Turning Inventor Ideas into Real Products: a Kohner Family Tradition for Over 75 Years
One man’s Trouble is another man’s joy.
That has never been truer than when it comes to the Kohner Family’s success in the toy industry. Featuring the unforgettable Pop-o-Matic in the center of the board, the iconic game, Trouble, has brought fun for decades to millions the world over. But Trouble is neither the beginning nor the end of the Kohner toy legend.
While the Kohner path to toys can be traced back to the middle 1800s, with a family heritage in woodworking, it really began in 1940, when Paul Kohner left his hometown of Tachau, Czechoslovakia, and came to the United States to escape the Nazis. Two years later, he would get his younger brother, Frank, out of danger as well.
Paul and Frank formed Kohner Bros, in New York City, during World War II. Before expanding into toys, they manufactured wooden beads and beaded purses, a wartime fashion rage.
The first Kohner toys took the form of beads and craft sets. These items evolved into wooden pull toys such as Tricycle Tom and Ice Cream Mike. From there, the business quickly progressed. And for the next 35 years, would make millions of the Baby Boomer classic Push Button Puppets, Tricky Trapeze and other toys and games. They would revolutionize an entire segment of the industry with an infant activity toy called the Busy Box.
Paul directed the manufacturing, operations and production for the company. Frank steered the business administration and product selection process. But they were equal partners and worked very closely together on all aspects of the company.
“Paul was a tough task master. We were very busy all the time. But it was a family. And we were all part of it.” Al Stubbmann, age 87, Kohner Bros VP R&D for 25+ years
With a new state-of-the-art 150,000 square foot factory under construction in New Jersey, the family business was booming when Paul died suddenly, in 1965.
His passing stunned the family and community. Paul’s son, Michael (then just 22 years old) joined the company to help fill the void.
While it was impossible to fill Paul Kohner’s shoes, Michael stepped into his new role and quickly began making his own positive impact. He took over international licensing for the company, expanding those activities dramatically around the world.
Within five years, Kohner Brothers continued to grow and was sold to General Foods. Frank retired from the toy business leaving Michael as the last Kohner. In 1974, General Foods realizing Kohner made products that last generations versus foods which was consumed daily sold the business to Gabriel Industries. At that point, Michael decided that it was time to continue the Kohner legacy and made his mark over the last 40 plus years with the Michael Kohner Corporation.
Frank would go on to launch a successful housewares business and published a collection of anecdotes and memories of the people in the old country, “Tachau Tales” in 1995. He lived to be 100 years old and died in 2011.
GROWING UP IN TOYLAND
As Michael was growing up during World War II, and shortly thereafter, his father and uncle carefully and systematically worked and saved money to bring his entire family, and many others, out of Nazi controlled Eastern Europe and concentration camps and got them to America all at their expense.
He recalls a married couple who arrived in New York from the old country, thanks to his father and his uncle. The wife was afraid to meet Paul when she got off the boat because she had brought her small Scottie dog, “Happy,” under her coat and was afraid he would be angry. Instead, he laughed and welcomed them. He would go on to create a dog Push Button Puppet and called it “Happy the Wonder Dog.” These people and many others became dedicated Kohner Bros employees for many years, so grateful for the new life they were given in America.
Michael said, “My father and uncle had an open door policy when it came to outside inventors. They would listen to anyone’s idea, and if they thought it had potential, they would do whatever they could to help turn it into a real product, all while ensuring that the inventor was given fair royalties in the process. This policy is what propelled the company forward.”
While they generally had a knack for seeing value in an idea, there was an occasion, when a man came into his dad’s office with a simple hoop and began to spin it around his waist. His father said no way and chased him out. That man would later demonstrate his invention on Art Linkletter’s show… and the rest is Hula Hoop history. Who knew?
LOGOS - THEN AND NOW
The original Kohner logo was a large “K” that was stylized to look like a clown. That logo would become a source of grief for young Michael when jealous playmates would tease him with the nickname, “The Kohner Clown.” When he officially joined the company at age 22, one of his first orders of business was to update the company logo to more loveable red heart logo above and get rid of the clown persona for good! Everyone knows the current MKC logo.
