Mini-I.D.I.O.T.-Award winner Michael Lyden – as remembered by his friend Bob Fuhrer
Terrific to see you, Bob! I wanted to talk about the Mini-I.D.I.O.T.-Award winning Michael Lyden. You knew him well?
Yeah. I was very close with Mike; I knew him very well. Probably uniquely so. I was a seller; he was a buyer in a way but our relationship was friendlier than that for a bunch of reasons. But anyway, Mike had this Rat Pack kind of vibe, you know?
Like how? Like a sort-of Dean Martin swagger?
Ha! Dean Martin would be a really good alter ego for him! That would be an apt description… A cigarette and a drink, talking at a party. He was always very warm and friendly, and he had his charms. A great personality and a really, really good guy. In fact, I have a story about a Japanese partner of mine, and one of the most influential people in my career, along with Mike Meyers: Tak Shimakata…
Right. He was known as Tak… He’s no longer with us, sadly; he had a tragically early death. But he met Mike Lyden at Mattel. Tak wanted to show Mike some radio control vehicles that they were working on. And the first time Tak saw Mike, Mike came in holding a sports jacket slung over his shoulder in the crook of his finger, right? And Tak was, you know, this very proper Japanese guy… So he thought that was just the flashiest, coolest thing. Rat Pack! Ha! Mike had real flare.
What was his background, Bob? Do you recall?
Mike was really self-made. He wasn’t college educated; he came up, as I recall, through the ranks of Toys ‘R’ Us. He started as a teenager, I think, as a stock clerk. You’d have to check that, but I think so…
Yes, you’re right. I have it down that he was a stock clerk at Toys ‘R’ Us in Virginia.
Right. So he must’ve spent more or less 50 years in the industry. I mean… From stock clerk to President of Tyco US. Then, when Mattel bought out Tyco, I think he was involved in the development of Hot Wheels.
Wow. That’s a heck of a career! And he worked on some really iconic items… Tickle Me Elmo, the Garfield telephone…
Yeah. And he came up to those through working; really rolling up his sleeves and working. Elbow grease! I might be a little fuzzy on dates but between 1992 and maybe 1996, we supplied Tyco with a LOT of products… Radio Control Mega Racing, Stack ’em Up Stan, Zigzag RC, Power Zone, The Video Cam – which we developed and manufactured.
That’s the video camera that kids could use?
Yes! That would be around 1995. It was a video camera that plugged directly into a VCR – so it was tethered; it wasn’t particularly mature technology! The idea was kids could record their own videotapes using this camera. And everyone thought it was going to be great; they were quite bullish on it… The future plan was, I think, to do a colour one, but the original product filmed in black and white for cost reasons. And that always bothered me, actually…
That it was black and white?
Black and white and kind of shaky. You know, we were living in a colour world with colour TV by then. I did wonder who’d want a black and white video… And the other thing is they had a commercial and it showed a little boy, I think, spying on his sister with this thing. But – you know – it had to be tethered to a VCR, so you’d have to be in the exact right spot to use it like that! Ha! So the marketing was a little misaligned. I just felt it was really flawed but, like I say, everybody was excited about it.
Anyway, just before the launch we all went to dinner. They had this huge Tyco party at a place called Dave and Busters in Philadelphia. Mike and I were talking, and I – very quietly – expressed my concerns to him, which I never did before because everybody was so excited and bullish! I was very discreet. But Mike, being mischievous, takes a glass, takes a table knife, and ‘chink, chink, chink’ – gets the attention of the whole room. He says, “I have an announcement to make! Bob doesn’t think it’s gonna do so well!” Ha! He completely blew out the candle on the party for me!
Ha! Must’ve left you quite scarred, Bob! Have you ever shared a secret since?!
Ha! Well, as it happens those concerns turned out to be quite well founded. But the story illustrates our relationship; he could be a little bit provocative. And it reflects the comfort level Mike and I had with each other; that he felt like he could make fun of me in front of the company.
And just as an aside, you say you were right about that product?
Oh… Yes. I didn’t WANT to be right. But when I saw the camera in FAO Schwartz, it was literally stacked to the ceiling… Boxes and boxes of it. I think they bought a lot of them in and none of them sold. Some years later, though, it did become a kind-of cult product: people were using it almost like a special-effects video camera. But, yeah, that one was a big failure!
So: Michael could have an impish sense of humour. He was charming, warm and friendly. In terms of what he was like to do business with, was he one of these guys that sort of sat there and quietly knew a good idea? Or was he more stoic?
Oh, he had emotion with it! He’d be quite expressive. I remember presenting a game to him when Tyco wanted to get in the game business. We’d developed a game – I think Milton Bradley had dropped it – called Bongo Kongo. It was expensive, a lot of mechanisms; lots of things going on… A really fun game. When Tyco wanted a second game, we came up with Rattle Me Bones.
Rattle Me Bones!
Rattle Me Bones had this pirate skeleton that sat on the table. He had a hat, a pipe, an eye patch and a bird on his shoulder. You had to remove those things – a bit like the game Operation. But if you weren’t careful when you removed something, it would trigger a vibrating mechanism. I mean, this skeleton would start really rattling!
So I had this set up on a table at Tyco, waiting for Mike to come in and play the game. He started off okay, but then he set the thing off and it started vibrating. Well, he just wasn’t expecting that! He nearly fell off his chair. Ha! And he – ha! He just started laughing hysterically. I knew right then that we’d sold the game. The timing was right. The product was tight. The reaction was right… The whole thing.
