Turning Inventor Ideas into Real Products: a Kohner Family Tradition for Almost 75 Years

One man’s Trouble is another man’s joy. 

That has never been truer than when it comes to the Kohner Family’s success in the toy industry. Featuring the unforgettable Pop-o-Matic in the center of the board, the iconic game, Trouble, has brought fun for decades to millions the world over. But Trouble is neither the beginning nor the end of the Kohner toy legend.

While the Kohner path to toys can be traced back to the middle 1800s, with a family heritage in woodworking, it really began in 1940, when Paul Kohner left his hometown of Tachau, Czechoslovakia, and came to the United States to escape the Nazis. Two years later, he would get his younger brother, Frank, out of danger as well.

Paul and Frank formed Kohner Bros, in New York City, during World War II. Before expanding into toys, they manufactured wooden beads and beaded purses, a wartime fashion rage.

The first Kohner toys took the form of beads and craft sets. These items evolved into wooden pull toys such as Tricycle Tom and Ice Cream Mike. From there, the business quickly progressed. And for the next 35 years, would make millions of the Baby Boomer classic Push Button Puppets, Tricky Trapeze and other toys and games. They would revolutionize an entire segment of the industry with an infant activity toy called the Busy Box.

Paul directed the manufacturing, operations and production for the company. Frank steered the business administration and product selection process. But they were equal partners and worked very closely together on all aspects of the company. 

Paul was a tough task master. We were very busy all the time. But it was a family. And we were all part of it.
— Al Stubbmann, age 87, Kohner Bros VP R&D for 25+ years

With a new 150,000 square foot factory under construction in New Jersey, the family business was booming when Paul died suddenly, in 1965. 

His passing stunned the family and community. Paul’s son, Michael (then just 22 years old) joined the company to help fill the void.

While it was impossible to fill Paul Kohner’s shoes, Michael stepped into his new role and quickly began making his own positive impact. He took over all licensing for the company, expanding those activities dramatically, working with domestic and international properties for Kohner. One of the few modest keepsakes Michael still holds today is a Kohner catalog filled with Disney licensed toys and games.  

The next decade would see the Kohner Bros company continue to grow and be sold twice. 
Frank retired from the company in 1970. He would go on to launch a successful housewares business and published a collection of anecdotes and memories of the people in the old country, “Tachau Tales” in 1995. He lived to be 100 years old and died in 2011.

By 1976, the Kohner Bros brand name faded from the toy shelves, but the evergreen products would live on. And Michael would find a way to continue the family toy legacy.  He has made his mark, over the last 40 years, as one of the most respected licensing agents in the international toy industry.

Growing up in Toyland

As Michael was growing up during World War II, his father carefully and systematically worked and saved money to bring his entire family, and many others, out of Nazi controlled Eastern Europe and concentration camps and got them to America. 

He recalls a married couple who arrived in New York from the old country, thanks to his father. The wife was afraid to meet Paul when she got off the boat because she had smuggled her small Scottie dog, “Happy,” under her coat and was afraid he would be angry. Instead, he laughed and welcomed them. He would go on to create a Scottie dog Push Button Puppet in its likeness and called it “Happy the Wonder Dog.” These people and many others were dedicated Kohner Bros employees for many years, so grateful for the new life he gave them in America.

Michael Kohner loved The Lone Ranger as a child. He fondly recalls his father, coming home in the evenings and telling him Lone Ranger stories at bedtime. That affinity would come full circle in his career later with bitter sweetness, when Kohner Bros would be acquired by Gabriel Industries, who held the Lone Ranger toy license. 

His father and uncle had an open door policy when it came to outside inventors. They would listen to anyone’s idea, and if they thought it had potential, they would do whatever they could to help turn it into a real product, all while ensuring that the inventor was given fair royalties in the process. This policy is what propelled the company forward.

While they generally had a knack for seeing value in an idea, there was an occasion, when a man came into his dad’s office with a simple hoop and began to spin it around his waist. His father said no way and chased him out. That man would later demonstrate his invention on Art Linkletter’s show… and the rest is Hula Hoop history. Who knew?

The original Kohner logo was a large red “K” that was stylized to look like a clown. That logo would become a source of grief for young Michael when jealous playmates would tease him with the nickname, “The Kohner Clown.”  When he officially joined the company at age 22, one of his first orders of business was to update the company logo and get rid of the clown persona for good!

Perfecting Ideas with Outside Inventors

While they passed on the Hula Hoop, there were plenty of other incredible products that Kohner Bros brought to market and licensed from independent inventors. Many ideas were brought to them in one embodiment, and Kohner’s R&D department, led by Albert Stubbmann, would modify and make structural improvements allowing for most efficient and profitable manufacturing and marketability. 

