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Published: Sunday, 6/13/2010

Icon of childhood is 50


It was spring, 1960, and 21-year-old Bill Killgallon was mesmerized by a toy that his dad, Ohio Art Co. executive William Casley Killgallon, got at a toy fair in Nuremberg, Germany.

"My father had brought this toy home to show my younger siblings, but I sat down with it," Mr. Killgallon, now 71, recalled. "I was just fascinated. I thought, 'How the heck is this working?' I was turning the knobs and just couldn't figure it out."

A few months later, Ohio Art paid $25,000 for the rights to that magical drawing toy - which it called the Etch A Sketch - and began production at its Bryan, Ohio, factory.

On July 12, the Etch A Sketch, which has had hundreds of model variations over the decades and has sold a total of 150 million units, turns 50 years old.

Ohio Art is honoring its prized product in several ways: a celebration in Bryan on its anniversary, construction of the world's largest Etch A Sketch, will be at a children's science museum in Indianapolis, an Etch A Sketch design-a-burger contest at Red Robin restaurants, and production of a new 50th Anniversary Edition model signed by Andre Cassagnes, the Frenchman who invented the toy.

"The Etch A Sketch brand is still our largest and most important product that we have," Mr. Killgallon said. It still accounts, he added, for more than three-quarters of the company's toy revenues. The company no longer discloses its annual revenues, but estimates by Dun & Bradstreet Inc. show the Williams County toy and metal-printing business had $29.5 million in sales in 2009.

But beyond being a revenue backbone for Ohio Art for half a century, the Etch A Sketch has achieved something that Mr. Killgallon, Ohio Art's chairman since 1989, never foresaw during his first encounter with it.

Etch A Sketch no longer is just a toy.

Etch A Sketch was included in the first <i>Toy Story</i> movie. Etch A Sketch was included in the first <i>Toy Story</i> movie.
HO Enlarge

It has become an icon, one of a handful of play items whose popularity spans generations and has claimed a revered spot in American pop culture.

"A really good toy renews itself," said Scott G. Eberle, head of the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, N.Y., where the drawing toy was an inductee in 1998.

"It offers you something new with every experience. If you play a game of checkers, it's not going to be the same as the last one you played, and the same thing goes with the Etch A Sketch. It's infinitely renewable."

Mr. Eberle, who grew up in the Toledo area and is vice president for interpretation at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, added: "What really amazes me is now, even though we have access to computer screens and we can produce tremendous graphics, that the Etch A Sketch exists even in this environment. That's astounding."

Bill Southard, owner of Southard Communications, which has publicized Ohio Art toys for 16 years, said it's remarkable how the Etch A Sketch continues to get national attention.

"And from a marketing standpoint, when you talk about Etch A Sketch, you will see that look in a mom's eyes that - Oh, yes! The Etch A Sketch," he said.

Mr. Killgallon said that Etch A Sketch's unique TV-like design has led to its being used frequently as a cultural "billboard" of sorts, keeping its image in the public eye.

In the last two decades, Etch A Sketch has been featured in three films: Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Elf.

The appearance in the first Toy Story film resulted in a nearly 200 percent jump in Etch A Sketch sales in some stores in 1995, and Ohio Art's stock price rose $8 to a yearly high of $47 a share on the American Stock Exchange, where it was traded before moving to the unregulated Pink Sheets in 2004.

Etch A Sketch may have a film role again in the new Toy Story 3 movie that opens Friday. However, the studio won't say whether the drawing device is in the film; it does not appear in the preview clips that have aired so far.

While newer toys run on microchips and batteries, Mr. Killgallon said part of Etch A Sketch's appeal is that it's a quiet toy fueled by imagination — 2-year-olds can doodle, and adults can create art — and it is universal. “You can speak any language … and the child can still play with it,” Mr. Killgallon said.

Even adults get enjoyment from it, although not all become proficient or skilled artists — including Mr. Killgallon, despite being associated with Etch A Sketch for five decades.