PERFECTING IDEAS WITH OUTSIDE INVENTORS
While they passed on the Hula Hoop, there were plenty of other incredible products that Kohner Bros brought to market and licensed from independent inventors. Many ideas were brought to them in one embodiment, and Kohner’s R&D department, led by Albert Stubbmann, would modify and make structural improvements allowing for most efficient and profitable manufacturing and marketability.
A classic example of this is the iconic BUSY BOX.
It was pitched to the Kohner Bros by independent inventors Tim and Tom McHugh, as a wooden table filled with tactile, sensory activities that promoted motor skills in infants and toddlers. Stubbmann converted the original concept into a much smaller, colorful, flat toy that mounted on crib rails. This product marked a strategic shift, filling a gap in the industry that no one had addressed before. Prior to that, the infant toy market was limited mainly to rattles and teethers. Kohner expanded the Busy Box from a single item into a full product line that included multiple iterations of the concept, including bath toys, floor toys and was essentially the genesis of a whole new category of infant toys that continues to be one of the largest in the industry today.
The Kohners also introduced Push Button Puppets to the United States, licensing the idea from a Swiss inventor named Marty Meinard. Kohner would be one of the mid-century pioneers of character licensed toys with dozens of puppets in the line, like Howdy Doody, The Flintstones, Superman, Batman & Robin, Disney, Hanna Barbera, among many others.
They would find themselves battling many competitor infringements on their intellectual property for Push Button Puppets and Busy Box items in the coming years. But they always won.
MAKING THE TRANSITION FROM WOOD TO PLASTIC… AND TELEVISION
The brothers also set up a side company called AMKO that imported small carved wooden game pieces to the U.S. from Heinz Lorenz, a very high quality German company in the Bavarian Black Forest. For years, Lorenz supplied the wooden pieces for Monopoly and the wooden tiles for Scrabble among other games. AMKO served as the agent for these transactions on Lorenz’ behalf with companies like Parker Brothers, Selchow & Righter and Hasbro.
When World War II ended, plastic, that had been conserved for the war effort, suddenly became readily available as a raw material for manufacturing and offered creative, colorful, cost effective product possibilities that couldn't be achieved with wood.
Albert Stubbmann was an engineer hired by Paul to convert the Kohner factory from wood to plastic production after the war. They procured an injection molding machine and the conversion took about a year to complete. He had a hand in 90% of the products that came out of Kohner Bros from the 1940’s to the 1960’s. His name is on over 20 patents for at least 50 products.
The first plastic product they made was a popular item called “Looney Links.” Kohner had been making it out of wood. It became a transitional product made with both wood and plastic components and eventually was all plastic.
The Busy Box was the second plastic toy they ever made. And Stubbmann is credited with fine-tuning that as well. The company would go on to create a whole line of
Busy Box products and in the late 1960’s, would reach an exclusive licensing agreement with Sears Roebuck to stock their entire infant department with Winnie The Pooh Busy line products licensed through Disney.
During those years, Kohner entered into an endorsement deal with renowned psychologist, Dr. Joyce Brothers. They used her likeness, name and quotes heavily in print and television advertising to promote the innovative Busy Box line as educational and developmentally beneficial for young children.
Michael says that, along with Stubbmann, Shelly Greenberg, a master sales executive, was also crucial to the success of Kohner Bros. The company would not have reached the level of growth that it did without him. He was a tireless professional who maintained great relationships and always got the big orders from the major retailers.
While many Kohner products were licensed from outside inventors, the game “Trouble” was developed internally.
It was based on an early 20th century German game called “Mensch Argere dich nict” (loosely translated to “Don’t Argue,” it was a game very much like ancient Parcheesi). The working name during development was “Frustration” but was changed to “Trouble” before launch. It has been distributed in some international markets under the name “Frustration” over the years. Stubbmann was commissioned to come up with a promotional feature for the game. The “No loose parts!” Pop-O-Matic – a plastic domed dice mechanism- in the center of the board was conceived by him and took about six months to develop. The game debuted in 1963, sold over a million copies annually year after year. It is still part of the HASBRO product line today.
