by Herb Levy
(The toy and game industry has benefitted from some amazing creative talent. One of these talents is Reuben Klamer. Throughout his long career in the business, he has invented or designed more than 200 products including the remarkably successful boardgame The Game of Life that is now celebrating its 50th anniversary and has an honored place in the permanent archives of family life at the prestigious Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. Mr. Klamer himself has been honored by being inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 2005. At the 2010 Toy Fair, I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Mr. Klamer about toys, games and his role in the industry. )
Herb Levy: What first got you interested in toys and games as a way to make a living?
Reuben Klamer: I was in the advertising business at a small ad agency in Los Angeles. I go to dinner one night with the head of the Western division of the Ideal Toy Corporation who at that time was a very major company in toys and games. At that dinner was a young man who was the vice president in charge of toys and games for Ideal. He couldn’t stop talking about toys. I mean, all evening long, all I heard was him talking about toys. At the end of the evening, I decided to go into the business. It’s true. It’s true. Anything I tell you is true.
HL: What first got you interested in designing games?
RK: Well, the entry into the toy business was such that I wanted to create. It was such a marvelous opportunity at that time. It still is. So I just wanted to create and I opened up my office in Beverly Hills on North Rodeo Drive before the salons came in there, Gucci and Chanel and so forth, and my office was 434 North Rodeo Drive and I just decided to do was to go meet Milton Bradley because I saw that they had crayons that they manufactured and that they were also interested in finger painting for kids and I went to them with an idea to do an art center. When I got there though, they were wrapped up there with a guy doing an art center. They were not interested at all. But they said they needed an anniversary game for the 100th anniversary of the Milton Bradley company. They asked me if I would do it. I’ll try. Do you mind if I continue?
HL: No, go ahead.
RK: I stayed overnight. The next day I went into their archives. I wandered through their archives, the dusty, musty archives, and on the wall there’s a checkerboard. I went up closer and I brushed off the dust and on the bottom it said “Checkered Game of Life”. When I saw that name “Life”, I exploded! That was the theme. I knew I could do a game around the game of life and that’s what I decided to do. Period. Is that good enough?
HL: That’s great. Why do you think The Game of Life has lasted so long? That game was published in 1960 and it’s still in print.
RK: Why has it lasted? It’s met the test of time. In a test of time, it’s obvious that it did it because of the game elements. The core elements of The Game of Life: decision making, dedication to the family, money making and fun. Most of all, fun. What happens in this game is the opportunity for the parent to tell the child about some of the things like stocks and elements in the game and have an interaction between the kids and the parents on what life is all about. These kids have never experienced life except through the games. The life experience by the kids is the first time when they play the game with their parents.
HL: You’ve got toys, you’ve got games. Which do you like the best?
RK: I like them both. I’m serious. I’ve done about 200 games and toys, 45 games and the rest of them toys. I love them both. I really do.
HL: Do you enjoy playing your own games?
RK: I do but not as much as I enjoy playing a number of the others like Yahtzee, for example, Clue.
HL: You designed games with people and on your own.
RK: Well, I usually do the concept on my own, in the middle of the night. Once I have the concept, I sit down with people and work with them.
HL: What toy or game that you did NOT design do you wish you did design?
RK: Clue. Magnificent game. The way it’s worked out is so fantastic.
HL: Of the many designs that you’ve done, which do you find the most satisfying?
RK: The Game of Life.
RK: Because it’s so successful. Can’t beat success, can you?
HL: Now let me ask you. That was so successful, which design fell short?
RK: In games?
HL: Or toys. That you thought would be big hit but just didn’t make it.
RK: Well, I got involved with Batman when he was on the rise in the beginning. The craze was on for Batman, it was really wild, and I spent a half a million dollars designing prototypes and mock ups. Designed it all and lost it all because the Batman fad went straight down as fast as it came up. I was sitting there with a bunch of models and prototypes, a room full of them, and I was just stuck. That was my bad experience. Believe me, it took me years to crawl out of that hole.
HL: What do you do to relax?
RK: I’m a cool guy, if I may say so, and I don’t let things bother me. I take ’em in my stride. I relax by living. I relax just by living.
HL: What changes in the business have you seen since you first started?
RK: The ways products are decided upon by companies like Hasbro, Mattel, Spin Master. It’s so hard to get through to those guys. You meet a front man who’s in charge of scouting like in baseball, they’re scouts. You have to meet them, you go see them. You can’t go to the head of the firm like you did years ago. I used to call Merrill Hassenfeld on the phone on a Friday. “Merrill, I’ve got something for you.” He’s there on Monday. True. Hasbro, Merrill Hassenfeld. But now the committees and game reviews and product reviews and decision making and then the lawyers get involved. It’s been two years it’s been recently on getting a contract signed with a company. I won’t mention the name. Two years to sign a contract. On The Game of Life, it took 90 days to do a prototype, 90 days, and in 30 days I had a contract signed. Four months signed and done. That’s a little different than it is today. It takes two years now to break through.
HL: If you were never involved in toys and games, what would you have done?
RK: Probably teach. But I couldn’t teach very well if I didn’t do the toys and games. I love teaching. I did love teaching. I did some teaching at the University of Hawaii at a Creative Development Center in Kona. I taught there. Creative technology is what I called it. But I love to teach. It’s so nice with young people. Good minds. It’s very refreshing.
HL: You were voted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Game of Life is in the Smithsonian. How did you feel when you got these honors?
RK: I have a rule of thumb. That’s the way I operate. I don’t let it go to my head, I let it go to my heart. That’s where it goes. Any adulation to the heart not the head.
HL: Where do you see the toy and game industry five years from now?
RK: Electronics but game boards will still prevail.
HL: I think so. I hope so. That’s what I write about.
RK: You can’t get away from boardgames. And that’s been proven. Because when video games came along, television, we still hung on and we’re still there now in our own place. They have their 15 billion dollar place, we have our place and we’re doing very well.