|IT'S PLAY TIME
Forget Santa's elves laboring at the North Pole, Western New York has its own hard-working toy maker
Sunday, December 28, 2003
Section: LIFESTYLES Page: E1
In a workshop on one of those East Aurora streets where brightly painted turn-of-the-century houses look cozy and grand, there is a door with a sign that says, "If it's not fun, it's not mine." Behind it, a man builds a toy that is a secret.
As he drills and glues bits of plastic, David Moomaw lets the stereo blast random songs from his 400-CD collection of the happy rock of the Beatles, Moxy Fruvous and the B-52s.That way he's not distracted by repeats as he works in the old hayloft he converted to a workshop. Above him on the slanted ceiling he tacked wood signs he carved for inspiration: "Do one thing at a time. Do it very well. Then go on to the next." "Do it now before you forget." "It's all a matter of will."
All of this lets the 52-year-old man with a goatee and the tanned, blond, muscled look of a Beach Boy stay focused so he can work relaxed and quickly enough to meet deadlines. It is one of his secrets to making a living as a freelance toy designer -- one of about 30 freelance toy people who used to work at Fisher-Price, famous for its little people and wooden pull toys.
A former principal designer for the toy company he still loves, Moomaw now prefers to work on his own, without meetings or bosses. "I don't want to be in charge," he said. "I want to make toys."
It was nearly lunchtime and he'd been up since 3:30 a.m., the beginning of his usual 10-hours-a-day schedule that lets him finish in time for dinner with his wife and son.
His gaze stayed on the plastic bits on the worktable he made out of an old bowling lane. He gave his gizmo a test by pulling its little white plastic trigger. A foam disc flew out. That was good.
But the rest of the foam ammunition in the chamber was sticking. That was a problem. He had only the afternoon to make the secret toy fire smoothly, one foam disc after another.
He knows toys must be protected from copycats during their two-year trip to store shelves.
Many of the toys and mechanisms Moomaw designs eventually do finish that journey, becoming lawn mowers that delight him by shooting out bubbles instead of grass; blue dogs with ears that move when kissed on the nose; and, a favorite, a remote-control motorcyclist who can go backward, turn his head, put his foot down to brake and chase the cat.
Fooling around to make toys work remains one of his life's pleasures, even if the toys fail to sell. Many have flopped, even after hours upon hours of designing and tinkering and imagining the children who will slide in the snow on the knee skis, or push the buttons to make a small plastic cat dance, or laugh as water sprays when they shoot his rocket into the air.
"I'm a boy," he said with a smile. "I like rockets and things that go up in the air and splash."
Today his project was a design problem from a toy company, not one of his creations. To get the foam bits to fire one after another from the chamber, he waxed the inside. Then, a trigger snap, and one foam disc flew into the tool drawer and another slammed into a Kleenex box.
Success. Moomaw nodded, pleased. "The wax works," he said. He would specify a more slippery kind of plastic for the finished product.
The problem toy came to him, as many do, because he has a reputation for knowing how to make toys work.
Now, after 30 years in the business, the last 12 working for himself, he remembers his inventing beginnings, rigging one of his first toys as a boy. He was sick and his mother told him he had to stay in bed, so he added strings and tape to a toy airplane to make it fly, like a puppet, from his place on the covers.
Most other toy designers he knows are not engineers, as he studied to be. Some went to art, or even architecture, school. He still lunches with them; it's a kind of club.
They include a woman who went to puppeting school, worked for the Muppets and now designs Winnie-the-Pooh plush toys and tries to come up with the next Tickle Me Elmo. Another, a real estate developer, has a business making die-cast remote-control cars. A third is an industrial designer who does three-dimensional computer drawings that become molds for train-set churches and cars with coal.
"I'm a pretty odd duck," Moomaw said. "Most designers don't do their own mechanisms."
He wanted something smaller and thought, "Well, gee, I wonder what it would be like to be in the toy business." This led to 27 rejection letters from 27 toy companies.
Then at Christmas break at his parents' house in Clarence, he met a neighbor who was a secretary to a Fisher-Price executive. She insisted he reapply, and he arrived at the interview with photos of the homecoming displays he had made for his fraternity's front lawn.
He had always won the school contests with a $50 budget. He built a train that carried a papier-mache football player crashing into a Coast Guard ship, which triggered a sprinkler with an automatic valve system he foraged from the dump. Another year, another football player held a pre-digital-age electric sign that flashed messages he had programmed -- "Fight team fight," "TKE Rules."
The photos helped, and Fisher-Price hired him as an engineer-in-training in 1973. He was excited by the assembly lines with 20 or 30 women making thousands of Busy Bee and Snoopy Sniffer pull toys in a single shift. Trucks were going in and out all the time, and he felt privileged to be there.