In the early 1970s, Michael got some of his greatest personal satisfaction organizing Kohner factory field trip tours for countless school children. Students would be escorted through to see how toys and games were made. Every child would walk out at the end with a smile on their face and a Trouble game under their arm.
The Pop-O-Matic feature was incorporated into multiple Kohner games in the next few years including “Headache,” “Side Track,” “Bingo with Pop-O-Matic,” “Cross Over The Bridge,” “Pop-Cheks,” and others.
This expansion of a single game mechanic into a whole product line was an extraordinary occurrence. The Pop-O-Matic blossomed into a brand unto itself, and in time, the intellectual property would be licensed to other companies for use in even more games.
SINCE 1974: THE MICHAEL KOHNER CORPORATION
When Michael started the Michael Kohner Corporation, he was immediately contracted by a company called A.R.C. Toys (which later became Broadway Toys). A.R.C. was manufacturing children's vanity sets under the Barbie license amongst many other products. Michael would maintain a desk in their offices at the Toy Center in Manhattan for many years, but kept his independent status, working with them as well as building his game licenses business. Michael remains dear friends with Bob Gellman, retired President of Broadway Toys.
In the early 1980's, Michael met Michael Or, Managing Director of Longshore LTD, which has become one of the most respected game manufacturers in the world.
The Longshore relationship would prove to be a turning point in Kohner’s career. Kohner developed a unique strategy for convincing toy companies to license the ideas he brought to the table. He discovered that if he could present a detailed quote for manufacturing when he pitched a toy or game idea for licensing, that it vastly improved his chances of getting a deal.
His friends at Longshore were glad to oblige the quote process, as it increased the likelihood that they would secure business as well. It was a winning formula for all involved because it often saved time and legwork on behalf of the toy companies, making it easier for them to say “yes” to an idea.
Around the same time, Kohner also met David Mair, an independent game inventor, and began representing his ideas for licensing. Over their 30+ year relationship, Kohner had helped Mair license nearly 100 of his inventions. Bestselling games by Mair include “Magic Tooth Fairy,” which debuted in 2001, and is a perennial topseller in England, selling 50,000 plus
pieces per year. “Don’t Panic” is Mair’s all time
biggest hit, licensed by multiple companies since 1983 and many themed editions including Disney have been published. Pictured is John Adams's very successful version of Don't Panic.
REVIVING OLD GAMES: A NEW FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
In 2005, Kohner reached another turning point in his career. Michael Or tells it this way: “A short time after my son, Wai Or, came into the business in 2005, he asked Michael Kohner what he thought of an old Milton Bradley game called “Loopin’ Louie. It was a great game but rather large. Michael came up with a new concept and told Wai, if Longshore could manufacture this game for a certain cost, including the inventor’s royalty, and if Longshore would invest in molds once we had a distributor, he could place it. So instead of Michael Kohner Corporation acquiring the rights to license the game from the inventor (a Japanese company called Sente Creations), he arranged to have the rights for the IP and manufacturing rights to be granted to Longshore. Longshore now was guaranteed the project for our factories and Michael Kohner handled our Marketing and Sales. To make a long story short, HASBRO reacquired the rights, and it is currently STILL the #1 action game in Germany."
The “Loopin’ Louie” experience ushered in a new formula for the Kohner-Longshore strategic partnership. Since 2005, they have relaunched over 20 other games back into the marketplace together with many well known inventors of the original versions.
The MKC/Longshore team have many new games in the marketplace for 2017.
A FAMILY LEGACY OF INTEGRITY AND LOVE
Michael shared the enduring love and support of his late wife, Elayne. “She did all of the correspondence, bookkeeping, licensee agreements, business social planning, entertaining, you name it. The instant anyone met her, they were in love. So many of my Licensees, business friends, the Longshore family. So many knew her so long and so well, she is like part of the family of the industry.” They were married 48 years when she passed away in April, 2013.
