The MegoMuseum Interview with Harvey Zelman

By Brian Heiler

Harvey Zelman has had a career in the toy industry that could be considered "legendary" starting his career with a rising star that was Mego during it's zenith, he then went on to create pop culture history with one of the toy world's most memorable creations.

Mr Zelman sat down with us via the phone to share some of his experiences in the toy industry and his early days at mego..

MM:You mentioned you started at Mego in 1976, were you in the toy industry previous to that?

HZ: I was working for a media buying company called Ed Lebock and Mego was one of the clients, so I'd go back and forth and basically that's how I met Neal [Kublan] and we kind of hit it off immediately.

Neal would say to me "did you ever think of working for a toy company" and I said "No" and the great salesman he was, {He'd ask} "What's your background?" I told him my background is that I had a BA in marketing and he said "I'm a pretty good judge of talent, I think you'd be great as a product manager" He asked what I was making, I named a number and Neal said "I'll give X amount more"

I said OK [laughs] and literally where I was working was up the block from where they were working at so it was no big deal.

MM: Things must have really been hopping at that time.

HZ: Well we were starting to get the line together and I cam in at a great time, the first line I started working on was Starsky and Hutch .

MM: What was your input on that line?

HZ: I did all the packaging and I worked with Vinny {Baiera] and Marty Harrison on the sculpting because we were dealing with an outside sculptor who I met for the first time, Ken Sheller.

We also worked together on CHiPs and the Fonz.

MM: The Happy Days line wasn't too well received was it?

HZ: Not in the beginning but Fonz didn't come into Fonz until the second year of Happy Days. I can't remember who came up with the doll with the little button that made you flip his hand like he did on the show, I know it know it wasn't me. I did the packaging on that, Kenny did the sculpting and I coordinated the whole thing, you've got to remember that when I started at Mego, I was a kid. Fonz started to take off and then Happy Days become a phenomenal success.

MM: I think every kid on my street growing up had a Fonzie doll.

HZ: Yep and then I was involved in Muhammad Ali, CB McHaul and then I busted my ass on Micronauts, the world worked on Micronauts, let me tell you. It was myself, this is when John [McNett] came into the picture and I can't tell you how many people worked on that.

When it came from in from Takara, what I remember was it was all Japanese looking and we had to Americanize it.

MM: How did you do that?

HZ: Color wise, packaging wise we revamped the whole line. The basic concept came in from Takara but their colors were like green, purple, orange, so John and the group started making the blacks, the whites, the way they are. We put the whole merchandising plan together, it was very exiting time.

MM: That must have been a huge challenge given the breadth of the product line.

HZ: Yeah and Marty wanted the thing like yesterday .Vinny came in and said "We got a week to put this together" I remember working every night until eleven or twelve at night with everybody, it was like "Welcome to the toy business"

MM: Was it intentional not to give the Micronauts a back story?

HZ: Yes, that was Marty's idea. Marty was brilliant, I have to tell you, he was ahead of his time. Neal was ahead of his time, I always thought John [McNett} was a genius, when you look at the people we had "Wow" it's just mind boggling .

MM: Do you think Mego's greatest asset was its people at that time?

HZ: The people but you know what it was? I remember that in those days I was in charge of pre Toy Show and in those days, Toy Show was Toy Show.

MM: You actually wrote orders at Toy Shows back then.

HZ: You wrote orders, the buyers came up, you sat down, it was really important. One of the nice things that we did which I was in charge of is we used to do this film setting up the categories.

This was Neal's doing and he handed it off to me, one thing about Neal is if he knew you had a talent, he's use your talent, he was great. He'd go out and shoot in Calfornia with actors and actresses, he'd have an actress dressed up as Wonder Woman and what would happen is Wonder Woman would come out and the storyline would go "Hi Welcome to Mego pre toyshow, we have a great product line for you, one of our product lines is"

The we would do, not a commercial but a story, we'd show people using CBs and then that would lead into CB McHaul or we would have clips of the King Kong Movie and unveil the King Kong Line. We were into slides and sizzle and glitz. When the buyer came up, we set everything up, it was great.

MM: It sounds like a lot of fun.

HZ: I'm telling you, we were ahead of our time. Then we had this multimedia conference room with like 14 slide projectors and dissolves and everything with video and I would be handling this for pre toy show and presenting this to the buyers and the sales force. When we used to present, let's say, Cher, we would have the all the Cher outfits on these slides dissolving with music, it was awesome. When I look back at it, I can't believe the stuff that we did and how hard we worked, it was a dynamite company, it was really was.

MM: A very young company

HZ: Yeah, Marty was a young guy, I was a kid. I think John [McNett] was one of the seniors at that time . Neal was a little older.

MM: Did you have a lot of input on lines like the Worlds Greatest Superheroes?

