations," he said. Around him were Nerf's latter-day permutations, including Nerf Rockets, Nerf Indoor Golf and Nerf Ballzooka. More than 100 million Nerf units have been sold.

As opening day ended, the Earthworm Gross-Out Take-Out stand closed shop. The one-day-only promotion had fried about 2,000 worms, said Playmates representative Maureen Crow.

The ASPCA's national headquarters here received one complaint and planned to go on down, said spokeswoman Joan Paylo. But then the agency got sidetracked on a raid of fighting cocks. By the time animal protectors got to the Toy Fair, Earthworm Jim was gone.

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