Smethport Residents Remember Wooly Willy

Monday, June 6, 2005

By Fran DeLancey / Era Correspondent

SMETHPORT—It’s been a wild and wooly 50 years for Smethport’s favorite toy – “Wooly Willy.” The toy overcame early skeptics and long odds to become one of the most successful trinkets of the 20th century, according to inventor Jim Herzog of Smethport. The “Wooly Willy Magnetic Personality” toy features a picture of a bald man drawn on cardboard. Under the thick, durable plastic the covers Wooly Willy’s head, is an amount of magnetic dust, which can be moved by the magic wand to give Willy whiskers, hair and eyebrows. Much of Willy’s appeal stems from the fact that youngsters don’t have to be artists to enjoy the toy, and yet they can still be creative. “That’s the real fun of it” Herzog said. “And what you create always looks humorous and entertaining. Without that, it probably wouldn’t have been a great toy. It’s something anyone can play with and get a laugh for themselves and others.”

Herzog invented Willy in 1955 when he worked for Smethport Specialty, the family–owned toy business, handling duties of production, purchasing and sometimes was involved in product development. He retired in 1993 when the company was sold. He recalled his inspiration for inventing Willy. “One day” he said “it occurred to me that if we took that dust left from grinding magnets, we could use it to design magnetic faces, so I developed the concept from that to make Wooly Willy and patented the process.” Herzog’s brother and business partner, Don, presented the plans to Leonard Mackowski, a gifted artist in Bradford, who created the display card, Willy’s face, and even suggested Wooly Willy as the toy’s name. Jim said, “I preferred to name the drawing set, “Magnetic Personality.” Mackowski disagreed, saying that it was better if you use title with a name in it and suggested Wooly Willy as a catchy name due to its alliteration.” As noted in the history of Smethport Specialty Company, “Mackowski often hid his name in the art and you will still find it today on the back of the original set…” That same history continues, it was about the mid 1950’s “that the U.S. Army needed a three-dimensional map which was produced by vacuum forming heated plastic. Don suggested that this process could be used to form a clear-like plastic to contain the magnet drawing powder.” Unlike today, when production is automated, those first Wooly Willy toys were produced by hand. The magnetic powder was measured with a spoon scoop. Hard times were still ahead of Willy, though. Jim recalled those early days and the first attempt to introduce Willy into the toy world in 1955. “We tried to sell in for a number of months with no success at all,” he said “Everyone said Wooly Willy was an extremely poor toy-really lousy. In fact, one person commented it was the worst toy he had ever seen.” One toy buyer for the old G.C. Murphy chain stores, headquartered in McKeesport, even went so far to prove his opinion that Willy wouldn’t sell that he ordered six dozen for the company’s store in Indianapolis. Of course, he expected sales to be dismal. How wrong he and the other early critics were. In just a few days, that initial order at the Indiana store was gone, much to the toy buyer’s surprise. He contacted Smethport Specialty and placed his second order – this time he wanted 1,000 dozen! Looking back on that experience, the Murphy sore in Indianapolis turned out to be a test market for Willy. “It was important for that toy buyer to prove to us that Wooly Willy was no good,” Jim said with a grin. Willy never appeared at a toy show, because as Jim said, “At that time, we weren’t that sophisticated. You had representatives who represented you around the country, you sold through buyers instead of direct selling.” Once Willy broke into the marked, sales reached almost 1.5 million that first year, Fifty years later, probably more than 50 million copies of Willy, or variations of it, such as “Dapper Dan,” “Fuzzy Wuzzy,” “Hair Bear” or “Doodle Dinosaur,” have been sold around much of the world. The original Wooly Willy toys sold for 29 cents, and like the other toys of that time, their price was clearly marked on the product. Later on, though, as discounters came along, they changed this practice by charging whatever they wished. “If you see 29 cents on a Wooly Willy toy, then you know that it’s one of the first to be produced,” Jim said. Jim noted that Smethport Specialty is the largest promoter of Smethport since the company’s name appears on every toy. Willy has proved to be so popular that the Toy Industry Association named it the Toy of the Year for 1955 and the one of the top 40 toys produced between 1950 and 1980. These honors were all the more remarkable when on realizes that there between 50,000 and100,000 toys from which to choose, Jim said. With Willy’s Popularity, Smethport Specialty became the first company to successfully produce a good magnetic toy of this type, and it was original in its concept, Jim Said. Willy has been copied frequently over the years. One not-so-very-good reproduction even carried the words: Made in Smethport, Japan. Jim said “today, the Cracker Barrel, with their Restaurants and gift shops, Are probably the larges buyer of Wooly Willy toys, but they don’t want any new designs at all. They want only the original Willy’s. And as a result, they sell tens of thousands.” Parents and grandparents who had Wooly Willy toys as youngsters are also good customers. Jim told and interesting story about Smethport native Edwin R. “Rudy” Kohn, who retired from the U.s. Navy as a vice-admiral and now lives in South Carolina. “Rudy had just been promoted to captain of an aircraft carrier which was in France, When fellow officers learned of this Promotion, they went into a French town to purchase a bunch of novelties to give to him as part of a humorous evening. “Lo and behold, they came back with a Wooly Willy we had sold to France and gave it to him. Rudy looked at the back of the toy, and remarked to the surprised officers, ‘this was a good selection. Know the people who made this.’” Jim said “for a toy company, it is critical to have one top-selling item in any one product line, because buyers will always talk to you about your other products, once you say, ‘We manufacture Wooly Willy.’” For Smethport Specialty, that one Product was Wooly Willy. It made the Company.