Peggy Brown and Leslie Scott - Inventor to Inventor

Peggy Brown and Leslie Scott

Peggy Brown and Leslie Scott

PB: Through the Chicago Toy & Game Group, I have made a dear friend in Leslie Scott, the delightful inventor of dozens of awesome games, one of which is a little-known wooden stacking game, um… the name if it escapes me at the moment. It’ll come to me. In the meantime, here are Leslie’s gracious and charming responses to my hard-hitting investigative journalistic questions.

As a perpetual minion of Santa Claus, I once had a crummy $4/hour job vacuum-forming fake rocks for shopping mall Christmas displays. What is the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

LS: Without doubt, this was a summer job I had collecting eggs in a deep litter hen house on a chicken farm in Somerset. The job entailed working in huge, long, dimly lit, low-ceilinged barns that stank of ammonia (from all the chicken shit). Each one was filled to bursting with squawking, evil-tempered hens that would attack each other, and me and my co-workers. It was a high-risk business sneaking a hand beneath hens sitting on newly laid eggs as they were apt to peck with their sharp beaks, frequently hard enough to draw blood. What did I learn - that deep-litter chicken farming was not the career for me.

PB: No shit! (Couldn’t resist.)

I ask this next question as I am just recently starting to take piano lessons after abandoning them in the 70s because of a chilling experience with my piano teacher, one Sister Patrice Something-or-another. What musical instruments and music do you play?

LS: I don’t play any musical instruments. I was put off for life when just 6 years old by a terrifying piano teacher, Mrs. Madoline Mudd, who, rather like a bad tempered chicken, would swoop down and strike a pupil’s hands every time he or she played a wrong note. I found it safer to stick to playing records, or listening while others played instruments and so grew to love classical music, opera in particular.

PB: My being raised in Milwaukee by two elementary schoolteachers has made me boundlessly curious, content eating baloney sandwiches and still to this day unwilling to pay for parking. Where did you grow up and how did that influence who you are today?

LS: I was born and raised in Africa, living first on the East coast of the continent - in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya - and later on the West coast -in Sierra Leone and Ghana. I’m sure growing up in Africa had a profound influence on me and made me the part cavalier risk-taker, part sniveling coward that I am today. For example, I’m never happier than when I’m somewhere remote, far from human habitation and surrounded by wild animals, yet I’m ridiculously scared of the smallest snake. Even here in my English country garden, where I know no venomous creatures lurk, a curled hosepipe can set my heart racing!

PB: Oh! I just thought of the name of your game. Jenga. Right. So…What was your favorite toy or game as a child? And don’t say Jenga, because were it true, I’d have to toss it for obvious implausibility.

LS: I recall spending hours, and I mean HOURS, carefully folding and creasing pieces of newspaper to make V-shaped chutes that I would carefully lay, one overlapping the next to create a marble run down the gentle slope of our garden in Nairobi circa ‘62. When happy that everything was positioned just right, I would drop marbles at the top of the track and then trot along beside them as they made their way down to the bottom. The only problem was that they hardly ever made it from top to bottom without a hitch. Any one of a myriad disasters could take place, such as a gust of wind that would blow a section of track out of line, or an animal would wander across and disturb the run – usually a mouse or a small antelope, a dik-dik for example, but on a couple of memorable instances, a SNAKE   But I can still recall the thrill I felt when on the rare, very rare occasion, the glass marbles made it all the way from the top to the very bottom.  

PB: That’s hilarious – I used to do the same thing with toilet paper tubes and hunks of cereal boxes all cobbled together with Scotch® tape. I also used to run marbles around my mom’s ridged broiler pan. Though there were rarely antelope in our basement to interfere, it did produce a glorious attention-getting racket, not to mention traces of glass marble dust in our pork chops.

What does your typical day look like?

LS: The only thing typical about any day of mine is that there is little that is typical about it. I don’t even rise or go to bed at the same time two days running. Possibly as a result of spending five years at a boarding school where time- tables were rigidly enforced, I can’t abide routine of any kind.

PB: Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?

LS: Why oh why? This was a question I would frequently ask myself as I struggled to get Jenga off the ground, sinking further and further in to debt.  How? Having decided that I wanted to put Jenga on the market, I just sort of dived in, and was kept afloat by an inflated ego and strong enough conviction in my game. But now, older, wiser and altogether more humble, I know that I was lucky – very, very, very lucky – that Jenga sold at all, let alone become the blockbuster game it is today.  I strongly advise any inventor new to the toy industry to take full advantage of the amazing support networks that exist today, the original and very best of which is the Chicago Toy & Game Group that runs the International  Toy & Game Innovation Conference.

PB: Wisdom is a valuable asset, but there’s something truly awesome about the strong conviction (and inflated ego) of unbridled youth. Congrats on the mega-success of Jenga… you cranked a grand slam during your first at-bat! (Or whatever Real Tennis metaphor you might correlate with such an epic smash.) Woohooo! Jen-Ga! Jen-Ga! Jen-Ga!

(For those of you that don’t get the Real Tennis reference, better read Leslie’s tell-all book About Jenga and get the backstory.) Purchase yourselves a few copies here. They make great gifts. http://amzn.to/1mVPpOA

One last question…What inspires you?

LS: For me, nothing could be more exhilarating or inspiring than the natural world and the scientists who try to fathom it.

PB: Perfect. Thanks, Leslie for sharing your thoughts and experiences, and may there be in your immediate future a new Oxford Games hit considerably bigger than Jenga. And when that happens, just FYI… I’m moving in.