HZ: Oh yeah, it was one of my big lines .

MM: How did you choose characters?

HZ: You have to understand the relationship that we had with [ then president of DC Sol] Harrison (Editor's note, Sol's son Marty worked at Mego in the mid seventies) We get a lot of advanced comic books, we knew who all of the characters were, we knew Superman was going to be the big star and all the other characters were going to be "b" players.

The greatest thing we came up with in those days was the flying Superman on a string. I don't remember what we called it, that was my item. I remember hooking up that up at a toyshow and in those days we didn't have what we do now, so here was Superman flying all over the place, that was really cool.

MM: Did it make a big splash?

HZ: Oh yeah, Magnimals was mine, I did that.

MM: That was based on the Magnetic characters from Micronauts right?

HZ: Yeah, that was my idea by the way.We had the Micronauts and we were in a meeting with Marty one day upstairs in the conference room and I said " Wouldn't it be great to take this and make preschool characters?" and Marty said "There is a future for you!" That's how he would talk to everybody. The John and the group would design start designing the characters, that's how good we were together, such a great team.

MM: Now were the magnetic Superheroes your idea?

HZ: Yes, but I can't take credit for it. My claim to fame at Mego was 2-XL, I worked with Michael Freidman, I did the tapes with him. It was an eight track system, it was a phenomenal hit, John [McNett} actually did the design. I was more involved with the recording side of it, going with Michael in the studio, coming up with the goofy voice, I did the scripting for it. He was a great guy; I don't know what happened to him.

MM: It was an expensive toy too?

HZ: Yeah it was but it was a great item, we sold a lot of those.

MM: But I eventually it just kind of fizzled out?

HZ: Well how much of those tapes can you really do? It was an eight track system and then Michael Freidman made a lot of money and he didn't want to do it anymore, without Michael what were you going to do? He was the voice, so it went bye-bye. We had it for about three years.

MM: So with the Micronauts, what do you think killed it's success?

HZ: You have to understand at that time, sci-fi was on fire. The whole concept was clean and easy to play with, the whole thing was dynamite.

MM: What do you think killed it?

HZ: Well, one of the things had to be Rocket Tubes, the concept was great but the manufacturing was a disaster. What we did for that toyshow was we had Rocket Tubes all over the place at that toy show . We had a panic, two days before Toy Show, the stuff came in from the Orient and nothing worked. Marty had a baby!

We had to go out and buy real hair dryers and dummy everything up for toy show. They shipped the product and nothing worked and that just killed everything.

It was over proliferated, there were a lot of SKUs. In those days it wasn't like now where you have to promote something on TV and you really have to pump it. We didn't have that kind of money.

MM: I've heard a theory that Mego's habit of turning out the old product on top of the new releases also killed the Micronauts.

HZ: Well, the mistake was "take away the old and it injures the new", Marty just wanted to expand and there were like 20 or 30 skus, the buyer didn't want to hear that. He wanted the new and not the old but we did have production problems, I'm not going to lie to you. The rumor had been that the manufacturing facilities in Hong Kong were going down the tubes. The quality wasn't that great.

MM: Tell me about the Elastic line.

HZ: The problem was the leakers, I remember getting boxes at toy show and the goo was all over the box, the plugs were leaking. You know what was in there? Corn Syrup, that was my line.

I did KISS as well.

MM: Did you have a hand in designing them?

HZ: Yeah, with the group. You see I was in the marketing end, so I got involved with everybody, basically I did the packaging, they did the sculpting but we had input on everything.

MM: KISS must have been a big smash for Mego?

HZ: Not in the beginning, no. It came later.

MM: Do you have any recollection of the Pocket Superheroes?

HZ: Oh, you remember that? That was mine too

MM: They were released on several different cards, at one point a very generic red card that doesn't seem to be up to Mego's usual packaging standards. Do you have any recollection as to why?

HZ: I don't remember what happen, I know there was a problem with production of the card and we had to ship it and we had a panic, so we created that stupid card in a limited quantity. The problem with Mego was, we had to ship and packaging wasn't ready [Marty] didn't care; you're going to ship it. You know when you made a commitment to a buyer in those days; you had to keep your word.

MM: Now you did a lot of intricate playsets for the Comic Action and Pocket Heroes.

HZ: Oh yeah, the fortress of Solitude for Superman, the Superhero playsets, we were into playsets back then but we didn't do a lot of volume in the playsets. We did a lot of volume in the individual characters.

MM: With the individual characters, what were some of your favorites to work on?

HZ: Superman, I remember when they out to the movie and they came back, they said "Christopher Reeve, He [doesn't like us] " He didn't want the licensing deal, I don't know what the problem was, those stories are true.

MM: He didn't want to be made into an action figure?

