In 1972, Linda Larkin parlayed her studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T) into an Art Director position at a "tiny, partner-run company called Lance Studios, where I was mostly involved in sales promotion work." As business slowed, she "saw the ad in the newspaper for an art department secretary for a toy company, but it didn't say which toy company. When I called the number, it was a wrong phone number that was printed in the paper. So I looked in the phone book under toy companies in Manhattan and discovered that Mego's phone number was almost the same, but off by one number." Dialing Mego, Linda arranged to meet with Neal Kublan, who hired her on the spot. "I think I was the only one who applied because of that phone number being wrong in the newspaper!" she laughed.
Linda joined Mego in 1974. "The Art Department was comprised of me, Neal, and board artists Karyn Weiss, Vinny Baiera and his cousin Joe Zangara. We were all in our 20s, except for Neal, who was in his early 30s." Mego's small staff also included Sid Noble and Harry Rotenberg. "There were a few other peripheral people in other areas, but that's all the ones that I remember back in the art department area of the old building."
Fondly reflecting on her time at Mego, Linda explained that the staff was a tightly knit group, especially in the early days. She was particularly close to Neal Kublan, who "liked to play more than he liked to work. He tended to procrastinate, and would frequently put things off, often until the point when they got critical. Sometimes it would drive me nuts and get me exasperated with him, but eventually I got used to it." But Neal was not one to miss deadlines. "It seemed to me that at that critical point, he would move into action and "save the day" -- almost like a Super Hero," she proclaimed. "Neal drove his Corvette into Manhattan every day. He frequently arrived late with a myriad of excuses -- but always with a sense of humor. He had a wonderful, satirical wit, and loved to make people laugh. He just loved to kid around. He really was a big kid in a grown man's body!"
Linda was responsible for liaising with Kublan, the artists, the sculptors and the licensors, as well as the factories in Hong Kong. Linda delivered original head sculptures to the licensors for approval, and transported samples to DuRona Studios, the production company that filmed Toy Fair promos and television commercials for Mego. "Neal and I were frequent visitors to DuRona's studio to supervise commercials, or to bring the samples they needed. It was a 40 minute drive from Manhattan to New Rochelle in Neal's 'Vette. A fun drive, with Neal blasting his car stereo, and always driving too fast!"
"Neal spoke almost daily with Andre DuRona," the owner of DuRona Studios. "Andre was an older man, foreign born, who was very excitable and temperamental," Linda explained. "Once, when we shot a commercial in Florida near DuRona's other home in Jupiter Beach, we had dinner at his house. Neal had a love/hate relationship with Andre, who often got mad at Neal for having a cavalier attitude about things. But underneath it all, we all loved one another!"
By 1975, Mego was experiencing explosive growth. "We scrambled to expand the staff, particularly in the creative areas. We became Research & Development, and the Art Department became part of R&D," Linda recalled. "I became "The Linda Larkin Employment Agency" and got several of my friends and family hired on! For example, my cousin Larry Abbatangelo became a Product Manager, and two of my friends from F.I.T. were hired into the Art Department."
In 1977, Linda was promoted to Neal's Administrative Assistant, and she got "heavily involved with the licensing end of things, as well as getting commercials approved by the
National Association of Broadcasters
(N.A.B.) Code Authority -- all the while doing my best to keep Neal organized!" That year, Mego hired Linda's future husband, John McNett.
By 1979, "Mego began to get very "corporate" and
it wasn't as much fun as it once had been," she recalled. Linda
left Mego that year "primarily to go back to college, but I
continued to work for Mego for a little while as a part time, freelance
copywriter [for] packaging, catalogs, and instruction sheets."
Linda focused her studies on Psychology and Counseling, and she
has been in the field of Corrections for the past fifteen years.
Today, she works as a Professional Substance
Abuse Counselor in a Correctional Facility.
John McNett admits he was a poor student in high school. But lackluster grades were the result of boredom, and his College Board scores revealed a sharp intellect. After serving his country in the Army, John attended George Washington University. In 1961, John entered the Art Center College of Design, majoring in Car Styling. "Two of my classmates were Larry Wood, the "Hot Wheels" design maven, and Geza Loczi, who became head of design for Volvo," John recalled.
