Howard Morrison: A Giant in the Toy Industry

Recipient of the 2013 Toy and Game Inventor Excellence (TAGIE) Lifetime Achievement Award

When you ask what folks remember most about Howard Morrison, they’ll tell you it’s his smile, his sharp wit, and the twinkle in his eye.  They’ll also tell you he was a giant, prolific, creative brain and a tireless champion for everyone he worked with.  He encouraged the creativity of young toy designers, engineers and partners alike.

Up until his retirement from Chicago’s BMT Toys in 1997, Morrison was an alchemist, uncovering potential, turning ideas into real toys that delighted millions of children around the world. 

Morrison's classic Mickey Mouse telephone

Morrison's classic Mickey Mouse telephone

He had a knack for finessing rough, early stage concepts and was a team player who always looked for possibilities before problems.

A Path to Toys

Howard Joel Morrison’s toy story begins in 1932 on the north side of Chicago, where he spent his childhood playing with mechanical and building toys like Erector sets, Tinker Toys and blocks.  He loved to experiment and take toys apart to see how they worked.

His parents provided him with a workshop in their basement when he was around 11 or 12 years old, where he spent his free time making models and then building and repairing bicycles, motor scooters, and eventually moving on to motorcycles and cars.

When he was about 13 years old, he built his own motorized scooter.  He recalls riding it one day and getting pulled over by the police.  The officer couldn't believe Morrison was only 13 or that he had built the scooter himself.  He hauled Howard down to the jail, arresting him for not having a valid driver’s license.

Morrison was entrepreneurial from the beginning.  As a young boy, he made small wooden toy wheelbarrows to hold building blocks.  He sold these to a children’s shop near his home.

He learned how to make dolls, by hand, out of yarn.  His mother would crochet hats and clothes for them and he would sell them out on the street for 25 to 50 cents each.  He would sell out every time.  After a while, Morrison figured out how to improve his manufacturing process by making a crank machine that allowed him to wrap the yarn faster.  Instead of making the dolls one at a time, he could then make them 12 at a time!

As a teen, he loved physics and creative subjects in school.  And he loved model-building.

A pivotal turning point that began his path in earnest toward the toy industry was a job he got delivering orders for a friend’s liquor store as a teen.  He had a buddy who worked there with him who was going to school to learn electronics and how to repair televisions and radios.  This was a high demand job and an opportunity to make good money.  Morrison was intrigued and decided to do it too.  He obtained his 1st Class FCC license.

He attended Lane Technical High School, graduated from Senn High School in Chicago and had a varied college education at University of Illinois, at Navy Pier, Chicago, U. of I. Champaign,  Deforest Trade school for Industrial Electronics, Illinois Institute of Technology for electrical engineering and then three years at University of Wisconsin for Electrical Engineering.  He studied architecture, liberal arts, and electrical engineering.

Morrison began his career using those skills working with electronics and high voltage engineering at Underwriters Laboratories, where he tested electrical products for safety.  He then spent eleven years at a small electronics firm that specialized in custom test equipment for industrial applications.

He became fascinated with toy invention and, in 1963, became Chief Product Engineer for Strombecker Corporation (owned by TootsieToy) working on electric toy road racing.  After four years, Morrison left for a position with Marvin Glass and Associates (MGA), in 1967.

Morrison became an immediate contributor to MGA’s success, and became a partner in the firm in 1969.

 

The Soul of the Place

One of Morrison’s early hits with MGA was the Super Sonic Power Racers (SSP) product line for Kenner Toys in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Consisting of ten different, colorful hot rod cars, SSPs captured the imagination of children, producing high speeds with their unique gyro wheel/T-handle pull cord mechanism. They debuted in 1970, and the popular Smash Up Derby play set was introduced in 1971.  The SSP Racers were a Kenner best seller for over a decade.

He is also the creator of the classic “Inchworm” ride-on toy by Hasbro Romper Room in the early 1970’s.

