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Toy maker Mattel celebrates founders and real-life Barbie

June 25, 2012|By Shan Li
  • The iconic blond Barbie doll was inspired by Barbara Handler Segal, the daughter of Mattel's founders. Above, a store attendant stands near a Barbie display at a department store in Beijing.
The iconic blond Barbie doll was inspired by Barbara Handler Segal, the… (Greg Baker / Associated…)

At Mattel Inc.'s headquarters in El Segundo, Bryan Stockton, the new chief executive of the toy giant, presided over the redesignation of its design center to honor company founders Ruth and Elliot Handler.

The Friday fete's guest of honor was Barbie -- not the 11.5-inch plastic woman, but rather Barbara Handler Segal, who is the Handlers' daughter and the flesh-and-blood namesake and inspiration of the iconic doll.

"They would be so proud. My mother would be loving this," Segal said as waiters walked through the crowd toting sliders and other hors d'oeuvres.

The ceremony drew El Segundo Mayor Carl Jacobson, some city council members and a smattering of local media representatives to the 200,000-square-foot design center, now called the Handler Team Center. 

The center is one of five locations around the world dedicated to designing Mattel's arsenal of playthings for children. It employs about 650 workers.

The El Segundo location is in charge of games and toy brands such as Matchbox, Barbie and Hot Wheels. Fisher-Price products are handled by two design centers in New York state, while American Girl dolls are made in Madison, Wis. The fifth center, in Hong Kong, provides support for the other locales.

Segal, 71, was a high school student when the first Barbie doll came out in 1959. Her mother Ruth was inspired to create Barbie after seeing her excitement over adult fashion dolls during a European vacation as a kid, Handler said. In the 1950s, most American dolls resembled infants and lacked the diverse wardrobe that is a Barbie staple.

For a long time, she was uncomfortable being known as Barbie's namesake -- random strangers would come up to her and ask about her connection to the toy, she said.

"It was just an odd thing having a doll named after you," said Segal, who lives in Century City. "I am older now, so it's hard for kids to believe. They ask, 'How is this Barbie?'"

Mattel has worked hard to keep the 53-year-old Barbie fresh and up to date. In a reality TV show last year, men competed to best embody the qualities of Barbie's boyfriend Ken (named after Segal's brother Ken), and a new Barbie doll is coming out this year with a built-in video camera.


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