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3/28/2004

An Erie toy story

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

ERIE — Fun and games have traditionally been anathema to the hard-core business type.

Not so for David McCloskey, a 40-year-old Erie resident recently turned toy inventor.

While playing with his then 3-year-old son Will last year, he took a new shine to Tinkertoys.

Ninety years ago, he said, an Illinois stone mason watching children play with pencils and thread spools developed the classic toy set — a design that moved into the public domain decades ago.

To extend the play offered by the skeleton of rods and hubs, which are no longer patented, McCloskey cut out spongy foam panels to pop into place as a skin of sorts.

“Bashing at the wall of a castle you’re storming is half the fun,” he said.

The patent-pending invention, called Superstructs, includes a starter set with materials to build a monster truck, bulldozer and tractor, a flight set and a castle set.

Retail pricing will be announced this September, when McCloskey’s one-man company — WABA Fun LLC — releases the products.

“It’s been a big thing for me — financing everything myself and putting my heart and soul out there,” said McCloskey, who recently returned from negotiating plastic injection manufacture options in Hong Kong.

In mid-February, he attended the 101st annual American International Toy Fair in New York City to hobnob with other inventors, buyers and manufacturers in the hyper-competitive industry worth $20.3 million in 2002, according to the NYC-based Toy Industry Association.

Before jet-setting to the Big Apple to unveil his models, McCloskey said, he surfed e-Bay and discovered his idea was not novel. Used toys auctioned at the site turned up similar wood and pressed steel wall toys.

But the United States now distinguishes itself from the rest of the toy world by supporting safety-first designs, according to Tom Conley, TIA president.

The earlier models were not very child-friendly, McCloskey said. His EVA foam wall invention, meanwhile, allows children to both build and destroy panel facades without a splinter or scratch.

Still, the industry is fiercely competitive, according to Eddy Goldfarb, a veteran California-based toy designer who began inventing as a soldier in the belly of a U.S. Navy submarine trolling the Pacific during World War II.

“I keep telling new inventors they need to learn to love rejection, because they’ll get a lot of it,” he said.

Yet, persistence and imagination, Goldfarb said, gave him big breakthroughs such as Yakkity Yak Teeth and Arcade Basketball.

“Of course, as the bills pile up, you’ve got to invent,” he added.

McCloskey retired as an executive computer game producer in 2003 to give it a shot, however long, he said.

Independent designers do well to do their homework, according Pamela Brill, managing editor of Playthings, a 101-year-old trade magazine in New York.

Thorough research and savvy promotional efforts go a long way in getting an independent toy designer’s product to market and safeguarding it from the sprawling island of misfit toys, she said.

So far, the Erie man has kept his business in the family. McCloskey’s sister-in-law and cousin have helped him pull together marketing materials. And his right hand continues to be his eldest son, now age 4.

“Will actually helped me choose the colors, and he
tells me who’s the good guy
and who’s the bad guy,” he
said.

Superstructs sets come with interchangeable-part characters to encourage the target participant — a child between ages 3 and 7 — to build story lines along with structures.

But though these characters may fall into conquest roles, each one bears a “pleasant” expression for wholesome fun, according to McCloskey.

“Even our pirate doesn’t look fierce,” he said.

The toy design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City offers classes to boost the success rates of people such as McCloskey.

The curriculum covers safety features, engineering, materials selection, understanding child development, ergonomics and a philosophy of fun, according to department founder and chairwoman, Judy Ellis.

Students also regularly visit a nearby downtown daycare to play with children, she said, and next year will be enrolled in yoga classes to develop a more “expansive” mind-set.

“But they have to already have the curiosity and instinct for discovery that a child has,” Ellis said. “The wonderful thing about the toy industry is that you can introduce an idea, and it can be a success without the designer having any training.”