Jonathan Becker discusses the many lives and talents of his father: industry legend Jim Becker
Hello again, Jonathan! We’ve pulled out the chair for you again unusually quickly… That’s because the last time we spoke, I realised we could also be asking you questions about your father, James R. Becker. Bit of a legend in the industry! Frankly, it’s hard to know where to start. Tell me about him… What did he do before he was in toys?
Well, first he had a very magnetic quality. Wherever we went, people would gather around him. He was amazing with jokes and, I always tell people, the world’s greatest storyteller… A storyteller to the hilt. So he was very social, unusually so for a man of his generation. But his upbringing was not typical so I think he was very social because of the way he grew up.
His father passed away when he was 13, so he had to become a man very early. Which he did. But in his youth, he lived many different lives. In his first life – as a teenager – he took some crazy jobs. He rode a motorcycle at – do you know Coney Island, Deej?
The amusement park? I do. Very old, very famous.
Yes! Very, very old amusement park! Coney Island’s been around since the turn of the 20th century, maybe earlier. It has some of the earliest rides and rollercoasters. Anyway, my father took a summer job there when he was only 16, riding a motorcycle through a ring of fire; it was called the Circle of Death.
Bloody hell! I thought you were going say he made the candy floss or something!
No, he was a stunt driver on a motorcycle; he was a pretty adventurous, wild guy. He also grew up to be a tough guy… Maybe because he was a veteran of the war, one of the few survivors of his platoon. His best friend, later brother-in-law, was an amateur boxer; a Golden Gloves champion. I think a lot of Jewish veterans, after the horrors of the Second World War, were drawn to things like boxing, and tough-guy things, because that was their way of fighting back, you know?
Absolutely. But that seems at odds with how people remember him…
You’re right! He was this warm, funny, gregarious guy! But, as I say, that’s because he had these different lives he lived. He was also a professional musician before he went into the army… He played backup for a famous band called the Dorsey Brothers.
Wait – Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey? The big band?
Yes! Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. Dad performed under his legal name at the time, Ralph Becker. We all know him by Jim, obviously, which was short for his middle name – James. But as Ralph Becker, he played C coronet and trumpet. We still have at least one recording of him from before the war. Those were his wild days! Those guys in his era got married young and did bold stuff. And he had a regular gig in a very beautiful Toronto hotel that’s still there! Then he went into the war and unfortunately sustained some major shrapnel injuries.
Yeah… Including to his face and his jaw. He had to have a pin inserted in his jaw when they put his face back together; he had a large crease in the middle of his forehead from the shrapnel. And he was hung up in some rehab place in Australia for six months. He was in very bad shape. When he came back, there was no blowing the trumpet anymore.
Because of the pin?
Right. He couldn’t play.
Oh, that’s tragic.
So he had to re-create himself. That’s when he opened a gas station and garage with his then brother-in-law.
Because you said he married young?
He married young twice! This was his second wife’s brother. But running a gas station didn’t please him very much. Fortunately, he had a family member in the toy business with the family name, Becker. StromBecker eventually became Tootsie Toys. Jim went on to become a salesman with Shranz & Bieber, then an executive at a company called AMSCO, where he developed the disappearing baby bottle…
The magic milk bottle?
Yes, the Disappearing Magic Baby Bottle. After that, he went to Lakeside where he really excelled in product development. He did Barrel of Monkeys there, for example. And Gumby toys, of course, which was a famous cartoon back then.
I don’t think Gumby made it to the UK… What is that?
Gumby was a stop motion claymation style of animation… Gumby and his friend – a pony called Pokey – moved through history on their adventures! This was a TV show in the 1950s, designed by Art Clokey. Clokey was a bit of an eccentric. He created the cartoon Dave and Goliath, and really pioneered that Claymation style. But he’d refused all offers to license Gumby to make a toy.
Got it. Your dad persuaded him?
Yes. My dad went to him with a mock-up of a product that he thought would be very suitable; a bendy toy. And he said, “This would be great for Gumby!” And after Clokey gave permission, it became the bestselling toy in 1964 or thereabouts.
And when you say a bendy toy, do you mean one of those wire frames with a sort of rubber body?
Exactly. In fact, in the UK, bendy toys became a huge thing in themselves… Massive. The company, Bendy Toys, made bendy products that were much larger than Gumby; they made much bigger and thicker toys. But yes, Gumby had a wire in it. It was a soft, bendable rubber.
You’re right; people of a certain age remember UK’s Bendy Toys which put a thick foam rubber on a wireframe. Thin rubber skin, too… Couldn’t have been more simple, but hugely popular!