HZ: No he did not but what was really great and I remember sitting down with everybody and they lined up all the still frames from the movie and we got the insight of what was going on. Sitting there in the meeting saying :OK, we gotta do a Fortress of Solitude, we gotta do this, we gotta do that' {Editors note, Actual notes from one of these meetings can be found in the Vincent Baiera interview) and that's how great Mego was. We'd show Marty and say "this is what we want to do" and he'd say "Fine, do it" and we just cooked.

MM: Now, what can you tell me about the Black Hole?

HZ: Well that was my line. That was the line that Marty pushed that we had seen excerpts from the movie and we thought it was a piece of crap but Marty insisted upon doing a line.

We came out with the characters, I think we did 12.5" figures and I wanted to 8" figures but Marty said "No, I want twelve inch". It was the biggest bomb we ever had.

MM: Why did he want 12"?

HZ: I think because Mego paid a lot of this movie, you got a lot more for a 12" than you did and 8" figure. He wanted more detail to the outfits, when you did a 12.5" figure you did nice, dressy outfits whereas the 8" were [not as nice]. I don't know what went on with the Black Hole, [Marty] kept saying "this is going to be great", it was awful.

MM: I noticed in the 12" line, you didn't do robots, which seems odd as they were the stars of the movie?

HZ: Well again, that line went through gyrations upon gyrations before it came out but it was also rushed. We got the license late, we just banged it together, I guess it showed it.

MM: So I guess a lot of your plans for the Black Hole were halted.

HZ: Oh yeah, when the thing came out we got like half the sell and the thing was just killed. We had play sets on that everything, we never even introduced it.

MM: Do you have any recollection of the Flash Gordon line?

HZ: Yes, it was a great line , I did that one too. I did all the packaging, if I remember correctly it was 10" line, the weird size. We decided "Oh, we're going to make our own size, screw everybody else up" and we did.

I remember presenting that to the buyer and he said "Wait a minute, we have a four inch, eight inch and twelve inch. Where is this ten coming from?"

We said "we're creating a new one!" The line did very well. We also had a Buck Rogers laser scope [vehicle] and it's the first time we had a Taiwan facility and all our electronics were done in Taiwan and we introduced that and let me tell you, we were off and rolling boy.

MM: Buck Rogers was an unexpected hit?

HZ: Yes, it was, a very good line. It was two year line if I remember correctly.

MM:That was a well made line.

HZ: Well, those were the days when Mego was growing, so manufacturing wise, in 1978 was probably our best year. We had a lot of lines, the orient couldn't handle it, that's when in '79, the quality started going down the tubes.

MM: Now Flash Gordon wasn't the only line you planned as ten inches, you also were going to do Logan's Run in that format.

HZ: But we didn't, it was such a bomb, I guess you don't remember your bombs as much as your hits.

MM: It seems in the mid to late seventies, Mego was always trying for the girls market.

HZ: Oh we were heavy into the girls market; first off, we had the Candy doll which was the only doll to really knock off Barbie from the number one spot for three years. Candy was the top fashion doll, let me tell you, that was a phenomenal success.

We did a great job on that, that was Karen Weiss and Lisa Rappati, that was their baby. We were big in those days with those doll heads, we used to call them fashion centers.

MM: You mean the actual heads of celebrities?

HZ: Yeah, they actually went to Farrah and did a casting of her face, came back and that how the mold was designed.

MM: It seems like every celebrity was pursued by Mego.

HZ: Well we had Diana Ross, which wasn't a huge hit but we had her, Farrah, Captain and Tenneil.

MM: Was that a hit for Mego?

Hz: No, not Captain and Tenneil, no.

MM: Mego even had Lee Majors at one point.

HZ: We never came out with that because the problem was we couldn't get the Bionic Man license, we could only do Lee Majors. Kenner was doing Six Million Man and Marty said "I'm not going to go this route" because everyone knew the Bionic Man, they didn't know Lee Majors.

MM: The celebtiry dolls were quite profitable for Mego.

HZ: Yeah but the biggest line that we had from a doll standpoint was Cher, she was the Barbie and then the real step up was the Candy doll. That was a hot potato.

MM: How about Jordache?

HZ: Not so much, you're going to the point where Mego was starting to fall, I'm going to the times when they were a super power. I left in '82, when I left they came out with Eagle Force and I remember going up to toy fair and had tears in my eyes because I saw the Mego then, this is when Marty was out, someone took over, you could see the company was going down the tubes..

Eagle Force was even a bomb.

MM: Well it didn't get much of a chance did it?

HZ: No, when they introduced it at toy fair, they made a big deal about it and the company went down.

MM: Now the Superheroes started to get trimmed down after 1977, they stopped making new 8" characters.

HZ: The problem there was there were a lot of lines, a lot dolls and a lot of production problems in Hong Kong. There were capacity issues. To be honest with you, somebody else was doing Superheroes.