Every day is Christmas for Bernard Loomis, whose work is play.
"When I was growing up -- as not the most affluent kid on the block -- my favorite toy was a Lionel electric train catalogue. Though my rolling stock was only the pictures in the catalogue, I ran the biggest railroad of anybody, in my head. Five years ago, I spoke at a conference of Lionel people and they gave me a whole real system. But you know, I had more fun running trains in my imagination," says Loomis, who looks a little like Santa Claus without the beard and the red suit. The toy executive was in town recently to promote his new game, Stage II, for Milton Bradley.
As an adult, Loomis has made a game of life, enjoying the toys he missed as a child. He has brought children Care Bears and Hot Wheels. They've brought him a bagful of profit.
He bought the rights for "Star Wars" toys before the movie premiered. When the movie spun into orbit before the toys were ready, he issued Darth Vader rain checks.
He coordinated the triplet birth of Strawberry Shortcake as a doll, American Greetings card and television special. Loomis is blamed for originating this idea of producing television specials that promote toys as much as they entertain. In the old days, first came the movie or the book or the television program, followed by the toy. In this speedy day, it all happens simultaneously.
The idea man believes "television can enhance a product and accelerate its sale, with collectability as the payoff. Thanks to television, the product is identifiable when the consumer goes to spend his money. Toy stores sell television-advertised toys as loss leaders, at or below the wholesale price. But you must have product satisfaction."
As an example of a how a toy can be scuttled, he brings up "Baby Alive," a doll that could be fed a formula and then would need its diapers changed. Allied with those who found the idea repulsive on esthetic grounds were groups concerned about bacteria in the dirty diapers. Loomis defended the doll with research, "which showed children had more bacteria on their hands than the formula." In general, he thinks the toy company's safety code works. But he says "We were dealing more with perception than reality."
As for toy guns, Loomis says, "They cause an emotional reaction. When I was at Mattel, I kept them from advertising guns. There was a time when guns were part of the John Wayne western syndrome, but guns seemed more fun when we were further away from the reality of war. Since television brought Vietnam to the dinner table, playing with guns has become less and less acceptable. The only acceptable guns now are the Zap phasers.
"Too much reality can ruin play. Who wants a hijacking game?"
Loomis is not one who believes that television and toys are corrupting childhood. "Consistently, evil is vanquished by good. We'd have a great world if real evil took the beating it gets on Saturday morning."
Loomis called his current company GLAD because "I used to be MAD (Marketing and Design for General Mills), but not anymore." He's currently president of Great Licensing and Design, a joint venture with Hasbro Bradley Inc., the progenitor of Transformer figures of last Christmas. Before that, he was president of General Mills MAD, vice president of Mattel Toys and chief executive officer of Kenner Products Co. Loomis is a past president of the Toy Manufacturers of America. He hasn't always been the person who invents the toy, but he's the one who decides if, when and how it will be made and marketed.
Loomis started in toys after being sales manager of a hardware company and deciding his talents lay in being a manufacturer's representative. One day in 1960, he was sitting around his Tarrytown, N.Y., community swimming pool and started to talk with a man from Mattel. In 1970, he began the Kenner division of General Mills, bringing its gross to $200 million. After years in management, he went back to working closer to product development.
He once said he left General Mills because "they were into market research, I'm into guts.
"We didn't decide to promote those toys on the basis of so-called sophisticated market research. Coca-Cola spent four years testing their new Coke -- and look what happened. Their intelligent recovery was made with guts, not research. The trouble with research is that it tells you what people were thinking about yesterday, not tomorrow. It's like driving a car using a rear-view mirror."
Loomis is not one to claim all good ideas are his. "Other contributions have often been more important. But I am the decision maker who makes it happen. Good ideas often die because people lose faith. You can't fear failure. I just try to win big and loose small." Even so, he admits introducing every game "with butterflies in my stomach."
The folly of market research was shown to Loomis at his daughter's 7th birthday party, 30 years ago. He was testing some new Mattel toys to see if they were suitable for his daughter's age group. Most of the guests were children of his neighbors, scientists at an aerospace research center. He remembers especially an 8-year-old child named Mitchell whose brain ran at warp speed. He knew all the answers almost before they were asked. "Mitchell and the other guests weren't a fair test. They were way ahead of their ages."
Toys in the United States are serious business. "By the end of this year, Hasbro, currently the tops, will do a billion dollars of business. Mattel, the second largest toy company maybe, will hit a billion as well."
Time was, says Loomis, "when rich-kid toys came from Germany and cheap toys from Japan. But not any more. Toys are a worldwide product -- Hong Kong, Taiwan, all over. What remains constant is that most toys originate in the United States. The American marketplace has incredible purchasing power. We're the only market big enough to develop toys." Most all board games, essentially a publishing business, are made in the United States, England and Australia.
He denies that his newest board game, Stage II, is Daughter of Trivial Pursuit. "It's really descended from The New York Times crossword puzzle," he says, "though we and the children often played Trivial Pursuit without a board. I came up with the idea of questions with a theme, connecting in different ways. Stage II is a whole new game. Trivial Pursuit is information; Stage II is deduction."
Stage II has 7,200 questions, "of which I've played with 25 percent," says Loomis. "Each question has to be carefully researched."
The game man says Stage II is well on its way because it's already in second position in the game market. "Every dollar spent on games in June will be matched by $100 in December. Games are late purchases."
One problem: Stage II is so complicated it takes a full-minute commercial instead of the more usual 30 seconds.
Loomis is not one to underestimate the intelligence of his customers. "I don't believe in talking down to people, even children, but instead to playing up to them. If you make a game interesting enough people are willing to turn off the tube and enjoy each other in a mild intellectual pursuit."
Even though Loomis is in the mass market business, he claims to be a great individualist. "As my credentials, I offer the fact I was chairman of the Westchester County Volunteers for Adlai Stevenson. No one knows how to think for other people. I don't like people who are afraid of freedom of choice."
Despite the What's New? mind set, Loomis points out that the best toys stick around a long time. "Barbie Doll is now 25 years old. Potato Head, the Mickey Mouse Telephone, Life and Monopoly games go on and on."
Loomis has no claim on the Cabbage Patch dolls, but he admits, "they're one of the most remarkable successes in the history of dolls. And the phenomenon is not over yet. I've stopped saying when it will end." He credits the Cabbage Patch success to the dolls' adoption concept. "Children like the idea of being responsible, of taking care of something. That's also the heart of our Care Bear toys. It's positive. It's about doing good."
Dolls come in two groups, Loomis says: "Barbie is about what you want to be when you grow up. Cabbage Patch, Care Bears and baby dolls are for playing mother."
For Christmas 1985, Loomis expects to see more of the same: Hasbro Bradley Transformers for boys and Cabbage Patch dolls for girls. Stage II, the Voltrons, Care Bear Cousins and the Furskins are about all that's new this year, he says. But he's expecting great things to come.
"We're in the midst of a communications explosion. A computer network is already doing Stage II. The toy of the day is the videocassette recorder. It's a dramatic step forward. We already have projects for VCR games."
Exactly what, he's not saying.
Would you expect Santa Claus to tell you what you're getting for Christmas?