Graduating from Art Center cum laude in 1965, John weighed several job offers, ultimately opting for a position as a Research Designer for General Motors. After only two years, John struck out as an independent designer. Working with famed designer Curt Brubaker, John designed the interior for the model 25, the first stretch Lear Jet.
|Above: In 1972, Curt Brubaker developed the world's first minivan, the Brubaker Box
Over the next few years, John designed myriad products for well-known companies such as Bell Telephone and American Airlines (for whom John participated in the interior design of their first 747). During this period, John earned the first of his twenty or so patents.
In 1968, John found himself in New York with a killer portfolio, but no job. A friend apprised John of well-paid positions in the toy industry, prompting John to respond to a job listing at the original Remco (well before Azrak Hamway acquired the name). Negotiating back and forth, John finally accepted the position, taking "what I then thought was a temporary job in an inferior industry."
At Remco, John worked with Sid Noble and Sal Mucaro, both of whom would eventually work for Mego. John designed Fingerdings, Nutty Navy and the Mystery Zodiac game (with development assistance from Sal Mucaro). John designed and developed many other Remco products, including Talk'n'Play doll furniture, Bulldog Ride-On Truck and Mighty Casey Ridem Railroad among others. John even managed to design a line of squeeze toys and banks for Gabriel ("a little free-lance work between jobs," he joked).
John and Sal collaborated on a type font, entering it into a contest held by Lettergraphics International. Christened "Maccaro," the face did not win the contest, but was used for Playboy Magazine's "Sex in Cinema" feature popular in the early 1970s.
After a few years of working for Remco, John sensed financial doom, and made the move to Aurora, becoming a Designer/Product Manager. John's concerns were validated when Remco went out of business soon after. Fellow designer and friend Sal Mucaro joined John at Aurora.
John worked with famed toy inventor Marvin Glass on Skittle Tac Toe and Imposters. John was responsible for the invention, styling and development of Skittle Poker, Skittle Bingo and Flip-it 21. He also styled Monday Night Football, Shifty Checkers and Pursuit.
At Aurora, John also worked with Avi Arad, now revered for his work at Marvel Entertainment, particularly in the film realm. It was also while working at Aurora that John met toy inventor Larry Reiner, who would become John's next boss. An amicable split from Aurora allowed John and Larry to continue working with Aurora independently. Yet another prescient departure on John's part, Aurora was bankrupt only a year into his tenure at Reiner Creative Group.
By that time, Mego was Reiner's principal client, with a focus on Star Trek. "I invented the Transporter, (from the Enterprise play set) the (never-produced) Tribble, the Tricorder and others, as well as some of Mego's original toys: Mazeroni, Avery Close Game and Commander Zack Power."
|Above: Illustration from John McNett's Mazeroni patent.
|Above: Illustration from John McNett's patent for
Commander Zack Power
and his Power Arm with Lightning Cycle.
John significantly reconfigured Mego's popular Obsession game. John's modifications to Obsession were done at the request of Stan Weston, the toy guru who created Captain Action for Ideal, and would play an important role in the creation of Mego's World's Greatest Super-Heroes.
All of this work paid off for John. "Having noticed the significance of my work for Reiner, Neal Kublan and Marty Abrams offered me the newly-created position of Director of Design at Mego, whose new offices at 41 Madison Ave. were just down the street." John received an unusually high salary for the time, and "Neal and Marty gave me a lot of creative independence on their rising star in the toy industry," he stated.
When John started at Mego, Sid Noble was in the Engineering department, Harry Rotenburg was VP of Production, and Neil Saul had already come from Ideal, reportedly guiding Mego in their transition into big-time, licensed products. Shortly after John's arrival, Saul left Mego for competitor Azrak Hamway ("Marty and Neal were furious," John recalls). Arthur "Art" Tibbet claimed Saul's position at Mego, becoming Vice President of Sales in 1981.
"Originally, [my office was] in the R&D conference room on the southwest corner of the 36th floor." In 1978, John moved into Marty Harrison's vacated office next door. The son of Sol Harrison (head honcho at National Periodical Publications, AKA DC Comics), Marty Harrison had taken Neal Kublan's Art Director position once Kublan was promoted to VP.
Mego was a relatively powerful company by this time, but the staff was not enormous. Consequently, key staff members were expected to work outside of their job descriptions. "Once, Marty sent me to Toronto, where he had discovered that, for some reason, "Battlestar Galactica" was being secretly premiered as a movie in a local theater." Relying on John's assessment of the property's licensing merit, Marty asked John to review the show for Mego.