And the gentleman who owned the company… Really great man. We’d visit with him on his stand in London when we went to UK Toy Fair. Wow. I don’t know how many years ago Bendy went away…
I was just trying to think of their name. It’s Neufeld, isn’t it?
That’s it, yeah. Charles! Got it… Charles Neufeld.
Yes! Charles. And as I recall, he was a refugee; I think his family was Jewish – he fled the Nazis. His children took over Bendy after he passed but, by then, I think the bubble had burst. Anyway, you were saying about the small bendy toy, Gumby…
Gumby and Pokey, right. But Lakeside did everything in this super-flex range, from Popeye to Smokey The Bear – every character under the sun! In any case, it was at Lakeside that Jim developed these classic products like Gumby and Pokey, Barrel of Monkeys – a host of other products.
What happened to Lakeside?
Jim was President of Lakeside, which was eventually bought, too!
Course it was!
They were bought by a holding company called Leisure Dynamics; Jim went on to found Anjar shortly after that sale in 1969. That company was eventually sold to Milton Bradley – or Hasbro as it was by that time, the late 1980s. A lot of these companies got gobbled up; the brands going to different places – and they still turn up everywhere… From companies like PlayMonster and Basic Fun, to Hasbro bringing back Furby! Anyway, we’re very fortunate that Jim developed and acquired the rights to so many classic brands.
Well, you’ve given me the most extraordinary insight, Jonathan. It sounds like Jim was remarkable – long before he made his way into toys!
He was! An amazing man… You know, I was very fortunate to work with him, for him and under him. From summer jobs to the last few years when he worked at Anjar… I mean, he didn’t stop working until he was 90.
Wow. And did his passion for it abate? Because sometimes, as you know, people who have a lot of different experiences can happily move on…
No, not at all: he was SO passionate about it; he absolutely loved the toy business. I’ll tell you what made him love it so much and why it drew him closer and closer to it as he got older. And this sounds kind of corny, Deej, but it was the smiles that it put on kids’ faces. And I don’t just mean my face, or my brothers’ faces… He was Uncle Jimmy to everyone, everywhere.
Neighbourhood kids called him Uncle Jimmy?
Everyone! Adults, kids… He wasn’t Mr. Becker, he was Uncle Jimmy. And after he had some success, there was a ritual at our house – which was really big! In the attic of our house, Jim had boxes and boxes of toys laid out, and all the kids who came to our house got to pick out something from a box… And then another box! So everyone always wanted to go up to the attic, you know?
He just gave stuff away?
Always. I’ll give you another example. Back then, he collected watches… I mean like these $10 watches from Japan, where he travelled frequently for business. And it’s worth keeping in mind that, during the war, just a few years before, he sustained terrible injuries.
But right after that, he more or less said, “We’re putting that behind us. We’re friends now.” And he really forged very strong relationships with the Japanese; where he used to travel to starting in the 1950’s – which was really unusual then. In the words of Alan Hassenfeld, the former Chairman and CEO of Hasbro: “Jim knew no boundaries and was able to cross the ocean and work with people around the world from Japan to the UK” in the days before that was commonplace or even accepted practice in the industry. Even when I started traveling there regularly, in the eighties and nineties, seeing a westerner walking around in Japan was pretty rare. A lot of stares!
But the past was just water under the bridge to him?
Exactly. And often in exactly those words: “water under the bridge”. That was part of his philosophy on life. If we were doing something that didn’t pan out, he’d say to me, “There’s no point in getting upset, Jonny” – and he’d console me. He obviously reconciled the fact that, in life, it’s just not straight to the moon, you know? He had his tragedies. And we’ve had ours. So for his family, for his life, he knew what mattered: people matter. In any case, I digress…
I’m hanging on you every word and what you’ve just said matters. Profoundly. So: water under the bridge: Jim was going to Japan…
He’d be bringing stuff from there to here. In those days, he was one of the few westerners in the toy business travelling to Asia. In Hong Kong, at the time, you could still see the miles of barbed wire in the distant hills dividing mainland China from the New Territories.
Anyway, Jim used to get these watches from Japan those days. The Seiko’s were five, maybe ten bucks a piece. They looked really nice; cool, different styles. And if ever anyone said, “Great watch!”, he’d say, “You like it?” He’d take it off and hand it to them. Could be anyone! Waiters, friends, a guy in the movie theatre sitting down.
And he did that with other stuff, too. He had these novelty pens that lit up. “Oh, that’s so cool.” You know… “Here you go!” He just loved to give stuff away. For Jim, it was all about the giving. He loved it. Something else that everybody remembers about Jim… If he saw someone he did business with in the airport waiting room, he’d love to get them an upgrade.
