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That’s Funny Taito, You Don’t Look Jewish: The Jewish Play Project and Centuries of Unlikely Elves in Santa’s Workshop.

An introduction to the history of video games, pinball and "traditional" toys and games and the roles Jewish designers, engineers and inventors have had since the 1800s that's explored in greater depth at jewishplayproject.org

In August of this year I began work on what I though was going to be a small “Hall of Fame” exhibit  on Jewish designers, entrepreneurs and inventors in the play industries.  Video games were to be represented by Ralph Baer, Warren Spector, Jordan Mechner, Elan Lee of ARG fame, Susan Gold and Ian Schreiber for the Global Game Jam.  It was meant to be balanced with the generally acknowledged small group of “outliers” in the analog toys and games industry, the founders of Mattel, Hasbro, Madame Alexander Dolls, Ideal and Lionel Trains.

As I began to look into the subject I learned that the history was much wider and deeper than I, or the other historians and scholars I've discussed this with, thought.

In the video game industry, some major names I hadn’t considered began to appear.  Michael Kogan, who went from vodka to vending machines to arcade cabinets, had founded Taito after World War II.  David Rosen merged his coin-op importation firm with his competitor Service Games to form Sega. Though not considered a video game company per se, Holocaust survivor Jack Tramiel’s move to sell the Commodore 64 through department and toy stores Trojan-Horsed games into millions of homes, including many that were holding the line against consoles. There are others as well.

Moving back in time, Taito and Sega’s vending machine roots were common amongst companies that entered the arcade era of video games. Many academics and designers rightfully point to pinball as both a design and entrepreneurial foundation for videogames.  With the exception of Bally, the rest of the major corporate players in the pinball industry were Jewish.  David Gottlieb, whose Baffle Ball variant of coin-operated Bagatelle opened the door to modern pinball, Sam Stern, who would buy into, and take over Williams before founding Stern Electronics and the Gensberg brothers, who would form Chicago Coin and Genco were all Jewish. So was Steve Kordek, who  first placed flippers at the bottom of the playfield and would design over 100 machines across several of the pinball companies in his career`. Some would make forays into videogames before the end of the pinball era, most notably Q*Bert (Gottlieb) and Bezerk (Stern Electronics.) Jack Friedman, a serial entrepreneur, would found three toy and game companies. For our industry most notably THQ, but his LJN (first US Licensee of Nintendo among other video game products) and JAKKS Pacific, would also have an impact in video games.

And as far as the analog toy and game industry goes, the founders of the companies listed above weren’t the outliers they’ve often been assumed to be, but members of a large fraternity and a long history.  As far back as the 1800’s, Lewis I. Cohen was one of the first to design and patent a single-pass, four-color press for playing cards; giving him the edge to lead the playing card industry in the US where the toy and game industry was still in its infancy.  At that time the majority of toys and games were produced in Germany and for the early part of the 1900’s Gerbruder Bing, a Jewish family business, was the largest toy company in the world, Several other German Jewish companies such as J.W. Spear and Sons and Tipp and Company would also thrive in the early part of the century, Later many were forced to sell their companies to non-Jewish entrepreneurs after the rise of the Nazi Party in the 30’s.

In the United States, Lionel, Madame Alexander, Louis Marx and Company, Mattel and Hassenfeld Brothers (now Hasbro) would be part of the first of a wave of home grown toy companies in the early part of the century. That wave would become a tsunami after World War II, where an explosion of entrepreneurial activity and and the viability of plastics as a manufacturing medium would grow the industry. Marx would become the largest toy company in the 1950’s.  Louis Marx shared a Time magazine cover with Santa Claus in December of 1955.  Marvin Glass and Associates, often referenced as the first third-party toy and game design studio, had an unparalleled line of hits including Lite Brite, Rock-em, Sock-em Robots, Ants in the Pants, Mr. Machine, Mousetrap, Mystery Date and more.  The Toy Industry of America’s Hall of Fame lists sixty-seven inductees and roughly a third of them are Jewish.  They’ve made an impact in all aspects of the industry including retail (Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Charles Lazurus who founded Toys R Us and Morey W. Kasch, a pioneering distributor to name a few.)

The names of people, companies and toys and games in this blog post represent just a small fraction of what we’ve found in the past five months.  In looking at toys, games, pinball and videogames we’re at over eighty companies and over one hundred and fifty people, and for the moment we’re looking only at major designers, entrepreneurs and inventors. The Jewish Play Project has been initiated to support investigation of this history in much greater depth and our fledgling website can be found at jewishplayproject.org.  As Chanukah ends and Christmas begins, we wish you happy holidays and hope you’ll find time to drop in and take a look.

 

 

 

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