Hassenfeld, Merrill Lloyd

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HASSENFELD, Merrill Lloyd

(b. 19 February 1918 in Providence, Rhode Island; d. 21 March 1979 in Providence, Rhode Island), president and chairman of the board of Hasbro, Inc., the toy manufacturing giant that during the 1960s launched G. I. Joe, the first male action figure with accessories.

The oldest of three children of Henry Hassenfeld, a pencil and toy manufacturer, and Marion Frank, a homemaker, Hassenfeld was born one year after his father and uncles Herman and Hillel founded Hassenfeld Brothers, Inc. As Hassenfeld grew up in comfortable surroundings in Providence, the family's company first manufactured cloth-covered pencil boxes, using remnants from local textile mills.

After graduating as a business major from the University of Pennsylvania in 1938, Hassenfeld joined the family's firm, which by then had bought a pencil company. Just before World War II, Hassenfeld married Sylvia Kay; they had three children. At that time the company began including in its pencil boxes play stethoscopes and other toy medical equipment, sewing kits, and school supplies. In 1943 Hassenfeld's father placed his sons to lead the company's divisions. Merrill was put in charge of toys, while his brother Harold, headed pencils. Later, his brother's division split from Hassenfeld Brothers and became the Empire Pencil Corporation.

The first best-seller made by Hassenfeld Brothers (the name was changed to Hasbro Industries in 1968) was Mr. Potato Head, invented by George Lerner. Introduced in 1952, it was the first toy advertised on national television. At first these toys were only plastic facial parts applied to an actual potato; by 1964 they came complete with a hard plastic body. Mr. Potato Head has sold over 50 million units since its development.

In 1962 the company's original doctor and nurse kits were tied in with the phenomenally popular Dr. Kildare television show. The same year of the Dr. Kildare kits, Hasbro sold a puttylike product called Flubber as a tie-in with the Disney film Son of Flubber (1963). Unfortunately, the product was recalled when pretesting indicated that it caused a mild skin rash. By 1963 the company's future was in doubt, and Hassenfeld knew that toys were fashionable and that consumers were fickle and faddish. He needed another toy that would become, and hopefully remain, a best-seller.

In spring 1953 Hassenfeld had just returned from a phil-anthropic trip to Israel. (He would later become the honorary national chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.) Back in his office, he called Don Levine, his product development chief and a veteran of the Korean War. Hassenfeld wanted to know how the next year's product line was developing. Levine then presented him with an articulated toy soldier inspired by the television series The Lieutenant. Levine had passed by an art supply store and had seen a sculptor's model figure in the window. Out of that concept grew a plastic figure with twenty-one moving parts. Levine made four brawny models of eleven and one-half inches, each dressed in the uniform of the army, navy, marines, or air force. The face of each was a composite of the faces of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, and a small scar was cut into the chin to add distinction.

"How the hell are we going to sell a boy a doll?" Hassenfeld asked. After all, dolls were for girls. Yet boys had played with tiny cast-metal soldiers since at least the Middle Ages, and youngsters did play with Raggedy Andy dolls. The company wanted to broaden its boys' offerings beyond doctor kits. Moreover, a toy soldier was an "open-end concept." In the toy field, an open-end concept is a product that is multifunctional and has separately sold accessories. Arch-rival Mattel's Barbie doll had become the toy world's most famous gold digger, with boyfriend Ken, outfits for every occasion, and seemingly countless accessories to go with the outfits. Hassenfeld bet that the muscular soldier concept would sell, but it was a major risk that could easily backfire. He decided not to tie it in with any specific television show or movie.

G. I. Joe was not a "doll," but an "action figure." The toy's name was chosen from the war film The Story of G. I. Joe (1945), with Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum. Levine's four service models, each initially selling for $4, included separately sold outfits and accessories, for a total outlay of $330. Among the toy weapons were a bazooka that launched plastic projectiles, and a flamethrower that shot a stream of water. There were jeeps and tanks to carry the figures, and tents for rest. War dramas with stiff cast-metal soldiers of the past now were fully articulated and accessorized fighters of the present.

Hassenfeld created a total mystique for G. I. Joe. "I have always been a firm believer," he told a reporter, "that there can be no civilization without the soldier. He represents a civilizing rather than a destructive force." The advertising budget was doubled to $1.5 million for print and television. Bruns Advertising Agency created for "America's Movable Fighting Man" squads of toys who were not "at war," but in "action adventures." "G. I. Joe … G. I. Joe," intoned the advertising jingle, "fighting man from head to toe." Within one week after G. I. Joe toys appeared on shelves, they were sold out. For boys the action figure was decidedly "cool." A fan club and newsletter soon followed.

Within two years other models appeared, including an African-American G. I. Joe. Other models evoked World War II, including toy soldiers with special features and uniforms of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Soviet Russia. In 1967 male action figures made up an astonishing 15 percent of all toys sold that year. G. I. Joe's fans were decidedly hawkish. One fast-selling competitor was a Green Beret doll that had a grenade for one hand and an M-16 rifle for the other. By 1965 a backlash began, spearheaded by dovish parental groups who protested against the new action-adventure culture. With anti–Vietnam War sentiment rising in the later 1960s, G. I. Joe's profits dropped, beginning in 1967, and plummeted in 1968 following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy. In 1969 Sears, Roebuck and Company pulled all war toys out of its mail-order catalogue.

Hassenfeld's response to the antiwar sentiment was to retain the drama of action figures, but to relaunch them as the Adventure Team in 1969. Now action figures searched for sunken treasure and hunted wild animals, and they were fully accessorized. Hasbro continued to reinvent other variants, from kung fu warriors to ecofighters. In 1974 Hassenfeld retired and his son Stephen became president. When Stephen died in 1989, his brother Alan became head of Hasbro. The third generation of the family expanded their product lines and bought out competitors Knickerbocker, Milton Bradley, and Tonka. As the largest toy-and-game manufacturing corporation, Hasbro offers products ranging from Play-Doh modeling compound to Easy-Bake ovens to board games like Trivial Pursuit. Licensed brands include Pokemon, Furby, Harry Potter, and Monsters, Inc. Hassenfeld died of a heart attack, and is buried at the Lincoln Park Cemetery in Warwick, Rhode Island.

Hassenfeld parlayed a modestly successful family business into a Fortune 500 corporation. By using aggressive and saturating print advertising and the first national television commercials for a toy, he launched and perpetuated the Mr. Potato brand. During the 1960s, Hassenfeld tied in toys with Hollywood and applied the open-end concept of endless accessories to a new toy category, the male action figure embodied as G. I. Joe.

There is no biography of Hassenfield. For a profile of Hasbro, Inc., that emphasizes the third generation of ownership, see G. Wayne Miller, Toy Wars: The Epic Struggle Between G. I. Joe, Barbie, and the Companies That Make Them (1998). See also Vincent Santelmo, The Complete Encyclopedia to G. I. Joe (1993). Important newspaper articles are Joan Cook, "G. I. Joe Doll Is Capturing New Market," New York Times (24 July 1965), with a quote from Hassenfeld; and Harry F. Waters, "Dolls at War,"New York Times Magazine (4 June 1967). An obituary is in the New York Times (22 Mar. 1979).

Patrick S. Smith