Inchworm ride-on toy patent drawing 1973

Inchworm ride-on toy patent drawing 1973

 

When tragedy struck the company, not once but twice, in the 1970’s, longtime business partner, Rouben Terzian, says it was Morrison’s ideas that kept the company going financially through those turbulent times.  Company founder, Marvin Glass, passed away suddenly in 1974. Then, in 1976, the company was marred by disaster again, when an employee entered the office with a gun, murdering three employees and injuring two others before taking his own life.  Morrison’s steadfast resolve to keep the team intact and productive sustained the firm as it weathered these catastrophic events.

Breslow Morrison & Terzian

Breslow Morrison & Terzian

MGA remained a key player in the industry until 1988, when its partners disbanded and dissolved the company.  Morrison and two longtime partners joined forces, forming Breslow Morrison & Terzian and Associates (BMT Toys).  BMT remains a toy invention powerhouse today, generating over $250 million in global toy sales annually.  According to one estimate, 70% of all children in the U.S. have played with a toy, game, or doll created by BMT.  Today, BMT is known as Big Monster Toys.

Jeffrey Breslow, the original “B” in BMT Toys, says that Morrison was “the soul of the place, and a father figure who, when he asked, ‘how’s the family?’ he genuinely wanted to know!”

Rouben Terzian, the original “T” in BMT Toys, recalls that Morrison’s gift was humor.  “He always incorporated humor into his ideas whether it was a talking plush character, an electronic toy, a game, or other mechanical novelty.”

 “I can say without hesitation that if it hadn't been for some of the products Howard created after Marvin Glass passed away, there would have been no BMT, and there would have been no toy inventing culture in Chicago. We owe a lot to Howard. He was instrumental in the blooming of the Chicago toy invention community.”

– Rouben Terzian, partner at BMT and MGA for combined 33 years

Sean Mullaney and Brian Kujawski worked closely as designer/engineers with Morrison in the early days of BMT.  They recall that he always made sure there was a party going on. 

He would instigate impromptu matinee movie outings, happy hours on Friday afternoons, calling everyone to knock off a little early and gather for refreshments in the conference room.  He opened his home to his employees and was a gracious host who made everyone feel welcome and at ease.

“Howard was genuine – that was what I appreciated most about him.  When I was brand new at BMT and feeling a little overwhelmed, he stopped by my desk and said, ‘Ruthy, this is toy design. If you’re not smiling, you’re not doing it right. You should have fun doing this!”  – Ruth Green-Synowic, designer at BMT 1990-92

Morrison is not a tall person, but he was always incredibly fit and physically nimble.  In fact, he was quite proud of his vertical leap and loved to demonstrate that by literally jumping from a standstill up onto the workbench tables of his staff – which were waist high.

He was incredibly disciplined, with willpower and stamina that astonished his staff. He would hit the gym at 4 a.m. before coming to the office each morning.  A single chocolate cigar – a gift commemorating the birth of Kujawski’s first child - once sat on Morrison’s desk for a week. He would take a single half-inch bite each day until it was gone. That was his “treat.” 

Morrison was always encouraging to those around him.  He had great respect for the creative process and all of the wacky and absurd twists and turns that the path could take.  He was an open-minded visionary who always sought to uncover all the possibilities of an idea. 

This collaborative attitude toward creativity resulted in over 100 toy-related U.S. patents for Morrison and others.

 “He saw something good in everything, and he could work with and got along with everybody,” said Terzian. “He always saw the best in products, and only brought up negative feedback at the end after an idea had been fully explored.”

 

 A Genius Larger than Life

The story of Howard Morrison is not complete without including one of his most iconic creations: “Simon,” one of the earliest and all-time bestselling handheld electronic games.  2013 marks the 35th anniversary of the debut of this turning point in gaming innovation.

Partnering with video game pioneer, Ralph Baer (inventor of Pong, the first TV video game), Morrison perfected this first handheld electronic version of a memory game experience.  Lights, colors and sounds of “Simon” captured the magical fun “gotcha” moments experienced by attempting to duplicate an opponent’s sequence of actions in a portable device.  The versatile game could be played with a friend, or as a solitary game against the machine. 

