The Impossible Takes Slightly Longer: The Story of Toymaker Richard Maddocks

September 17, 2015

 

Tuscany. Wood shaves piling up on a workshop floor. The humming of an old woodworker’s voice as his work nears finish. But the creation is no shoe, no table, no chair or bench. Nothing so simple and lifeless. On the counter before the gray-haired Geppetto is a wooden marionette, almost complete, awaiting the adhering of his last piece. The old man’s careful hand slides his knife across the ridge of the piece, pauses for a moment, and mumbles his satisfaction. A little glue, a careful placing, and Pinocchio has his nose. Geppetto pauses again. Perhaps… Perhaps that wasn’t the last piece after all. Out the window and in the sky, Geppetto’s eyes settle upon a star. He makes his impossible wish.

 

The story is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, or rather, Walt Disney’s 1940 animated adaptation of that book. But, to those who have known him even briefly, the tale might just have been that of Richard J. Maddocks, toymaker.

 

I sit with Richard Maddocks in his office at Hasbro’s Pawtucket, Rhode Island headquarters, listen to a few of his many stories, and try to better understand the mind and heart of this snowy-haired, wizard-like toymaker. He has surrounded himself with his creations, his innovations, and his characters. Shelves, desk and floor are piled high with Fur Real Friends cats, dogs, parrots, 17 years of Furby models, assorted interactive Yodas and E.T.s, Elmos and Cookie Monsters, and even the four-foot-tall pony, Butterscotch. Some of those toys are retail products, others are test models and prototypes, and still others are intriguing fur-less plastic skeletons.  His table is strewn with gears, foam, fabrics and a few servos. He is a warm, charming, and unassuming man with a childlike sparkle in his eye, whose small stature casts a remarkable and enduring creative shadow over the modern toy industry. He speaks humbly of his toyography, 500+ toys including Matchbox, Mattel, Tiger Electronics, and Hasbro. He is a working legend, a pathological tinkerer, and a fount of knowledge and experience pivotal to making the greatest animatronic products become far more than just toys. He’s also more than happy to avoid the spotlight and continually insists that everything is “a team effort.”

 

Richard started designing toys in 1971 and never stopped. The 1980s and 90s hosted a seismic shift in the internal complexities of our playthings. Robotics, animatronics, electronics, speakers, microphones, sensors, switches, lights, gearboxes, cams, motors and computer chips became the norm, not the exception. Toys were professed to “come to life” using technology. And it was Richard’s toys that often came closest to life, to answering Geppetto’s impossible wish upon a star, and even perhaps to having souls of their own.

 

Early Life

 

Richard was born in England in the later days of World War II, 1945. Speaking of his early childhood, Richard notes that his first house in the Suffolk countryside had no electricity, no indoor running water, and Europe’s wartime food rationing was still in effect.

 

Richard’s father was a farmer, carpenter and handyman named Philip Maddocks. Spanning a lifetime of uncanny innovation, Philip would read news of the Wright Brothers’ flight, gaze upward to see the Spirit of St. Louis take to the sky, and sit beside his son to watch the first man walk on the moon on a black and white television set. He made models, intricate and impossible to young Richard’s eyes, using everyday objects like watch parts, matchboxes or tiny shards of glass. Listening to Richard describe his father, it seems to me that Philip gave Richard the twinkle in his eye, the designer’s mind, and that impossible imagination.

Richard’s mother, Kathleen, gave him his calm, sincere, and compassionate heart. Richard fondly remembers living in a large guesthouse built in the ruins of an ancient monastery that his parents ran for the Suffolk Diocese. As manager, Kathleen always remained calm and courteous in the face of any carfuffle. She would teach her son to avoid reactiveness. She’d say, “You know what makes them madder? Staying calm.” She actively encouraged Richard’s imagination, and creativity.

 

Finding Toys and Finding Nancy

 

After graduating from Luton College of Technology in 1969, Richard quickly found his way from England to Detroit, Michigan and into a General Motor’s “job shop” where he worked as a truck chassis draftsman. Work, layoff, road trip, and a year later Richard was back in England. After a few months, he was in Hackney Wick in London’s East End. This time he was drawing an entire vehicle, but on a much smaller scale. From GM to Matchbox Toys, Richard was about to find his reason for being. A job that started as a temporary filler lasted fourteen years designing toys from dolls to track sets, including the introduction and development of the Live-n-Learn preschool line.

 

Shedding the security of the corporate world, in 1985 Richard embarked on a new venture as an independent toy inventor. Richard first partnered with Dennis Wyman in England. The 50/50 no quibble “you make it, I sell it” relationship worked well for both parties. 

 

Richard entered his relationship with the Wymans expecting to sell toys, not expecting to find a wife. One day, while working with Dave Wyman, there was an unexpected knock on the door. In walked Nancy. Matching her husband in warmth, charm, and creativity, Nancy’s eyes twinkle with mischief that beautifully contrast Richard’s own childlike aura. Until that door opened, Richard intended an early night. But, Richard tells me with his biggest smile, that isn’t what happened. Nancy was an American film editor who carried a handbag full of maps. The business meeting quickly dissolved into a visit to the local pub where Nancy ordered a “pint” of beer. Now, a proper English lady does not order pints of beer. Incidentally, one of those maps in Nancy’s handbag must have lead straight to Richard’s heart... and eventually back to the States.

 

Take II America

 

Once they could no longer afford the international phone bills (remember this was still in the dark ages of landlines-only communication), Richard and Nancy decided to get married. Richard packed up his drawing board and headed west. His partnership with the Wymans carried on and out of that period came Playmates Baby Grows. But the distance was taking a toll. It was time for a change. Enter Richard Levy, a well-established inventor based in the U.S. The two Richards joined forces and out of this partnership came Oops and Downs, Max Steel Super Scan, Switch Blade, Steel Tec Motormania and many more creations. Then, in 1998, life was about to take another dramatic turn and not just for Richard.

 

The F Word

 

Richard Levy had been quietly working with toy inventors Dave Hampton and Caleb Chung to license a revolutionary toy to Tiger Electronics. Furby, that  fuzzy, madcap animatronic character took virtual pets to a whole new level and took Tiger far outside their usual wheelhouse. What was handheld electronics maker Tiger doing trying to create an animatronic toy?

 

Prior to its stunning premiere at New York Toy Fair in 1998, the Furby prototype wasn’t quite performing as required. With a commercial shoot and Toy Fair looming, Richard was called to the rescue. He never knew what hit him. After 36 sleepless hours, the prototype was ready for prime time. This was Furby’s grand debut and the Toy Fair v