Death of a Toymaker

Today, as the nation reels from an historic debate about its astronomical debt, it seems proper to note that Hot Wheels creator Elliot Handler died this month. He was 95. If you’ve never heard of him, and I did not know his name until I read his obituary, you’ve very likely heard of what he made: besides the Hot Wheels toy cars, he made Mattel, which he founded as a home-based business, into America’s largest toy manufacturer. He was what those men and women in Washington cutting sleazy little deals over how to control our lives and punish us for being productive are not: he was a creator. Unlike Congress and the President, he made things of value.

According to USA Today, Handler started making dollhouse furniture and other wooden toys from scraps and among Mattel’s first hit products was a child-size ukulele, and I think I had one of those, or one of my siblings did, and a cap pistol. I used to play cowboys and Indians with those, too. As the paper’s obit has it, Mr. Handler’s Mattel put its entire net worth on the line, which at that time was $500,000, on sponsorship of a television program called The Mickey Mouse Club. Disney’s program for ABC was a success and the sponsorship made Mattel a household name, with annual sales growing from $5 million to $14 million in three years.

Mattel made cultural icons, such as the Barbie doll, named after his daughter (Ken was named for their son) and created by his wife, Ruth, in 1959. Later, Elliot Handler invented uniquely miniature die-cast metal vehicles with sporty designs. Mattel, based in southern California, branded them Hot Wheels and brought them to market in 1968. Hot Wheels caught on with boys and soon put the hugely popular die-cast metal Matchbox line of toy cars, a more realistic replica of motor vehicles which included ambulances, station wagons, trucks and farm vehicles, out of business. I strongly preferred Matchbox to Hot Wheels, but I used those yellowish-orange Hot Wheels tracks and loops to run my Matchbox cars all over the livingroom and I’m grateful for what Elliot Handler created. What he produced gave me hours of indulging my imagination and making up some of my first stories, which included plots from whatever I’d just read or watched on television, from spy missions to fending off Soviet attacks and Nazi counterstrikes. What he sadly leaves behind is a country in which his kind, the creator who makes money from what he creates, is no longer welcome.

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