The TAGIE Lifetime Achievement Award
Michael was honored at the Toy & Game Innovation Awards (TAGIEs) in 2014. Attending with Michael was with his son, Paul and his daughter, Marci. He has two grandsons, Zachary and Jacob, and two granddaughters, Stevie and Jamie.
His friends and colleagues describe him as a creative, trustworthy, patient, persistent and fair man. A real gentleman and a champion of shared success.
"If only we could all take a step back and truly understand the special people and history of our industry, people such as Paul and Frank Kohner, my grandfather Henry (one of the founding brothers of Hasbro) and my father Merrill. They all helped so many flee the Holocaust and settle in America. Michael is a genius in knowing that there is nothing without great ideation and that comes from wonderful creative sprites that must be nurtured and loved. We are so fortunate at Hasbro to be a part of the Kohner family."
- Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro
"Michael is living legend, successful, loyal, mentor to many, funny, creative, gracious, and generous beyond measure to friends, colleagues and family. He credits his uncle, who told him there is no better feeling to than to give with warm hands. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the people who count Michael as one of their dearest friends. He will deflect with a one-liner to counter such accolades, but even these words do not begin to describe this prince among princes."
-Mary Couzin, Chicago Toy & Game Group
"A gentleman, an ambassador, a mentor, a one liner guru.... Michael is one of the true gems of the industry . Michael and the Kohner family are intricately intertwined into the fabric of The Toy and Game biz , not only as friends to many but also for bringing some of the worlds best loved toys and games to life and to the hands of millions of families."
-Dougal Grimes, Hasbro
“Growing up in the Toy Industry, I have had the good fortune of knowing Michael Kohner my entire life. Michael has not only been a friend to my family and great business partner to Design Edge, he has also been a true mentor to me, personally. From the do’s and don’ts of game mechanics to the fundamentals of production costing, the education I have received from him is immeasurable. Michael was among the first people to introduce me to and bring me around to the manufacturing mecca that is Hong Kong. He has gone out of his way to teach me the art of contract negations and still checks in on me, to this day, to make sure I’m making solid deals. I am blessed to have him in my life and in my family's life.”
- Matt Nuccio, Design Edge
"I have known The Great Michael Kohner for all of my toy career and that is a long time. But business was never the only thing that joined Mike and I together. It was Mike's intelligence, his sense of humor and family. We laugh, we fish, we talk, we laugh. To know Mike is to love him. My son Matt has commentated (above) and everything he says and more is true, but there is something else. He breathes loyalty and honesty. And one more VERY important part of Mike: The Love of Mike's life is Elayne. She is still with all of us in spirit. Elayne was a very special gracious person. My wife Linda and I continue to be in awe of her. She and Mike were a team. To understand The Great Kohner and his beautiful family you have to celebrate both Elayne and Mike. We love you, Mike! -The Nuccio’s I love you, Mike! -Mark"
-Mark Nuccio, Design Edge
"Mr K. has a generosity of spirit and a zest for life that inspires me deeply. His capacity to embrace and connect with a wide variety of people and personalities is something to behold. There is an incredible warmth, joy and familiarity that comes so natural to him. In fact, a compliment on the matter will receive a humble shrug and the phrase: "it's normal". Oh but Mr. K... Normal it is not! When I moved to New York, Mike and Elayne provided me with a safe "home away from home". And what a loving home it was and continues to be. I will forever be grateful for the memories we shared and all those still to come".
-Jael Golad, Goliath Games
"Michael Kohner has played a very important role in the history of Longshore. He is not only a business associate, but also a dear friend to our family. Elayne Kohner will always live in our memory. It is good to see that Mike still works hard, drinks Volka and tells his favorite stories."
