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Louis Marx And The

Golden Age Of Character Toys

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Also Known As The Toy King, Louis Marx Innovated Hollywood Merchandising Long Before The Age Of The Blockbuster

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 14, 2015 — Decades before George Lucas became the canniest billionaire around by not re-negotiating a higher writing and directing fee for Star Wars in favor of Lucasfilm retaining ownership and merchandising rights for the prodigious array of toys that would be spun-off the film franchise, a man named Louis Marx reigned supreme as the “Toy King” in the United States. In fact, that’s what Time magazine dubbed him when they put him on the cover in 1955.

Indeed, Marx, like a few others before him, saw there was a potential gold mine to be made in licensing and mass merchandising comic character toys which, in the 1930s and 1940s, typically took the form of wind-up, tinplate toys with colorful lithography.

Although, truth be told, years before Marx entered the toy business, in 1898, Richard F. Outcault’s The Yellow Kid (from the comic strip Hogan’s Alley) had been used to sell such merchandise as cigarettes, chewing gum, cookies, soap and even mustard, and later as a line of toys.

The mechanism of the Marx toys, usually wound with a key, was simple and the “action” was almost always comical: Dagwood Bumstead’s oversized head sticking out of an airplane cockpit, Popeye and Olive Oyl dancing a jig on the roof of a house riotously litho’d with scenes from the comic strip, Superman rolling over a fighter plane, Amos & Andy rollicking along in their “Fresh Air Taxi” or Milton Berle in his “Crazy Car” popping a wheelie.

For generations of Americans, Marx toys, which were readily identifiable on store shelves by the circular logo with a giant “X” behind “MAR” on the box, were a treasured link to childhood. Unlike Lucas who understandably concentrates on producing and marketing toys related to his own films, Marx was a savvy businessman who saw the toy industry writ large.

The man himself was balding, thickset and squat like a hydrant. But he loved the gleam in children’s eyes when he presented them with a toy. When out in public, in a surefire grassroots branding approach, Marx often filled his pockets with compact treasures that he could readily hand kids when he encountered them.

Louis Marx started out as a toy salesman at Ferdinand Strauss Toy Company of New York, and in 1919 launched his own company with his brother, David.

The big secret to Marx’s success was mass-producing high-quality toys and offering them at low prices (most well under $1). Competitors and critics mocked Marx toys as “cheap,” but they were just inexpensive. The toys generally had uncomplicated designs, but were underpinned with sturdy, durable construction that lasted for years.

In 1921, Louis Marx rented factory space in Erie, Penn., and bought two dies from Strauss for an Alabama minstrel dancer and another for Zippo the climbing monkey. By the following year, these two tinplate toys had sold eight million units apiece, making the Marx brothers millionaires.

One key to Marx’ marketing was getting the low-cost toys in front of the public, through the Sears, Roebuck, & Co. and Montgomery Ward catalogs, and via distribution at chain stores like Woolworths. In the 1930s Marx began to create toys based on popular comic-strip and radio-show characters like Popeye, Amos & Andy and Charlie McCarthy and sales picked up even more with catchphrases on the boxes that encouraged kids to “collect ‘em all.”

Our friend Carl Lobel, a Vermont-based collector/dealer who for decades has helped people build toy collections and who has written extensively about comic and character toys, sheds light on a little known area of Marx lore – the great warehouse finds of the early 1970s -- discoveries that really ushered in a golden age of comic character toy collecting.

“One of the things that causes a field of collecting to have explosive growth is the sudden availability of supply,” Carl says. “Without a lot of toys around, you don’t attract a lot of new collectors because they aren’t getting to see very much stuff.”

According to Carl, Louis Marx had a couple of warehouses in West Virginia and Erie, where his toy factories had once been located.

“They were custodial warehouses and a big secret,” Carl says. “Marx was no longer selling comic character toys; they were just in storage in these nondescript brick buildings in the center of town. The Marx warehouses weren’t like an Amazon fulfillment center. It was just one guy, like a night watchman, on duty with nothing to do.”

Smart toy collectors started to canvass neighborhoods in Erie, and surrounding towns. They asked homeowners about the possible existence of the warehouses and were told exactly where they were. A couple of collectors that Carl knew managed to gain entry and it was like entering a time capsule from childhood; storerooms with pallets stacked to the ceiling with mint-in-the-box, uncirculated toys – many of them comic character toys from the 1930s and beyond.