"My written review, upon return, was that, unlike "Star Trek", which always ended on an 'up' beat, Battlestar was really a formulaic merge of "Lost in Space" and "Bonanza" with highly derivative FX and a continuing, somewhat mindless battle with robotic "Cylons."
John concluded that the show was "not likely to last beyond its first season." Marty accepted John's determination and "Battlestar never came up in conversation again." It has been well documented that Mego, in their prime, typically enjoyed "first look" status on upcoming toy licenses. Until now, popular legend held that Mego employees enjoyed plenipotentiary authority to license any Science Fiction properties, in an effort to protect their Micronauts license. John McNett's recollections suggest otherwise (Ed. Note: Mattel ultimately licensed Battlestar Galactica, producing some comparatively poor toys in 1978).
John worked with an incredibly talented group of creatives, evidenced by the volume of quality products Mego created. Mego's design department, along with the outside vendors they hired during this period, was responsible for some of the most important and memorable toys ever produced. Some of these designers created memorable products outside of Mego. Adam Alexander, for example, designed and developed Alexander's Star, one of the few successful variations of Rubik's Cube. Dietmar Nagel and Mel Kennedy (partners of Nagel-Kennedy, a respected toy invention firm for which Avi Arad briefly worked) developed Speedburners and Wheelie Burners for Mego. For these products, Nagel and Kennedy "took on the task of duplicating the effect of Darda Racers without trespassing on their patents, John recalled. "I supervised the styling, which was done by several outside professional car stylists," he said. "All the play sets were designed by me, with some developmental work done by Sal, who was a genius at small, inexpensive mechanisms. I think Neal named these [products]."
Incidentally, Bill Baron, who would eventually take John's position at Mego, was also a partner in Nagel-Kennedy. The toy industry was clearly incestuous, with talented professionals bouncing back and forth between companies. One common thread is Mego, and the 'best of the best' all seem to have worked there at some point.
John McNett was no exception, and his time at Mego resulted in some fantastic products. While Neal Kublan is named on the patent, John was instrumental in the development of the Fly Away Action module created for the 12" Super-Heroes. He also developed a 12" Die-Cast Superman figure that never made it past the prototype stage (Ed. Note: an article about this toy is forthcoming).
As his tenure at Mego spanned the latter part of the decade, it's not surprising that John did a lot of work on the Micronauts. The line was very popular, but as John recalled, "The only problem was that the products were very "Japanese" in styling." Neal Kublan and president Marty Abrams feared the Eastern influence would "restrict their full acceptance in the American marketplace," so John was "assigned the task of Americanizing the product line [with] new product extensions or modifications to existing products."
John created and "styled" a significant number of Micronauts products, including Baron Karza, Andromeda, Force Commander and Oberon. John takes credit for naming Baron Karza, and recalled "Karza is [Mego's primary competitor Marvin] Azrak spelled backwards. I cooked it up as a joke but Neal and Marty loved it. They quickly trademarked Nivram, Smarba, Nalbuk, Ytram, Laen, and many other backward names to forestall any retaliation from Marvin Azrak."
John made significant contributions to Mego product names. In addition to creating and styling many of the Micronauts characters, he named them as well. When asked how he ended up naming so many Mego products, John replied, "Neal was a well-known procrastinator and would wait until it was too late to come up with a good name. Knowing this, I would fill up a lined sheet of 8 1/2 X 11 paper with two or three columns of suggested names for each product, putting a star next to the few I thought might merit approval. Then I'd give the sheet to Neal, long before the product-naming deadline. Of course, when the time arrived, Neal would find the sheet, take it to Marty and Len Siegel, our resident attorney, and read off a few names and select one or two as his favorites, ready for some back-up names if there were problems. I used this same process for the rest of my career with outstanding success."
Without a doubt, John's process was effective. Within the Micronauts line alone, Repto, Membros, Antron, Solarion, Taurion, Hornetroid, Terraphant and Karrio were all clever names that John invented.
John recalled that Alphatron, Betatron, Gammatron were created "mostly from existing Micronaut parts," but he was responsible for their names and styles. John also created, styled and named Micropolis, but recalls that the product "was severely limited by the cost constraints laid down by Marty, which impacted the product's playability."