One of his first jobs was to make toys stronger and safer. His office had toy pieces everywhere, the leftovers from the ones he broke. Once, he had to figure out how to make the farm mobile from breaking in a baby's grip.
"As you break them," he said, "you improve them, and you build them again."
Fisher-Price turned out to be a dream. As a kid, Moomaw had always wanted more pieces for his Erector set at Christmas. As a grown-up at a toy company, he was in charge of building working toys using plastic snap-together beams, hinges, axles, gears and belts. His creations were to be shown off at the annual New York City toy fair.
He could have as many pieces as he wanted! He filled a corner of a warehouse with his creations, including an 8-foot-tall working grandfather clock with a swinging pendulum and a little man who walked out, hit a plastic cymbal and went back into his house.
"It was glorious," he said.
His biggest hit was the Bubble Mower, a Fisher-Price toy from the 1980s that is still being made. That's unusual for toys now, when a two-year production run is considered great.
"It wasn't until I built the first model and we had the kids fighting over it that we knew that we had something," he said.
Moomaw, who invented the mower's turbine-driven bubble mechanism, was pleased one day to drive by a boy laughing as he pushed it across the lawn.
"That's what you do it all for," he said.
At work, he went from engineer to designer, inventing by looking for something missing from the toy shelves. His first invention, one of 20 patents he now holds, solved the problem of tangled strings on toy parachutes tossed into the air. The strings on his were molded plastic and tangle-free.
"I look for holes in the world," he said.
Now, as president of his one-man operation, Different Design, Moomaw still applies that principle. He liked bubbles, he liked kites, so he invented a bubble-blowing kite. Pull the string, and bubbles fly out.
Another idea came effortlessly as he walked through the toy fair: "What about a ball that tells you who to throw it to?" he thought. His electronic version of the old hot potato game became Rotten Egg. It arrived in toy stores in the mid-1990s as an egg with crazed eyes that recorded players' names and called them out as they tossed it back and forth.
"It did work for a couple of years," he said. "It was kind of cute."
Now it sits on his shelves not far from the plush bears that growl, "I love ya, honey," when squeezed in the stomach. It still gets sold around Valentine's Day. The rest of the old toys, still in their packages, now stand as his archive of the successes and the ones he thought were sweet, but failed him somehow.
Hardly anyone bought the shiny red, yellow and blue plastic puzzles with train wheels that moved once pieced together. And the bubble-blowing dragon he sculpted with a tongue sticking out seemed cool but never went beyond the wood carving because no toy company was interested.
He picked up the brown dancing cat toward the bottom shelf. It made him sad when the manufacturer dropped the tail that he designed to whip around, because it couldn't be seen from the package.
He pushed the buttons to show how the Prancing Pal wiggled and played snatches of "Farmer in the Dell." The cat was still cute, but it didn't sell.
Toys that didn't work out as he imagined still puzzle him. "It's an effort not to stay bummed about it," he said.
"You can't control the world," he sighed. "Time is a great healer of anything. The successful inventors are the ones that just keep plugging away."
As Christmas approached -- this season Fisher-Price was selling a dragon with wings that Moomaw made flap two years ago -- the inventor had bits of plastic for yet another toy he was not at liberty to describe.
The foam disc-shooting gizmo of the other day had been a hit back at the toy company. "They shot them around the office until they couldn't find them anymore," Moomaw said.
Soon he would be on an island off the coast of South America doing what he has found gets his mind into a supremely efficient state he calls "the zone": windsurfing.
He discovered it eight years ago after he stopped using alcohol and cigarettes to escape. Now he goes out on Lake Erie in the afternoons from April to November, so long as there's wind and no ice.
And once a month, he takes a week off and takes his wet suit somewhere tropical. The mind-clearing effects of the adrenaline rush appeal to him. As does the occasional fear and extra challenge for Moomaw, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and rides with a prosthetic one he designed to grip the board straps.
Standing on the board, working the sail, he doesn't think about toys. This is part of what helps him get over that puzzle train with wheels that moved when pieced together, but parents didn't buy.
"You're hearing the wind, you're seeing the water, your mind can't be wandering," he said.
In tribute to this toymaking secret, Moomaw hired an artist to paint a mural on the side of his neighbor's garage that faces his yard.
There's a blue lake with pine trees and in the distance is Moomaw as a small speck of a person windsurfing with his family -- his wife, Ellen, and son Trevor and daughter Xan -- in a boat beside him.
He laughs at the memory of Xan, a college student, who exclaimed when she saw it, " 'Dad, that's way over the top!' "
Moomaw replied, " 'Honey, haven't you noticed? That's my style.' "