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Where Santa gets his elves

The genius behind a lot of Santa's holiday magic is born at UC

From "Star Wars" and "Disney" to "Jurassic Park," the University of Cincinnati has made an impact on the toy industry for more than half a century.

The world may not know their names, but for decades UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) alums have produced plenty of the genius and inspiration behind some of the world's most popular toy designs — from your favorites growing up to the latest "Star Wars" figures. 

While DAAP gets to tout its award-winning industrial design program on the national stage, for kids young and old, the coolest thing about these grads may be that they make some of our favorite toys. 

From the "Cozy Coupe" and "Easy-Bake Oven" to the latest "Star Wars" flying battleships and figurines, UC's "elves" are still in the business of creating bestsellers and bringing childhood fantasies to life. Take a look at some of the UC inspired toys for today's kids.

 

Mark Boudreaux

Toy Battle Action Millennium Falcon Star Wars ship and action figures

Battle Action Millennium Falcon designed by UC alum Mark Boudreaux. Photo/provided

What would every "Star Wars" loving kid be without a realistic miniature Millennium Falcon in their room?

Star Wars action figure with UC alum Mark Boudreaux's image sculpted on the face.

UC alum Mark Boudreaux's face on a "Star Wars" action figure. photo/provided

Mark Boudreaux's own "force" was awakened as a UC DAAP co-op student and since then admits he thinks, "Star Wars is real." Now the senior principal designer of boy's toys for the Kenner/Hasbro company, Boudreaux, DAAP '78, has worked on toys and figurines for the first six "Star Wars" films and the more recent "Force Awakens" Battle Action Millennium Falcon. 

Since the 1970s, Boudreaux helped design Kenner's original Millennium Falcon toy, all five of the Millennium Falcon series and more recently he worked with LucasFilm on its new animated "Star Wars" TV series. 

If you look close, you'll even see Boudreaux's face on a few lesser known Star Wars action figures — the Rebel Trooper, the Rebel Blockade Runner Trooper and an exclusive AT-ST driver. As a perk, the company allowed Boudreaux and the other designers to enjoy a gesture of posterity by becoming Star Wars background characters.

Read more about Boudreaux's contributions to "Star Wars" toys, sets and effects

 

Mike Hoeting and Sean Mullaney

Lightning McQueen and Elmo toys

Pixar's Lightning McQueen and Fisher Price's Hokey Pokey Elmo were designed with the help of Hoeting and Mullaney's Bang Zoom Designs company. photo/DepositPhotos

Toddlers in the 21st century are enjoying the cute and wiggly dancing Elmo because of Mike Hoeting, DAAP '90, and Sean Mullaney, DAAP '89, who founded Bang Zoom Designs in 1991. Since then, the Cincinnati-based product invention company has licensed more than 200 inventions and racked up over $1 billion in retail sales.

Toy Jurassic World Gyrosphere with action figure sitting inside.

Bang Zoom Designs was instrumental in designing the toy "Jurassic World" Gyrosphere and action figures. photo/DepositPhotos

In addition to the globally popular Hokey Pokey Elmo, the UC grads rolled out the Walkin' Talkin' Lightning McQueen and a variety of radio-control cars and motorcycles.

Today kids are enjoying remote-controlled creations such as Barbietopia, Jurassic World Gyrosphere with figurines, skateboarding Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sing & Spin Scooter Minnie, Hot Diggity Dancing Mickey and many, many more.

Now with dozens of patents in their names while designing for major companies such as Mattel, Little Live Pets and Disney, Hoeting and Mullaney's Bang Zoom Designs continues to captivate children all over the world. 

 

Eric Tscherne

A yellow Hot Wheels Sho-Stopper car

The Sho-Stopper Hot Wheels car, designed by UC's Eric Tscherne in 2000 is still popular today. photo/provided

As a 2011 inductee into the Diecast Hall of Fame, Eric Tscherne, DAAP '99, was honored for his work as a Hot Wheels designer from 1998 to 2004. Since then, as design director for Spin Master Toys, Tscherne's creations include managing licensed toy lines such as Monsters University, and he leads the toy development for Nickelodeon's PAW Patrol.

PAW Patrol dog character

Eric Tscherne's Chase, the PAW Patrol German Shepard police dog character. photo/DepositPhotos

"I was personally responsible for the designs of the vehicles the characters drive and their backpacks and gear," says Tscherne. He also worked on toys for "How to Train Your Dragon 2," Zoobles and Marshmallow Foam Furniture.

Tscherne's career really took off at Mattel while working on Hot Wheels and at Jada Toys on brands like Big Time Muscle. "I designed over 25 one-doller Hot Wheels cars. Some are scale renditions of full-size cars, but most of mine were of my own original designs," he says.

A picture of one of his original designs, Sho-Stopper was featured on all of the 1/64-scale basic car packaging for two years.

 

Jim Mariol

Original 1979 red and black Little Tikes Cozy Coupe

Mariol's original 1979 model of the Cozy Coupe was red with a black roof. He added the back end and bigger back wheels not only to add trunk space, but to keep the car from tipping backward. Photo courtesy of Jim Mariol

Before most kids can run they have to walk. So before those kids can drive they have to, well, drive. At least that's what UC alum Jim Mariol figured when he designed the world's first foot-powered kid car in 1979.