He’d pay to upgrade some of his contacts?
Yeah. He wasn’t going to have them sitting in the back of coach if he was sitting in business class. That would have been rude to him. So he was known for these kinds of gesture, and he’d say, “It’s no big deal. It doesn’t cost much to be nice.”
“It doesn’t cost much to be nice.” Oh, I do hope Adam Butler reads this!
Ha! No! Adam’s great! But Jim really believed that. He also always felt that people were basically good, that they’ll come around… He believed in fairness. Every time there was a contract negotiation, you know, he’d be the first to say, “Let’s split the difference.” But for him, it was just a fair thing to do. Didn’t matter what the contract said, didn’t matter what right he had to get more.
Which might sound nuts to some people! When I overhear some people talking about what they think they can get away, or how carefully they’ll need to handle something to AVOID being fair! I’ll name no names… But having a reputation for fairness pays off with people, presumably?
Right. That’s a great thing to know about someone in a business relationship, isn’t it? Because if I’ve developed a doll and I show it to someone, and they say, “John, we saw a doll like yours from five different people already… Same kind of doll. Who should we take it from?” They’d say to themselves, obviously, the one who’s easiest to do business with! Right? The fair one; someone who’s not going to bust them… Someone who says, “That’s in the past; we should let it go.” And that’s how he always felt about resolving disputes.
And if he could say it about the brutality of war…
Right. Brutality… During the Second World War, he fought the Japanese – the next thing you know, his relationships in Japan led to Othello – and many other successes. If he didn’t bury that hatchet, those never would’ve happened for him.
Well, you’ve named a game there that I very much enjoy… I’m not very good at Othello, but I always wonder if I am right up to the moment I lose quite spectacularly! And there’s another game I love that I think has a Japanese connection: Tumball!
Oh, you like that? That’s great to hear!
Yes… Love it! First, it’s a great game, but even parking that it just looks amazing! I could happily leave that set up on the coffee table; it’s like a work of art. And it’s one of those titles that’s been made in different materials, been used in TV shows, been made giant…
That’s right. The game was first released in Japan where it was called Newton’s Game, then later in the U.K. under the name Suspense. It was in the U.S. with Ideal under the name Breaking Point in the 1970s. It was a big success. Right away, it did a million pieces in a year – and then continued to do very well for many years. But Ideal was one of many companies that had many of its brands sold to Hasbro, among other companies.
And it was called Newton’s Game because it looked like those desktop toys, presumably? Newton’s Cradle?
Right. And in Japan, it was made of metal and had a picture of Isaac Newton on the box. You know, back then, the Japanese advertised the fact that it came from an American inventor. It was on the box; it was like a selling point.
Back then – far more than now – a lot of the US companies had the NIH Syndrome – a term I first heard used by Alan Hassenfeld: ‘Not Invented Here’. But the Japanese had the opposite approach, as the Germans do now of course… Publish the names of the famous inventors.
Terrific! Now, I’m not a hundred percent sure on this date Jonathan; I have to double check… But I think in 2001, Jim was given the International Designer/Inventor of the Toys Award: the I.D.I.O.T. How did your dad feel about it? Do you know?
Well, fortunately I was there with Jim… I actually made the trip to London with him, and so did my brother Arto. And I gave a little introductory speech.
Oh, you did the intro? Great! Do you remember what you said?
I told what I thought was one of the funny stories of Jim’s days travelling as a salesperson. The background to this is that most salespeople back then were quite traditional – you know, suitcases full of stuff, walk in, unpack… But as usual, Jim had a unique twist in as much as that he had a little trailer that he towed along behind his car. And that trailer was decked out to be a walk-in showroom!
So he’d visit his customers, and they’d come out and walk around his trailer full of stuff. Anyway, his territory was upstate New York and New England, and all the way out to the Adirondack mountain regions. In fact, his big accounts in those days were the state parks that had their own stores… They were big buyers of toys. So my story at the Inventors Dinner, for his I.D.I.O.T. Award, was how he was pulling around this showroom trailer one afternoon, driving down this mountain road… He looks to his left and sees his trailer trying to pass him!
Ha! No? It’s – ha! It’s overtaking him? Ha!
Couldn’t quite process it, you know… “Funny. That looks like my trailer!” Ha!
Ha! That’s hilarious!