 

Breslow recalled when Morrison first showed him the concept.  “He came into my office. I had a coffee cup, a glass and a vase on my desk.  He lined them up and tapped them each once, then told me to repeat what he had done, so I did.  Then he tapped them in a different order, tapping the coffee cup twice, and told me to repeat what he had done.  I did.  He tapped them again in a different sequence and I repeated it.  And then he told me that we were going to create that experience electronically with lights, colors and sounds.  He and Ralph Baer programmed the chip and Simon was born.”

Terzian shared his first glimpse at Morrison’s idea. “Howard came in on a Monday morning with a deck of cards, and gathered up a group of us in the office conference room.  He had the team play ‘Simon’ using the deck of cards, while explaining that it was going to be an electronic game.  He demonstrated the concept for Simon to his team using a deck of cards,” says Terzian.  “They presented the concept to Mel Taft of Milton Bradley and started playing it.  Taft said, ‘I like it.’  He didn't realize that Howard was underneath the table staging the rough electronics for the prototype that was still in development.  Howard figured out how to make it work.”

In the mid-80’s, Morrison created Bingo the Talking Bear for Hasbro.  Ten years later, he would create Bubba the Bear, another mechanical, interactive character that would be a hit for Tyco, and later be produced by Mattel.   

 

These designs included his signature wit.  The interactive “Real Talkin’ Bubba” Bear said over 200 different things, all penned by Morrison.

Made by Tyco in the mid-1990’s, the Bubba character plush toy asked kids humorous questions, then paused appropriately before automatically commenting in such a way that the child felt like the bear was really listening and responding.  It also came in a bedtime-themed version, programmed with playful but purposeful comments that helped a child get make the evening transition.  Schools and therapists used Bubba as a tool to help children with autism.

In the process of developing Bubba, Morrison innovated a mechanism that is now an industry standard featured regularly on many dolls and plush animals.  Including buttons labeled “press me” or “push me” in the hands, feet or other parts of the toy to generate a recorded audio response was Morrison’s idea that hadn't been done before.

 

 “Howard Morrison showed me how fun the toy business could be.”  – Sean Mullaney, designer at BMT 1989-91

In the 1980's, Morrison designed a series of quirky and fun novelty telephones that were fully functional including popular PacMan and Lego designs.  But his iconic Mickey Mouse and Hot Lips models would be recognized in 2010 as two of the "40 Most Important Phones in History" by MaximumPC. 

More notable products:

  • Hot Wheels Criss-Cross Racers (Mattel)
  • SSP Racecars (Kenner)
  • Matchbox racetrack play sets (too numerous to list)
  • Themed fully functioning telephones –Mickey Mouse phone, LEGO phone, Lips phone, Pac Man Phone and others
  • Tupperware – Pick Em Up Truck toy
  • Brainwarp electronic game (Tiger)
  • Numerous dolls, games, plush, vehicles, characters

A Family that Plays Together

Howard and Pauline Morrison - 2013

Howard and Pauline Morrison - 2013

Howard and wife, Pauline, have been married for 42 years.  A blended family with six children (four daughters, two sons), Pauline says they were like the Brady Bunch with no “Alice.”  Today, they have twelve grandchildren, two grand-daughters in-law and one new great-grandson, who Morrison says will be his ski partner in no time!

His son, Scott, followed his dad into the toy industry, joining Marvin Glass.  Burton Meyers’ son and Scott worked together at Marvin Glass and then went into business together.

All their children are creative individuals whose talents manifest in different ways.

Morrison retired from BMT in 1997.  In 2006, he was injured in a motorcycle accident that left him in a coma for two weeks.  True to form, he battled miraculously, against great odds, after medical experts offered little hope for recovery.  His resilience and will to live allowed him to recover significantly.  He continues to pursue his passion for snow skiing and spending time with his family.

“My whole career was about getting ideas and turning them into real things.  Have hope. Trust yourself. Learn from your failures.  Live life to the fullest and have a great time!” – Howard Morrison, November 2013