Wai and Michael OR, Longshore
"When I was looking for an honest and intelligent agent to represent me, I asked a mutual friend about Michael. He said he’s the kind of guy you can trust to hold your wallet. I gave him mine to hold a while ago and he still can’t remember where he put it. Seriously, he has been a true mentor to me, friend to my wife and I, and that great and generous third grandfather to my four daughters and their children. A well deserved award for an old friend."
-David Mair, Inventor
"Michael Kohner is one of the most enjoyable people to work with in this business of play. It would be very hard to find a more professional, engaging and committed partner on any project. Not to mention Michael being, without a doubt, the most gracious and generous person I've come to know over the past 30+ years in this business."
-Roger Gehrke, RPD Consulting
"Michael is a super star, you really don’t find many like him that possess such special knowledge and deep experience in our industry – he understands how to work with people, get the best results and has made so many of us that have worked with him better at what we do and how we do it. Michael’s natural ability to make people laugh is renowned, his generosity, integrity and his word make him the most genuine of men!"
Mike Moody - Seventowns
"Michael Kohner is a very special person in the gaming world. Like his track record shows he has an unbelievable talent to find good items, and at the same time he is able to build wonderful relations with game and toy people all around the globe. In spite of his sharp wit and sarcastic jokes which I enjoy very much, he is an extremely helpful, friendly, warm hearted and fair person. Fast, reliable, nearly superhuman. I like Mike very much and am honored to work with him ."
-Dieter Strehl, Piatnik
"Michael is one of the nicest and most generous people in our business. One of the things I look forward to the most about New York Toy Fair is the dinner Michael hosts for me and other “old timers". During my years at Hasbro, we would license one of Kohner’s games after running Michael ragged for quotes and changes. Then, at times, the decision would come down to pass on the game. Once this happened three times in a row and I had to make the call. I would hope for the message machine but Michael would answer. Although disappointed, he never blamed the messenger. We are good friends to this day."
-Mike Hirtle, Paladin
"Many years ago I spied a small ad in Toy and Hobby World, a former industry trade magazine, and met Michael Kohner for the first time. A 30 minute meeting (in a car) changed my business and personal life forever. Fortunately Mike became our business consultant which quickly evolved into a wonderful bond…which included his dear wife, Elayne. Without Michael's connections and hard work, Broadway Toys may not have grown and flourished in our competitive toy industry. If I had to reduce Mike's valuable contributions to Broadway Toys into one sentence: "He is not only an amazing idea man with a razor sharp business mind, but he was always able to take his invaluable ideas from the concept stage forward to a profitable and successful conclusion.” Had Michael not become a great and much respected toy executive, he could have become a successful humorist with his hilarious stories and perfectly timed punch lines. Like fine wine, jeans and wisdom, Kohner’s fun gets even better with age. A mere mention of his name today creates smiles (and respect) all around. Thank you Michael for being an awesome advisor, loyal advocate, brilliant innovator ...and more important, for your very precious lifetime friendship."
-Bob Gellman, Broadway Toys
(Pictured above: Wai Or, Jair Golad, Jochanan Golad, Matt Nuccio, Michael Kohner, Marci Kohner Plissner, Adam Plissner, Jael Golad, Paul Kohner and Jill Kohner.)
“My father and uncle were open to any inventor that was breathing. Many items were designed internally. But a bigger percentage came from the outside. They took a product like BUSY BOX from two brothers that came to them with a 4ft square table, filled with activities for a young baby, and it turned it into one of the most famous crib toys ever. Every single variation, from Busy Box Jr. to Musical Busy Box generated royalties for the inventors. As for me, everything I do could not happen without the game beginning with an inventor.” — Michael Kohner
Other notable products from Kohner Bros:
Mickey Mouse and many other Disney character licensed toys
Hi-Q Game including the famous Solitaire
Other notable products via Michael Kohner Corporation:
Split Second – Invented by Big Monster Toys - BMT
Lucky Ducks 3D action game – Invented by Len Stubenfoll
Giggle Wiggle 3D action game – Invented by Ned Strongin
Shark Attack 3D action game – Invented by Eddie Goldfarb
Mr. Bucket game - Invented Wayne Kuna