Twister Made Boomers Twist & Shout

It happened this past week: The National Toy Hall of Fame inducted another boomer toy — Twister — into its ranks. The Hall was established in 1998 by Ed Sobey and originally resided at A. C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon. When it had outgrown its surroundings in 2002, the Hall was moved to the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

The Hall was established to recognize toys that had staying power beyond fads and trends to establish themselves as icons that cultivated learning, creativity and discovery through innovative play or design. A look at the inductees over the past decade and a half reveals many Boomer Era favorites, including Etch A Sketch, Barbie, Play Doh and many more.

Now Twister joins the illustrious ranks. Twister was conceived in 1964 by Reyn Guyer as a promotional item for Johnson’s Shoe Polish, a client of his father’s design company, Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design. He called his game Pretzel. When salesman Charles Foley called on the purchasing agent of the company, he saw a model of the game displayed. Foley approached Guyer, telling him he had some connections in the toy business and thought his game might be viable in the marketplace. With funding from his father, Guyer started a toy division with Foley and another man, Neil Rabens.

The three men worked out the now-familiar mat design of colored circles arranged in rows, with each row having the same color, and added hands to the original feet-only-placement game play. It was simple enough for people of any age to play: a spinner card was printed with color blocks of red, yellow, blue and green repeated four times, with each of the quadrants assigned to the left foot, right hand, right foot and right hand. So, a spin could result in the spinner card arrow pointing to “right foot, green,” for example. The player would then have to find a green colored circle on the mat to place his or her right foot. When a player touched a knee to the floor or fell, he or she was eliminated; the last person remaining on the mat was the winner. The game was designed for two or more players.

In 1964, the men submitted Pretzel to the Milton Bradley toy company which saw merit in the game and agreed to produce it. However, when Milton Bradley discovered the name was already trademarked the name was changed to Twister, much to the chagrin of Reyn Guyer.

The game was not well received in its early days. In 1965 Sears Roebuck told Milton Bradley they would not sell it in their stores because toy competitors had labelled it “sex in a box,” referring to the potential of co-ed play with overlapping body parts. Milton Bradley was reconsidering whether there was a future for the game when a P.R. firm got word of it to Johnny Carson in 1966, and arranged for Eva Gabor to play a game of Twister on air with The Tonight Show talk show host. That TV appearance invigorated sales and Foley and Rabens submitted it for a patent that same year.

For many boomers, Twister was a family game. As early TV commercials suggested, children, parents and grandparents could participate in the fun. For teenage boomers, Twister became a party game — a chance to interact with the opposite sex while listening to increasingly popular rock ‘n roll 45 RPM records in many a suburban basement. In Mister Boomer’s household, both were true.

His younger sister was the gamester in the family. She had all the popular games of the day — including other Hall inductees Candy Land and The Game of Life — so when Twister hit the scene, she wanted that one, too. As with all “major” toy purchases, her games were acquired by way of birthday or Christmas gifts. She’d enlist Mister B and his father in the game. His mother rarely participated, and Brother Boomer, a high school teenager, was hardly ever home. The mat, once spread out on the living room floor, took up all of the space between the couch and TV.

Mister B didn’t find the game all that interesting, but then his brother told him teens were playing it at parties. Brother Boomer went to many parties, carting his collection of 45s with him. Those 45s, marked with his name so if they got mixed on the turntable stack, he’d be able to retrieve which were his, are now in Mister B’s possession. The Twister game, however, did not survive the years.

How about you, boomers? Was Twister a family game for you, or a “sex in a box” teen party game?

Twister Inventor Takes His Final Spin

Inventor Charles F. Foley died this past week. Boomers may not recall Mr. Foley’s name, but mention that he was the co-inventor of the game Twister, and there will be an immediate recognition.

Foley and a co-worker, Neil Rabens, were employed by a manufacturing firm in St. Paul, Minnesota in the mid-60s when the company decided to branch out into toys for the burgeoning boomer generation. Together, the two men came up with the idea for a simple game that got people entangled to such a degree that they suggested the name be “Pretzel.” When they applied for a patent in 1966, the name had evolved to Twister.

A distribution deal was struck almost immediately with Milton Bradley, and game boxes were on store shelves in 1966, where it rang up only modest sales. It was a simple game intended for any number of players, but most often was practiced with two or four. The entire contents of the box were a spinner card, instructions and a white vinyl mat emblazoned with red, yellow, blue and green circles. The spinner card had a circle containing swatches of each of the same colors, along with an indication of which appendage the player should use to touch that color of circle. So a spin could request the player place a left foot on a green circle, or a right hand on a yellow. Players quickly became intertwined as they reached under and over opponents in an effort to touch the selected color circle while avoiding touching a knee or falling on the mat. The fact that people of any age or gender could play the game caused competitors to brand the entanglement as “sex in a box.”

Then on May 3, 1966, Johnny Carson played a game of Twister on his TV show with that evening’s guest, Eva Gabor. That gave the game the star-power boost it needed, not to mention a flirtatious element since Eva Gabor entered the game in a cleavage-exposing dress. Sales spiked immediately, and the game has been selling ever since.

Twister quickly caught on around the world, in all types of cultures and levels of economic strata. Some say it was its simplicity and all-age inclusion that led to its easy acceptance. Despite its success, Foley and his co-inventor did not receive royalties. Several years later, the inventor was awarded $27,000 in a negotiated buyout.

Charles Foley was a prolific inventor, holding 97 patents, including his second-most famous invention of a liquid adhesive remover. Still, none eclipsed the popularity of Twister, as it became a mainstay for boomer teen parties.

Mister Boomer’s sister was the big game person in his household. She had all the popular board games of the era, including Mystery Date, Mousetrap and Operation. Sister Boomer had received Twister as either a birthday or Christmas gift. Mister B was never much into games, especially one that required a player to twist into ridiculous positions. She would attempt to get the family involved in the game in the living room. That was logistically challenging in itself since there was barely enough space between the Twister mat and the TV on one side, and the mat and couch on the other. An added task to a player’s contortions was not to fall into the TV or the feet of the remaining family members sitting on the couch.

Born in 1930, Charles Foley was not a member of the Baby Boom Generation himself, but thanks to his co-invention, Twister, he has left his mark on the memories of boomers across North America.

Today the game is marketed by Hasbro. Teens play the game in various ways, including holding Twister parties for charity, to set world records for the number of people playing the game at once. Twister has come a long way since being branded “sex in a box.”

What memories do Twister evoke for you, boomers?