A classic example of this is the iconic BUSY BOX

It was pitched to the Kohner Bros by independent inventors Tim and Tom McHugh, as a wooden table filled with tactile, sensory activities that promoted motor skills in infants and toddlers. Stubbmann converted the original concept into a much smaller, colorful, flat toy that mounted on crib rails.  This product marked a strategic shift, filling a gap in the industry that no one had addressed before. Prior to that, the infant toy market was limited mainly to rattles and teethers. Kohner expanded the Busy Box from a single item into a full product line that included multiple iterations of the concept, including bath toys, floor toys and was essentially the genesis of a whole new category of infant toys that continues to be one of the largest in the industry today.

The Kohners also introduced Push Button Puppets to the United States, licensing the idea from a Swiss inventor named Marty Meinard.  Kohner would be one of the mid-century pioneers of character licensed toys with dozens of puppets in the line, like Howdy Doody, The Flintstones, Superman, Batman & Robin, Disney, Hanna Barbera, among many others.

The Kohners would find themselves battling many competitor infringements on their intellectual property for Push Button Puppets and Busy Box items in the coming years. But they always won.

Making the transition from wood to plastic… and television

The brothers also set up a side company called AMKO that imported small carved wooden game pieces to the U.S. from Heinz Lorenz, a very high quality German company in the Bavarian Black Forest.  For years, Lorenz supplied the wooden pieces for Monopoly and the wooden tiles for Scrabble among other games. AMKO served as the agent for these transactions on Lorenz’ behalf with companies like Parker Brothers, Selchow & Righter and Hasbro

When World War II ended, plastic, that had been conserved for the war effort, suddenly became readily available as a raw material for manufacturing and offered creative, colorful, cost effective product possibilities that couldn't be achieved with wood. 

Albert Stubbmann was an engineer hired by Paul to convert the Kohner factory from wood to plastic production after the war. They procured an injection molding machine and the conversion took about a year to complete. He had a hand in 90% of the products that came out of Kohner Bros from the 1940’s to the 1960’s.  His name is on over 20 patents for at least 50 products.

The first plastic product they made was a popular item called “Looney Links.” Kohner had been making it out of wood. It became a transitional product made with both wood and plastic components and eventually was all plastic.  

The Busy Box was the second plastic toy they ever made. And Stubbmann is credited with fine-tuning that as well. The company would go on to create a whole line of Busy Box products and in the late 1960’s, would reach an exclusive licensing agreement with Sears Roebuck to stock their entire infant department with Winnie The Pooh Busy line products licensed through Disney.

During those years, Kohner entered into an endorsement deal with renowned psychologist, Dr. Joyce Brothers. They used her likeness, name and quotes heavily in print and television advertising to promote the innovative Busy Box line as educational and developmentally beneficial for young children.

Michael says that, along with Stubbmann, Shelly Greenberg, a master sales executive, was also crucial to the success of Kohner Bros. The company would not have reached the level of growth that it did without him. He was a tireless professional who maintained great relationships and always got the big orders from the major retailers.

Trouble’s Pop-O-Matic

While many Kohner products were licensed from outside inventors, the game “Trouble” was developed internally. 

It was based on an early 20th century German game called “Mensch Argere dich nict” (loosely translated to “Don’t Argue,” it was a game very much like ancient Parcheesi).  The working name during development was “Frustration” but was changed to “Trouble” before launch. It has been distributed in some international markets under the name “Frustration” over the years.  Stubbmann was commissioned to come up with a promotional feature for the game. The “No loose parts!” Pop-O-Matic – a plastic domed dice mechanism-  in the center of the board was conceived by him and took about six months to develop. The game debuted in 1963, sold over a million copies annually year after year. It is still part of the HASBRO product line today.

In the early 1970s, Michael got some of his greatest personal satisfaction organizing Kohner factory field trip tours for countless school children. Students would be escorted through to see how toys and games were made. Every child would walk out at the end with a smile on their face and a Trouble game under their arm.

The Pop-O-Matic feature was incorporated into multiple Kohner games in the next few years including “Headache,” “Side Track,” “Bingo with Pop-O-Matic,” “Cross Over The Bridge,” “Pop-Cheks,” and others. 

This expansion of a single game mechanic into a whole product line was an extraordinary occurrence. The Pop-O-Matic blossomed into a brand unto itself, and in time, the intellectual property would be licensed to other companies for use in even more games.

Since 1974:  The Michael Kohner Corporation

Through his efforts on behalf of Kohner Bros, Michael established lasting relationships and a personal reputation of integrity, creativity, patience and consummate professionalism around the world. Those relationships would serve him well, when Kohner was acquired by General Foods in 1969 and then sold to Gabriel Industries in 1974, which was subsequently purchased by CBS a short time later. 