“My understanding is that possible bribes were made to the caretakers or watchmen to let these collectors in,” Carl said. “They would take a few toys and then pay them for them.”

Carl tells of an auction he attended in the 1970s soon after the warehouse leak had become a flood. After buying a few toys which he surmised were from the warehouse finds, Carl was approached by Bill Yatsko, a mythic figure in the toy business and one of the anointed few who had gained entry into the Marx warehouse in Erie.

“This guy (Yatsko) comes up to me and introduces himself and says: ‘This auction stuff is sh-t! I got the really good stuff.’ He gives me his card, says he lives in Long Island and I should leave the auction and follow him back to his house and buy the really good stuff.”

According to Stephanie Sadagursky in her book, The Road To Happy Days: A Memoir Of Life On The Road As An Antique Toy Dealer, Yatsko was a world-class curmudgeon who was reputed to have tried to gain free entrance into toy shows dressed in a Nazi uniform. In other instances, when customers refused to buy toys he offered them for sale, in a rage, he would destroy them. What is indisputable: Yatsko had amazing vintage toys stacked to the rafters in his home and garage.

1930s popular comic-strip and radio-show characters Popeye(center bottom) and Charlie McCarthy(left) created by Louis Marx. Other Marx toys included the 1935 Uncle Wiggily in his crazy car(center top). Louis Marx was also featured on the cover of Time Magazine in December 1955
Images provided by Reel to Real.

“He had Donald Duck Duet toys floor to ceiling along with Milton Berle Crazy Cars,” Carl says. “And he hinted that there were even better toys but that he had only one or two of those. I asked how much he wanted for the Donald Duets. He said, ‘They’re not for sale, but if you spend $5,000, I’ll let you buy one.’”

Yatsko remained irascible and contrarian to the end, at one point surviving a home invasion in which he and his wife were bound and gagged and their inventory of toys liquidated in what Yatsko claimed was an “inside job” perpetrated by a disgruntled client.

Eventually what Marx warehouse toys hadn’t already been pillaged by roving collectors were later sold in several Sotheby’s auctions in New York City. The auctions generated huge news and created that uptick in public awareness and collecting that exists even today for Marx toys.

In later years, Marx playsets became popular, many based on hit TV shows like The Untouchables, Dragnet and Gunsmoke. But what had once been the largest toy company in the world in the 1950s, by the early 1970s had been surpassed by other more visionary toy companies. Louis Marx sold out to Quaker Oats in 1972 for $54 million. He died nine years later at the age of 85.

However, a legacy of sorts has lived on. After all, nostalgia for the idealized innocence of one’s youth is damned hard to extinguish, and generations after his death Marx keeps toying with our affections.

Steve McQueen was a longtime collector of tin windups by Marx (and others) when he gave his avocation some screen time in his last movie, The Hunter. In an early scene, McQueen returns home from his latest bail bondsman job with a Buck Rogers Rocket Patrol windup (in pristine condition) that he presents as a gift to his girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold). “It’s original and very rare,” he tells a somewhat crestfallen Harrold who perhaps was expecting something a bit more on the order of a Gucci bag.

Other celebrity toy collectors who preferred vintage windups to, say, plastic lightsabers, include Bette Midler, Michael Jackson, Robert Blake, Jane Withers and the late madcap comedian Jonathan Winters who for many years was a fixture roaming the packed aisles of the annual All-American Collector’s Show in Glendale, Calif.

Still, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, Star Wars toys rank second only to Lego in the hearts and minds of young boys. And now hybridization is occurring as Lego teams with Lucasfilm to bring out a line of action toy/Lego blocks built around the lucrative film franchise. As far as toy revenue is concerned, the “force” has definitely been with Lucas these last decades.

And that is sure to make the execs at Fox a trifle wistful. For years, the studio assiduously protected ancillary rights of toys, T-shirts, novelizations, essentially anything connected to movies released by the studio. But when its 1967 film, Doctor Dolittle, did little at the box-office or in toy stores, Fox became skeptical about potential profits to be made in any areas outside revenue generated from the movies themselves.

If only the Fox brain-trust remembered the long, successful parlay of Louis Marx and his line of comic character novelties, they too might have become “Toycoons” instead of ceding that moniker to Lucas.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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