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Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Pioneer of play finds joy, not fame, in his job

Toy inventor Tim Walsh is fascinated by playthings, but mostly for the memories they help create, not commercial success


Tim Walsh might have put fun into the hands of more than 4 million people, but hardly any one of them would recognize the toy inventor if they passed him on the street.

Instead, he is among the unknown pioneers of play, one of those unsung heroes of Christmas mornings and rainy days who endured a litany of rejections before turning their brainstorms into big bucks for toy companies.

Then they fade into anonymity.

It's a story that Walsh has lived himself -- perhaps destined when he was born on Christmas Day 1964 -- and chronicled in his book, The Playmakers, which tells the behind-the-scenes toy stories of some of the world's most beloved playthings, from Flexible Flyers to Beanie Babies.

In the 1990s, Walsh collaborated with two college friends to invent the game TriBond, which sold 3 million copies in the 1990s, and followed it up with his own invention, Blurt!, which sold more than 1 million copies.

For Walsh, it has been a happier ending than some of the inventors who have gone before him, leading him to become a full-time game designer and author who is eager to share his fascination with all things fun.

"It's not just about the things they had. It's the people they played with," Walsh said, explaining the emotional connection he finds that adults have with toys. "If they had a Radio Flyer wagon, it was the people who were pulling it along that they remember."

For Walsh, the fifth in a family of six children growing up in Voorhees, New Jersey, outside of Philadelphia, the journey into the toy industry began when he was studying biology at Colgate University in the late 1980s and thinking about becoming a doctor.

The Trivial Pursuit craze was sweeping college campuses, and Walsh and his friends thought they could come up with a game of their own.

TriBond, created with Dave Yearick and Ed Muccini, is a game in which readers move ahead by answering a question based on three clues. The game was rejected by every major toy company because executives were convinced people wouldn't buy a game which required them to think.

The men, backed financially by their families and friends, persisted in marketing the game, selling it themselves out of the trunks of their cars and at small game shops.

Eventually, they teamed up with game manufacturer Patch Products Inc in Beloit, Wisconsin and TriBond began selling big. Walsh followed up with Blurt!, a game in which players move ahead by shouting out a word based on clues.

Walsh later was hired by Patch Products, becoming vice president of marketing before he resigned in 2001. In February, Mattel announced it was buying distribution rights to Blurt! and TriBond. Walsh still retains royalties on both games.

Now living in an upscale subdivision in Sarasota, Walsh has published a tribute to the toy inventors who blazed their trails before him.

Like his games, the book was rejected by every major publisher so Walsh published it himself earlier this year, financing some of it through the sale of vintage toys from his collection.

Walsh found many of the founders of favorite playthings to have lived anonymously, at times making hardly any money off their creations that later became cultural icons.

Among his favorite stories is of Eleanor Abbott, who in 1948 was an adult patient in a polio ward in a San Diego hospital and wanted to create something to cheer up the children. She crafted "Candy Land," which in the past 55 years has become so popular that Walsh said it can be found in 60 percent of US households with a 5-year-old.

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