After acquisition by Gabriel (the company who held the license for his beloved Lone Ranger from childhood), Michael realized the company culture was changing. The Kohner identity became diluted as it was absorbed into a much larger entity. He left the company to forge his own path and launched his agency, The Michael Kohner Corporation (MKC).

He was immediately contracted by a company called ARC Toys (which later became Broadway Toys).  ARC was manufacturing plastic accessories under the Barbie license. Michael would maintain a desk in their offices at the Toy Center in Manhattan for many years, but kept his independent status, working with them as well as other clients.

Through his work with ARC and Broadway, in the late 1970’s, Kohner met Michael Or, Managing Director of Longshore LTD, one of the most respected toy manufacturers in China. 

The Longshore relationship would prove to be a turning point in Kohner’s career. Kohner developed a unique strategy for convincing toy companies to license the ideas he brought to the table. He discovered that if he could present a detailed quote for manufacturing when he pitched a toy or game idea for licensing, that it vastly improved his chances of getting a deal.

His friends at Longshore were glad to oblige the quote process, as it increased the likelihood that they would secure business as well. It was a winning formula for all involved because it often saved time and legwork on behalf of the toy companies, making it easier for them to say “yes” to an idea.

Around the same time, Kohner also met David Mair, an independent game inventor, and began representing his ideas for licensing. Over their 30+ year relationship, Kohner has helped Mair license nearly 100 of his inventions. Bestselling games by Mair include “Magic Tooth Fairy,” which debuted in 2001, and is a perennial topseller in England, selling 80,000 – 90,000 pieces per year. “Don’t Panic” is Mair’s all time biggest hit, licensed by multiple companies since 1983 and many themed editions including Disney have been published. Goliath now holds the license for most of the world.

Reviving old games: a new formula for success 

In 2005, Kohner reached another turning point in his career. Michael Or tells it this way: 
“A short time after my son, Wai Or, came into the business in 2005, he asked Michael Kohner what he thought of an old Milton Bradley game called “Loopin’ Louie.”  It was a great game but rather large. Michael came up with a new concept and told Wai, if Longshore could manufacture this game for a certain cost, including the inventor’s royalty, and if Longshore would invest in molds once we had a distributor, he could place it.  So instead of Michael Kohner Corporation acquiring the rights to license the game from the inventor (a Japanese company called Sente Creations), he arranged to have the rights for the IP and manufacturing rights to be granted to Longshore.  Longshore now was guaranteed the project for our factories and Michael Kohner handled our Marketing and Sales.  To make a long story short, HASBRO reacquired the rights, and it is currently STILL the #1 action game in Germany.   While we have some new distributors now for Loopin’ Louie,” Hasbro will be doing a major international licensed version in 2015.”

The “Loopin’ Louie” experience ushered in a new formula for the Kohner-Longshore strategic partnership. Since 2005, they have relaunched over 20 other games back into the marketplace together with many well known inventors of the original versions.

The MKC/Longshore team have no less that 6 promotional, 3-D action games coming out in 2015 from companies like Goliath, Hasbro, Spin Master, Giochi Preziosi and Vivid Imaginations.

A family legacy of integrity and love

Michael shared the enduring love and support of his late wife, Elayne. “She did all of the correspondence, bookkeeping, licensee agreements, business social planning, entertaining, you name it.  The instant anyone met her, they were in love. So many of my Licensees, business friends, the Longshore family. So many knew her so long and so well, she is like part of the family of the industry.” They were married 48 years when she passed away in April, 2013.
Michael is here tonight with his son, Paul and his daughter, Marci. He has two grandsons, Zachary and Jacob, and two granddaughters, Stevie and Jamie.

His friends and colleagues describe him as a creative, trustworthy, patient, persistent and fair man.  A real gentleman and a champion of shared success.

My father and uncle were open to any inventor that was breathing. Many items were designed internally. But a bigger percentage came from the outside. They took a product like BUSY BOX from two brothers that came to them with a 4ft square table, filled with activities for a young baby, and it turned it into one of the most famous crib toys ever. Every single variation, from Busy Box Jr. to Musical Busy Box generated royalties for the inventors.

As for me, everything I do could not happen without the game beginning with an inventor.
— Michael Kohner

Congratulations Mr. Kohner!

Other notable products from Kohner Bros:
•    Mickey Mouse and many other Disney character licensed toys
•    Hi-Q solitaire peg game
•    Pythagoras puzzle

Other notable products via Michael Kohner Corporation:
•    Split Second – (Invented by Big Monster Toys - BMT ) 
•    Lucky Ducks 3D action game – (Invented by Len Stubenfoll)
•    Giggle Wiggle 3D action game – (Invented by Ned Strongin) 
•    Shark Attack 3D action game – (Invented by Eddie Goldfarb)