“I can still write my name really well and pretty quickly, but if you ask me to draw anything with it, well ...” he said.

Etch A Sketch, originally called Telecran, almost died of neglect.

Mr. Cassagnes, an electrician in France and now a famous designer of kites, got the idea in 1955 after noticing how an electrostatic charge held aluminum powder (which gives the Etch A Sketch its drawing surface) onto glass. He based the design on a television screen and sought a patent.

But lacking funds for a patent, he borrowed from an investor who sent his treasurer, Arthur Granjean, to pay the fee. Mr. Granjean's name ended up on the patent, and over the years he has been wrongly credited with inventing the Etch A Sketch, which he called L'Ecran Magique, or Magic Screen.

The investor, Paul Chaze, took the toy to European toy fairs, but it drew no interest. Finally, Ohio Art executives saw it and bought it.

Mr. Killgallon said Mr. Cassagnes was very interested in geometrical patterns, which he later used to design complex kites. “Mentally, he was into designs involving the X and Y axis. That's one of the reasons he was able to invent the Etch A Sketch,” the Ohio Art executive said.

“His wife was still upset that her husband didn't get all the credit he deserved — and all the royalties for its invention,” he added.

In December, 1960, the Etch A Sketch was the top-selling toy of that holiday season, fetching $6 at retail.

Ohio Art now sells more Etch A Sketches, priced at $10, annually than it did in 1960. But that is in part because of the many models it has, including the Pocket Etch A Sketch, which sells for $8.

Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst with Needham and Co. in New York, said that although Etch A Sketch still sells at a steady pace, its sales are dwarfed by newer, snazzier toys and video games.

“It's gotten some lifts over the years, from a technical standpoint when they added some electronics to it, and then when the Toy Story movies came out,” he said.

“But it's emblematic of the kind of toys these days that a lot of kids don't seem to want. There's no instant gratification with it like a video game.”

Ohio Art itself has struggled to keep the toy competitive, even moving production to China in 2000 to keep costs low enough to meet retailers' price demands.

Company employees continue to ask if Etch A Sketch production will ever return to Bryan, Mr. Killgallon said. Ohio Art studied the idea last year, he said, and “It's still not feasible.”

Even getting retailers to carry the drawing toy has been a fight. Wal-Mart, Target, and Toys R Us carry the toy, but often not the classic model, preferring Pocket or Travel Etch A Sketch or a combo pack.

Gary and Molly Fitzpatrick, owners of Learning Express toy stores in Toledo and Ann Arbor, said they put Etch A Sketch on their shelves only every few years or so.

“We haven't carried it in the last couple of years,” Mrs. Fitzpatrick said. “We have a limited amount of space and we try to stay away from items sold by mass marketers.”

Ohio Art mainly sells the toy directly to mass retailers like Wal-Mart and Target instead of to toy distributors. Target confirmed that it continues to carry the toy at all of its stores at a price of $10.

But Etch A Sketch isn't as ubiquitous as it once was, Mr. McGowan said. Even so, because of its iconic status “you sort of have to have one,” he added.

“It has stood the test of time so well that it sort of gets grandfathered in. Parents had one, and their parents had one, so they sort of feel obligated to buy one for their children,” he said.

Ohio Art, for its part, has continued to try to keep Etch A Sketch relevant compared to other toys. For nearly 25 years, the toy didn't change, but at the urging of a former executive, Lowell Wilson, it began adding electronics and changing sizes, colors, shapes, and other features.

The travel model was developed after research found that parents were taking the toy in the car. The pocket version came next, then a keychain version.

Mr. Killgallon said that next came seasonal or topical versions, such as Batman, heart-shaped for Valentine's Day, and egg-shaped for Easter.

For the future, Ohio Art plans to keep reinventing its toy.

“Will the classic Etch A Sketch be a viable product for the child in the 2-to-5-year age range? That's an unknown answer. But we have to be alert to the fact that it may not be,” Mr. Killgallon said.

Contact Jon Chavez at:jchavez@theblade.comor 419-724-6128.

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