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Toy inventor finds joy in his Game of Life and roller skates

Serendipity is what Reuben Klamer attributes to his exciting career as a toy inventor and the success of his more than 200 toy creations.

For 55 years, Klamer has brought joy to children by designing such products as the Fisher-Price 1-2-3 Roller Skates, the Game of Life, and introducing the Hula Hoop to the United States. Klamer currently works at the Reuben Klamer Toylab in La Jolla and continues to invent new products in the hope that they will be as appealing as Dolly Darlings, Moon Rocks and Gaylord the Walking Dog.

One of Klamer’s more remarkable achievements is the invention of “unbreakable” plastic. Plastic was once considered hazardous to children due to its fragility, but Klamer used a material called polyethylene in the early 1950s to create an unbreakable, safer material for children’s toys.

“This opened the doors for him,” said Beatriz Pardo, friend of Klamer and director of Toylab in La Jolla. “This industry is difficult to break into.”

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Using the material to create bigger toys, Klamer became known as the inventor of the Big Poly.

He used polyethylene in the manufacture of Busy Blocks. According to Klamer, he sold the idea for these toys at a meeting on a whim.

“I made a note on a napkin,” he said. “The man liked it, and Busy Blocks were sold on a napkin.”

One of Klamer’s more popular products, the Fisher-Price 1-2-3 Roller Skates, illustrates the inventor’s creativity. According to Klamer’s longtime friend, actor Richard Dysart, Klamer came up with the idea at camp where the two men met.

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“Reuben was watching a group of dancers,” said Dysart. “He was drawing circles on his notepad, and the dancers were helping him put the style to the skating.”

The skates, originally test-skated by children in a La Jolla park, were initially turned down by 31 buyers.

“We didn’t think they would put kids on roller skates,” said Klamer.

This inherent drama, as Klamer calls it, turned around when Fisher-Price accepted the model in 1984. Pardo said it was practically unheard-of for a toy company to take on a product from outside their company so quickly. After 20 years of success, the Fisher-Price skates have become Klamer’s aces of diamonds.

Always brainstorming for unique ideas, Klamer said he collects inspiration from his surroundings.

“I am aware of the world around me,” said Klamer. “I pay attention to billboards, the news and magazine articles.”

Klamer’s daughter has also served as inspiration. When Klamer once called her Pipsqueak, he realized that would be the perfect name for the toy he was marketing, which eventually became known as The Pipsqueaks.

Another of Klamer’s more well-known achievements, the Game of Life is second only to Monopoly in board game popularity. Marketed in more than 59 countries, Klamer says Life was another success owed to serendipity.

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“I went to Milton Bradley, and they needed a family game,” he said. “I drew up the designs on an airplane.”

The inventor said his inspiration for the game came in part from analyzing what had already been done.

“I studied the competition carefully,” he said. “I looked at Monopoly and knew what not to do.”

These days, Klamer said he plays the three-dimensional board game with his friends. As for future games, Klamer said, “I’ll play with my granddaughter when she gets older.”

Klamer’s own life is quite an accomplishment. Born in Canton, Ohio, he attended George Washington University and received a bachelor’s degree in marketing and economics from Ohio State University. When Klamer was 21 years old, he was the executive officer of a flotilla of ships.

Klamer pursued a career in the toy industry by joining the Ideal Toy Corp. in 1949. In 1951, he teamed up with Eldon Industries and became closely involved in the design and development of products.

On Feb. 19, Klamer was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame. A ceremony in New York commemorated Klamer’s contributions and included a six-minute video praising the inventor’s achievements, narrated by Richard Dysart.

“He is a loved man in his industry,” said Dysart.

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If he weren’t an inventor, Klamer said he would pursue philosophy, a passion he studied in college. Today, Klamer is still inventing. He works at his home in downtown La Jolla, or at the Reuben Klamer Toylab, founded in Beverly Hills in the 1960s then moved to La Jolla in 1983.

He has lived in the Village for two years.

“I like the place,” he said simply.

Through serendipity and a bit of unexpected drama, Klamer has achieved an extraordinary life.

“The toy business has been good to me,” he said. “I enjoy it.”