So I told that story for the intro. But in terms of how he felt… Very, very glad to be known and accepted. And celebrated among friends, because if there’s anything we both know today, it’s that ours is a business of collegial support and collaboration. That wasn’t always the case, though… With some, it was a case of ‘your gain is my loss.’ But Jim had absolutely none of that. He’d help you. He’d help his competition! Sometimes competitors would call him – and this is back in the days when you would need to leave your first born to get a room in Nuremberg…
I’m barely exaggerating! I don’t know if you’ve heard these stories… You couldn’t get a room in Nuremberg during the German Toy Fair. You just couldn’t. But Jim always had the same room, in that fancy old hotel right across from the train station. So every so often a competitor would call Jim and say, “I’m stuck! Can I share a room with you in Nuremberg?” And he’d do that for them in a heartbeat. He was really proud to have a lot of friends in the toy industry…
He had lunch every day in the Toy Building, where Anjar’s offices were located for over 30 years, with people like Micky Graubard and Harry Mirsky, toy company owner and executives back from the 50s, 60s and 70s… These were people he considered not just colleagues in the toy business, but close friends.
And the people with whom he kept company outside the industry, Jonathan… An interesting crowd, presumably?
Well, it’s kind of gone without saying until now that his family was the number one priority. And he’d do anything for the people he loved – not just family and friends. He loved kids; just loved them. In terms of friends, yes, he was drawn to incredible people. And vice versa! I’ll give you some examples… One of my father’s closest friends was known to me as Uncle Al.
Uncle Al, did you say?
Right. And that was Dr. Alfred Moldovan. He was a doctor who was very active in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and was Martin Luther King’s personal physician during the civil rights marches in Selma and other Southern cities… A very deep man. And both my older brothers were named after people that dad met in upstate New York. Two became godfather to my brothers; one was Rockwell Kent – the illustrator for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and a well known artist of the day. The other was a man named Arto Monaco. Arto was an artist and cartoonist. He was also the builder and creator of some America’s earliest theme parks, including Santa’s Workshop, North Pole in the Adirondack Mountains of NeW York – check it out!
I will. Arto Monaco, you said? Like the country?
Yes. In 1954, Arto designed and opened his own unique theme park called the Land of Make Believe, where all the rides and houses in the miniature village he created were reduced in size so only kids could fit in. He had miniature horses and go-karts… It was the most amazing, fanciful place. Later, after the Land of Make Believe closed due to recurring flooding, he became Jim’s principal model maker. He also had a stint, in the 1930s, painting furniture for famous actors and actresses in Hollywood. He became world famous. Then, during the Second World War, he headed up a government program which replicated the towns in Europe that the US Army was going to invade.
Like replica towns? So they could what? Realistically rehearse a foray?
Exactly. He helped build these towns, the facades of the main streets, so that the troops could practice their assaults out in the desert. An amazing human being. Incredible; the most technically talented man I ever knew. And I’ve had the pleasure meeting a lot of talented people! But my father was friends with these kinds of people. Arto really became like his brother, and because he couldn’t have his own children, dad named his oldest child, my brother, after Arto.
Wow. So that’s how close he was to these amazingly talented people… Amazing, deep people. And you know, when we were younger, my brothers and I would ask, ourselves – not in these words – why would these people be friends with our father? Not in an unkind way, because we knew what we got out of him, and what he got out of them. But what did they get out of my father? But he could carry a conversation about nearly anything and tell a great joke.
But now, of course, I do know what it was. It was that he was the guy I described at the beginning of our conversation: he was the centre of attention, a joke teller, a storyteller… He was a salesman that could sell ice to Eskimos! That, at its core, might be what his greatest talent was… On top of all that, he was a visionary in his own right; he was a great ideas man. Great at coming up with names for products. Barrel of Monkeys is a terrific example. You know, when the inventor brought the item to Jim, it was a little game where you used a paperclip to lifted up other paper clips… That was the toy. My father said, “Why not monkeys? More fun than a barrel of monkeys!” He was a great product developer.
So in terms of how he felt when he got the honour of that I.D.I.O.T. Award… It was very meaningful to him, and I was very appreciative of the committee and – I guess it was Karen Black-Harris, maybe, heading the committee that picked my father and felt he was worthy of it. Certainly, it was Karen who reached out and said they wanted him to win. Because it’s not something you nominate someone for as I understand it.
No; it’s a bit more exclusive than that.
In any case, he felt the love; he felt the appreciation with that incredible award. It meant a lot to him and, over the years, that’s come to mean a lot to us, his family.
Brilliant. Well, look, Jonathan; this has been a real a privilege. I’ve loved every second of this – just great to hear so much about your dad. I’m sorry I never met him; he sounds remarkable. And look… I’ll see you in a couple of weeks in person at the New York Toy Fair!
Absolutely. Be sure to drop by the stand; it’s been too long!
We will. I’m looking forward to it.
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