By the way, Bongo Kongo and Rattle Me Bones had the best commercials for products that I’ve ever been associated with. I can’t swear to it, but I think Mike had quite a lot to do with those… Knowing who to work with; what to show. I believe that’s true because Mike had a feel for that as a sales and marketing guy.
Now, in terms of his winning a Mini-I.D.I.O.T. Award, what qualities do you think the committee at the time would’ve seen in Michael?
Well, he was great at what he did – a great product guy, and he had a lot of influence. Tyco had emerged as one of the bigger toy companies… I think they were doing about $300, $400 million of business when Mattel acquired them. In today’s numbers it’s double or triple that… So dollar wise they were a power. And I think the committee would’ve wanted – and I’m guessing; I’m giving my opinion – they just wanted to throw their arms towards Tyco and to Mike, just to show appreciation.
And then knowing Michael as well as you did, how do you think he would’ve felt about that award?
Oh, I think he would’ve appreciated getting that recognition. You know, I said Mike was self-made… I think he was really proud that he became a senior executive at a big company like Tyco. And I think that kind of recognition, coming from your peers means a lot… Moving from that blue-collar background to be recognised in a white-collar world… Yes, he would’ve considered it an honour.
Great sentence! I love that. And, uh, I think I’m right in saying Michael died peacefully – age 80 – on August 26, 2022…
Yeah. That was very sad for me. I was really fond of Mike; my wife was too. After Mike left the toy business, he moved to Florida. I used to go to Florida a fair bit, and I’d see him occasionally. But by then, the toy industry had become more executive driven… More corporate, more businessy – with business-school grads with MBAs becoming executives, you know?
Yes… More slick.
But Mike was a very, very good product guy. He understood what a good product was and how to sell it. And I think he would’ve liked to have stayed in the industry.
Yes, as I talk to people, I do get the impression he put his all into it.
Thinking back, I must’ve worked with him for 25 years. To me, Michael always seemed a lot older, but when I was thinking about this earlier, I reckon he must’ve only reached his fifties when I was dealing with him.
Well, I think this goes back to what we were saying before we started, Bob. It’s not that people are old when we first look up to them… It’s that when we first look up to them, we’re young.
Exactly. They weren’t old.
Very sobering thought. Well, look… I really appreciate you spending time with me, Bob, and sharing your memories. I’m sorry I didn’t get to know Michael; he sounds great. And – I don’t know if I said this – I’m in touch with two of his daughters, Jennifer and Kelly…
Oh, wow… I never met them.
Well, they couldn’t be more helpful. They’ve sent lots of photos – and the obituary that Jennifer wrote… I’m going to ask permission to share that because – well… That’s a lovely way to remember him, I think. In the meanwhile, Bob, thank you so much.
Not at all. Great to see you!
Take care my friend.
Michael Lyden Obituary
Michael Lyden of Greendale, Wisconsin passed away Friday, August 26, 2022 peacefully at the age of 80.
He was the proud father of daughters Kelly (Jeff), Megan and Jennifer (Jason); Grandfather of Russell, Jessica (Steve), Rachel (Brett), Elle, Sadie and Uma; Great-Grandfather of Zachary, Emilie, Madelyn, Nikolai, Hazel and Theo. He is survived by his sisters Frances (George) and Colleen. He is preceded by his parents Francis and Evelyn (nee Lassonde) Lyden.
Born in Fall River, Massachusetts he spent his youth along the eastern corridor from Rhode Island to Virginia and Pennsylvania.
The toy industry was his heart and soul, along with the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle (done proudly only in pen) and endless books loaned from the library. He adored visiting zoos around the world, fascinated by Snowflake, the albino gorilla at the Barcelona Zoo and Tandi & Khanya, the rare white lion cubs (along with generally most animals).
He adored long evenings at restaurants, discos, bars around the world, making new friends wherever he frequented. From Carlos & Charlie’s in Hollywood to TJ’s Piano Bar in Westport Connecticut, to most recently his daughter’s wine bar in Greendale, Wisconsin, he was one to charm the socks off of anyone he met. Given the opportunity he’d gladly take you up on a well-made steak tartare with the perfect frites. He adored gushing stories about the golf courses he’d played or flying the Concord, all while extending the evening with a sambuca and coffee, with exactly three beans for good fortune in life.
He loved regaling new friends and old with stories of his time spent in the toy industry, starting as a teenager as a stock clerk in the first Toys ‘R’ Us in Virginia. From there he worked tirelessly and steadfastly to rise the ranks at Toys ‘R’ Us, then to Mattel. At Mattel he led the development of Hot Wheels as Vice President of Boys Brands in El Segundo, California. At Tyco Toys in Mount Laurel, New Jersey he rose to President of Tyco US where, along his journey, he was instrumental in the creation of the legendary Garfield telephone of the 80s, and Tickle me Elmo of the 90s. His favorite times were spent at Toy Fair every year in New York City, and with his many dear colleagues he made over 50+ years in the industry.
He was the ultimate perfectionist, with a lust for life that is rarely encountered. He endeared himself to many throughout his broad and unique life around the world. Contributions and support for Dementia & Alzheimer’s Research would be greatly appreciated.
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