The Rocket Tubes product was designed and developed by Sal Mucaro, with styling assistance from John. John doesn't know who named it, but recalled that it "worked beautifully until they manufactured it. The retail packaging wasn't much help." Asked for clarification on the packaging, John replied, "The production packaging for "Rocket Tubes" was extraordinarily flimsy for such a large item, hardly any surviving intact and undamaged after even just a short time on the retail shelves," adding, "Once you've done this to the retailer, you can't come back with a repackaged product."
John styled the entire Buck Rogers line, developing "action and construction of the vehicles and Twiki."
A paradigm-shifting product (due to its elevated price-point, which pundits proclaimed would kill the product), 2-XL was monumentally successful for Mego. John named, styled and developed the product, which was invented by Dr. Michael Friedman, the man "who did all the voice recording." John pointed out that "the complex chin design is a grafted-on Micronaut part, used as an expediency because Marty didn't like the plain, deadpan look on 2-XL's face." Faced with a production deadline, Mego "didn't have time to redraw the styling. So [they] just glued the chin onto the model (prototype), and shipped it off to the orient." John later added that "Sid Noble created and developed the flashing red eyes for 2-XL, shortly before its release to the [factory in the] orient."
Thanks to its longevity, 1977's Magna Doodle is possibly Mego's best-known product (In 2003, it made the Toy Industry Association's "Century of Toys List" as one of the 100 most important toys made in the past hundred years). While Neal Kublan gets credit for the concept, John named, styled and developed the enduring product. "Neal brought Pilot Pen's preliminary product to my office and said, 'Redesign this so it works...make it about the size of a piece of paper.'"
Naturally, John expertly solved the design dilemma, and Mego's Magna Doodle was a hit with kids. John recalls that it wasn't the most durable product of its kind, which actually increased overall sales for Mego. "Ohio Art was continually chagrined over the well-documented research that, while [their own, similar product] Etch-A-Sketch was built like iron and could survive several rounds of use, a broken Magna Doodle would be immediately replaced by the consumer!"
A prolific designer, John worked on a variety of Mego products. In addition to the toys already mentioned, he also worked on Bubble Yum Baby, the 18" Fashion Candi dolls, Stuff Ums, Peggles, Pinnacle, Doodlebugs, Muson, Montezuma, Panic Button, the Pulsonic games and the Slik Silver games; nearly every page of the 1979 Mego product catalog promotes toys that John worked on.
John helped Mego in other ways, too, such as discovering artist Ken Kelly. "Neal asked me to find an illustrator for Micronaut packaging [whose work resembled] Frank Frazetta, whom we could not afford," recalled John. "After some research, I ran across examples of Ken Kelly's work and asked him to come in to my office and discuss doing some work for us." John recalls that Frank Frazetta himself was related to Ken's wife. "It was obvious from his portfolio that Kelly was the talent we were looking for and, because he was still trying to establish himself, the price was right. I introduced him to Neal and the rest is history."
|Above: John McNett takes an important call in 1980.
Mego collectors can appreciate John's impact on their favorite
toys, but he continued to affect the world of toys even beyond Mego.
Resigning in 1979, John married Linda Larkin. "I got a position
at Coleco in Connecticut as Director
of Preliminary Design when their annual gross was $178
million, and left as VP of Design and
Development shortly after they topped $2 billion during the
Cabbage Patch years."
John invented the Cabbage Patch Kids' "holding-hand" feature. He and his staff of designers at Coleco "designed all the Cabbage Patch accessories, the Cabbage Patch Phone, and my sculptors created all the variety of heads required from the very beginning of Cabbage Patch until the end of my tenure at Coleco." Noting that his staff was not responsible for the outfits ("they were designed by an outside vendor," he said), John explained that there were only 23 basic Cabbage Patch Dolls, adding, "the 24th [was] dropped before production."
John further recalled that Harvey Zelman, who had been one of his Product Managers at Mego, was a Product Manager at Coleco during the Cabbage Patch craze. Zelman was promoted to VP of Marketing, "because of his accomplishments over [the line's successful] first year."
John worked extensively on Coleco's famous ColecoVision system, directly designing or supervising the design of all enclosures (defined by John as "the styled cases the electronics are engineered into, including labeling, screening, controls and their nomenclature, colors, etc."), the controllers and the accessory units.
