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Obituaries

Pascal Kamar, 83; Toymaker Who Created JFK, E.T. Dolls

May 15, 2006|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

The bottom nearly fell out of Pascal Kamar's toy business on the day John F. Kennedy was shot.

When Kamar's 11-inch JFK doll, packaged in a musical rocking chair that played "Happy Days Are Here Again," debuted in early 1963, he quickly took in more than $1 million in orders. After Nov. 22, 1963, the phones stopped ringing.

Kamar International, which had been making toys since the late 1950s, first in Gardena and then Torrance, struggled to survive. Nearly two decades later, an alien that Kamar thought was ugly brought the business its biggest success.

Kamar, a longtime resident of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, died from diabetes May 5 at Torrance Memorial Hospital, his family said. He was 83.

The ugly space creature that sent Kamar's business into overdrive was a potbellied, brown vinyl version of the star of "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial," one of the most successful movies of all time.

Kamar reluctantly agreed to his first licensing agreement because he liked the challenge of translating the lonely visitor from outer space into a cuddly toy. After the movie opened in June 1982, "pure chaos" ensued, Kamar's wife at the time, Astrid Blaker, told The Times in 1983.

The company, which had 400 toys in its menagerie, stopped making everything but E.T. and geared up to try to have millions of dolls in stores by Christmas.

The family-run business had been chosen to produce the alien after an executive associated with the film took his children to a store and asked them to pick out their favorite stuffed animal. They chose Kamar's Monkey-Do, a stuffed vinyl monkey doll with overlong arms, similar to one version of E.T.

The first toy that Kamar designed was a furry, wiry elf-like creature with beady eyes that he called Hexter.

"It was so successful that he designed another and another, and he became strictly the Geppetto of toy designing," said his son, Christopher, who estimated his father designed about 30,000 stuffed toys over about 30 years.

For Kamar, the perfect name was key to the plush-animal birth process, whether it was Tamale the dog or Sierra the bear.

"The more time he spent with them, the closer he got to a name," his son said. "Finally, he'd have a couple of martinis and come to a decision."

Through licensing agreements, Kamar made dolls to go with an animated TV series ("Inspector Gadget") and a cartoon ("Luv Is"). He and his son also brought cute and cuddly to the National Football League in the late 1980s, with an official line of overstuffed, logo-laden figures.

Kamar, who loved a joke and "always had a twinkle in his eye," counted Walt Disney as a friend after he supplied the dolls that surfed in the Hawaiian section of It's a Small World at Disneyland, Christopher Kamar said.

Born April 1, 1923, in Jerusalem, in what was then Palestine, Pascal M. Kamar was the youngest of three brothers.

As a clarinetist and bandleader, he performed with a 13-piece group and toured the Middle East with a 52-piece orchestra.

In 1948, Kamar immigrated to Southern California and established a small import-export business before trying toy designing.

One day in 1962, Kamar was struck by the idea of a JFK doll, even though he hadn't voted for Kennedy. He spent months in Japan developing it and sent one to Kennedy.

Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's personal secretary, wrote Kamar a letter dated June 3, 1963, to say that the president "very much appreciated your thoughtfulness," The Times reported in 1993.

The White House was not as amused when the nattily dressed doll appeared in stores.

The company received pressure to stop selling the doll, possibly because it showed Kennedy in a rocker, an unwelcome reminder, family members speculate, of the president's back problems with an election year approaching.

Blaker told The Times in 1993 that when her husband returned home the day Kennedy was shot, his hair had turned gray from shock.

"All his work and everything we owned were tied up in that product," Blaker said.

When E.T. came along in 1982, the frenzied pace of production forced Kamar to triple the number of factories he dealt with, to more than 60. Sales doubled to more than $25 million the first year that E.T. was sold.

One customer, JCPenney, had four Boeing 747s full of the toys flown in, his wife told Time magazine in 1982.

But the wild success brought legal troubles.

In 1983, Kamar sued Universal and its parent company at the time, MCA, for allegedly violating his company's exclusive rights to sell its E.T. product. MCA accused Kamar of failing to live up to his contract and not exploiting the potential of E.T. The two sides settled for undisclosed terms.

Kamar International dissolved in 1991, after Kamar and his wife divorced.

Even though as many as 7 million E.T. dolls had been sold by the end of 1982, Kamar expressed regret over committing so much to something that was not his.

"As much as he loved E.T., he thought he should have just continued with his own designs," his son said. "They gave him the greatest happiness."

In addition to his son Christopher, Kamar is survived by his companion, Alice Hanks; daughters Jenny Lynn and Laurie Lynn; two grandchildren; and a brother.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today at Green Hills Memorial Park, 27501 S. Western Ave., Rancho Palos Verdes. Instead of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the American Diabetes Assn., P.O. Box 1132, Fairfax, VA 22038.

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