A child's Little Tikes blue and gray Cozy Coupe car driven by a smiling little girl.

Today's Cozy Coupes come in many different colors and styles. You may even see them attached to the front of grocery carts for savvy little shoppers. photo/DepositPhotos

Mariol, a retired toy designer who attended UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning in the late '40s is still best known, even four decades later, for designing the original red and black Little Tikes Cozy Coupe.

Today there are more than 10 million of the kid-powered Coupes — in a variety of styles and colors — parked in driveways (and backyards) all over the world, still outselling both the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Mariol's car in 2009, the original red and black Cozy Coupe off the line from 1979 was accompanied by a special 30th anniversary edition, and both were inducted into the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland.

"When I was a kid, I always wanted a pedal car," says Mariol. "I remember seeing them in the department store, but mom and pop could never afford one of those. So I thought, "This is the time to design one."

 

Toys from holidays past

Ronald Bruce Howes Sr.

A 1960s Easy Bake Oven toy

Ronald Howes' famous Easy Bake Oven from 1963 came in teal or yellow. photo/provided

The Easy-Bake Oven began turning ordinary children's rooms into miniature pastry shoppes in 1963, but Ronald Howes, att. CEAS '40s, got the original idea from street vendors who kept their food hot by using heat lamps.

Howes invented the appliance while director of research and new product development at Cincinnati-based Kenner Products. Since then the appliance has enjoyed such successful popularity that it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2006. By that time, 23 million ovens were sold and more than 140 million cake and brownie mixes have been enjoyed.

In addition to the Easy-Bake Oven, Howes helped develop Kenner's SpirographGive-A-Show Projector and the Close 'n Play Automatic Phonograph. Throughout his life, Howes progressed to the other end of the spectrum developing electrostatic printers and even high-tech defense weaponry. He would have been great on the Nerf gun team. And speaking of Nerf.

 

David Laughridge

A hand holding a Nerf Ball.

UC's David Laughridge helped bring the Nerf Ball's name and concept to life. photo/DepositPhotos

The Nerf Ball and Nerf Disk in-the-house perennial favorites came to life through UC's 1962 design alumnus David Laughridge. While working for Parker Brothers Toys in 1969, Laughridge was asked to name the ball and create a game around it.

"I thought of it as being the world's first indoor ball," recalls Laughridge. "It ended up being the best thing I ever did. It fell right into place. I was involved in drag racing at the time. A nerf bar in a racing car is a safety bar and a 'nerf' is a small, intentional bump of cars. It seemed to fit the concept of the ball."

Laughridge later developed the Waste Basketball (using a waste basket as a hoop), Sock Soccer, Nerf-minton (badminton with a Nerf ball) and Turf-the-Nerf (putting with a twist).

 

Jim Swearingen

UC alum Jim Swearingen holding one of his iconic Star Wars space planes with other of his toys in background.

Jim Swearingen, holding one of his space planes proudly displays some of his other iconic "Star Wars" figurines. photo/DepositPhotos

Adding to the line of contributors to "Star Wars" toys, Jim Swearingen, DAAP '72, helped lead designs for Kenner's original "Star Wars" line when the movie debuted over 40 years ago. After selling millions of toys based on the 1977 smash hit, Kenner sent Swearingen to Skywalker Ranch for a sneak peek at the character Boba Fett, a fierce bounty hunter to be released as an action figure prior to his appearance in the 1980 sequel, "The Empire Strikes Back."

UC alum Jim Swearingen holds one of the Star Wars toy space planes he designed.

Swearingen's 1980 "Star Wars" character Boba Fett, released on the market slightly ahead of the release of the sequel "The Empire Strikes Back." photo/provided

Soon after the second film's release, almost every 8-year-old in the country entered into Jedi training wielding a lightsaber and toting a fist full of action figures.

"This was the dream job for a designer," Swearingen says. "Since I had been in on it from the beginning I got to do all kinds of things that people don't do today. I got to go and see some shooting. They were doing special effects. I got to view all of that stuff as a relatively young designer."

Once Kenner was bought by Hasbro in 1992, Swearingen and coworkers Tom Osborne, DAAP '75, and Tim Effler, DAAP '74, started SOEDA in Cincinnati, which stands for Swearingen, Osborne and Effler Design Associates.

While with SOEDA they spent 15 years doing contract work for major toy companies across the country, often specializing in licensed products from movies such as "Alien," "Jurassic Park," "Men in Black" and "Pirates of the Caribbean II: Dead Man's Chest."

Their Ultimate Black Pearl Pirate Ship play set design even landed toymaker Zizzle a 2007 Toy of the Year Award. The awards are the toy industry's Oscars.

Whether designing concepts, sculpting figurines or improving on existing concepts, UC's elves agree on one thing about their toys, "They have to be fun!" 

And as Swearingen says, "Toys can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. But it really has to be fun for kids. And it is fun if it tweaks your imagination."

Songs in the key of Grinch

Toys aren’t the only holiday treasures UC grads create. The song and lyrics to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” was composed by none other than UC alum Albert Hague, CCM ’42. Seuss handpicked Hague to score all the music for the 1966 animated film “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which continues to resonate with all children young and old around the holidays — even today.

 

Featured image at top: Children dressed as Santa's elves happily await Santa's arrival. photo/DepositPhotos.com