John worked on a variety of other Coleco products, including Licensed 16" cycles, the Beverly Hills Dolls, Dr. Seuss plush dolls, the Smurf Piggy-Back Rider, Talking TJ and JJ, Sectaurs, Husky Haulers, the Stomper 4X4 Ride-On and a slew of Pac-Man collectibles.
John also worked on the table top "arcade" games (Galaxian, Frogger, Donkey Kong, etc.). "[The design of those games] was one of my first assignments at Coleco. The design and development problem was to create a likeness to an actual, life-size arcade game, without violating the more-or-less horizontal plane upon which all the electronics were located. A slight tilting of the [screen] plane and providing a box-like enclosure with all the associated colorful graphics seemed to solve the problem. Keeping the molded parts to a minimum was the trickiest part." (Ed. Note: Bravo! The Pac-Man game from this series was a personal favorite!)
In the mid-1980s, John revisited the action figure arena for Coleco's StarCom and Rambo lines. John co-invented, developed, styled, and named ("with considerable help from my staff," he clarified) the StarCom vehicles and figures, which had a "Magna Lock" feature (magnetic boots) and cool little visors that slid down their faces.
John and his staff created the Rambo line, recalling, "[we] developed the story baseline for the animated TV series." John and his team designed and developed all the accessories, with the exception of the special weapons features for the figures, which "were designed and developed by the Marvin Glass people."
For the Rambo line, John ran into some trouble for the character, "Nomad," which John recalls "was not 'politically correct.' We had created an Arabic 'bad guy' and we got so many complaints from the Arab community that we had to pull the item off the shelves." The faux pas merited inclusion in the college textbook, A Short Course In International Marketing Blunders, which details examples of products that failed due to marketing mistakes! Given the character's half-life, it's no surprise that Nomad is one of the more collectible figures in the line.
John hired old pal Sal Mucaro, but the two left Coleco shortly thereafter to found Studio Geppetto, a toy invention and design firm. Geppetto had moderate success and an enviable client list. "Studio Geppetto developed products for Buddy L (including "A new Mack truck line, which we prototyped out of sheet copper over wooden forms" that Buddy L photographed for their product catalog), Tyco, Matchbox, Galoob, Hasbro, Mattel (including a Hot Wheels track system that never was produced), Tiger Electronics, Coleco, of course, and many others." Despite the volume of work, John and Sal decided to close Geppetto after just two years.
Shortly after, John accepted a standing job offer at Ohio Art. "I worked as Director of R&D there in Bryan, Ohio from 1990 until 2000, when I retired." A small company, John worked on literally every product Ohio Art produced between 1991 and 2001. John stated, "I did not invent or design the Etch-A-Sketch, but I did design and develop many variations on it, including the Pocket version and the "shelfable" retail package display," which is still being used today.
John is particularly proud of a product called Zender, which was a precursor to text messaging. John recalled that Ohio Art (inadvisably) decided to market Zender as an individual item, rather than in pairs, "because of price-point pressure from the buyers and/or sales reps," adding, "So much for the aggressive marketing efforts I was accustomed to at Mego and Coleco!"
Ohio Art had acquired the rights to manufacture Magna Doodle, which John himself had worked on several years earlier. "Ohio Art knew about my involvement with Magna Doodle, and it might have influenced their decision to hire me, but they never asked me any questions about its design, development, production, sales, etc., which I've always thought was somewhat strange."
Taking the position at Ohio Art was certainly motivated by the McNett's desire to raise their children in a calm and safe setting. "Ohio Art was, for me, a low-energy environment in a small but beautiful, mid-west town about three months behind on the rumor mill, as far as the industry was concerned."
While happy to avoid the office politics and scuttlebutt of his previous jobs, the transition was difficult. John clearly thrived on a faster pace than Ohio could provide. "My best efforts under the strong creative leadership of my previous experience could no longer be duplicated," he sighed.
John was unable to reconcile the dubious decision-making of his final employer, either. "Why they haven't sold Etch-A-Sketch to a major promoter by now, I can't even begin to figure out," he shrugged, adding, "They thought they bought Magna Doodle (after I retired), yet somehow Hasbro also makes a Magna Doodle!"
John reflectively noted, "No one still makes [Magna Doodle], however, with the original McNett design and Mucaro logo that survived so many years and so many companies."
The toy industry presses forward, and things continually change. But one immutable fact will never change: John McNett is a true "Renaissance Man," whose contributions have affected generations of playful children.