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Play-Doh, Part II

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The Future Takes Shape

Play-Doh PretzelIn New Jersey, Joe’s sister-in-law, Kay, spotted a magazine article on decorating for the holidays. Kay ran a community nursery school at the time. “I guess I was looking for inexpensive ways to decorate when I read that you could make Christmas tree ornaments by using wallpaper cleaner.” She wondered if Joe had ever heard of this. “I immediately drove out to the local hardware store and asked if they had Kutol wallpaper cleaner. They had a hard time finding me a can, but they did. I remember being very excited, I mean, here my brother-in-law was dying of cancer, his business was failing and I just might have something here they could make.” Kay brought the doughlike material into her nursery and the kids loved it. “We rolled this stuff out, and then took cookie cutters and cut out the shapes. We put little holes at the tops and then I dried them out in the oven at home. Afterwards, we called Joe. I told him ‘You can make that stuff into a toy!’ So he flew out, looked at those ornaments hanging on our tree and said. ‘My God, we’ll do it.’”

“Joe came back and told us what Kay had suggested,” Bill Rhodenbaugh recalled. “It was so simple. I had remembered being in the office one time and this wallpaper hanger came down and showed us a bunch of little animals he had molded out of our wallpaper cleaner. We all thought this guy was wonderful, but jeez, the light never went on. Here it was right in front of us!” Kutol wallpaper cleaner was nontoxic, and unlike clay, it didn’t stain. So after N.W. removed the detergents, added colorant and replaced the solventlike smell with a subtler almond scent, Kutol began introducing a brand-new product that they had already been making for 22 years. “We used 2 ½ barrel, industrial bread mixers,” Rhodenbaugh said, “which of course, we already had. We had the flour conveyers. We had everything we needed and ran it on the exact same lines as we did the wallpaper cleaner.” In no time, Kutol’s Rainbow Modeling Compound was ready to meet the world.

Rainbow Modeling Compound!?

“‘You can’t call it that!’ Kay said she told her brother-in-law.  Bob and I talked about it. Neither of us can remember who thought of it, but we came up with the name Play-Doh.”  Bill concurred. “Joe told me that Kay thought of the name. I’ve read places it was called Magic Clay, but that’s not true. It was Play-Doh from the beginning.” Kay and Bob Zufall downplay their significance in toy history. “People ask us, ‘You gave the name away?!’ Well, who knew it would sell anything?” Kay laughs now. “Joe did the hard work. We had a part in it for sure, but if it hadn’t been sold, it wouldn’t have been anything.”

The Zufalls

The new company Joe formed with Bill Rhodenbaugh and his uncle N.W. was set up as a subsidiary of Kutol Products. Their new product came in single-gallon cans with colored lids that indicated the color of the Play-Doh inside, which from the beginning was red, blue or yellow. By mixing those primary colors, kids could make “any color in the rainbow,” and so they named their new company Rainbow Crafts. The reason Play-Doh came in such big cans at first was that none of the partners believed they would be able to sell it direct to retailers, so they focused instead on schools. “I called on the Cincinnati Board of Education because I had been trying to sell them soap, so I knew some people over there,” Rhodenbaugh said. Soon Play-Doh was in every elementary school in the city.

Joe McVicker then took it to an educational convention for companies that sold school supplies. There, Washington DC’s Woodward & Lathrop department store became Rainbow Craft’s first major retail account. By 1956, Rainbow Crafts added a three-pack of smaller, seven-ounce cans to their product line. With successful in-store demonstrations, the colorful stuff soon reached Macy’s in New York and Marshall Field’s in Chicago, but the real breakthrough came in 1957 when Play-Doh was featured on TV sets across America. How Rainbow Crafts, a start-up company with few financial resources ended up with a national TV campaign is a testament to Joe McVicker’s gift of persuasion and the intuition of a man named Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo.

Play-Doh 4-PackBy everyone’s account Joe McVicker was a charismatic salesman, and when he talked his way in to see Keeshan, he ended up closing the deal that made Play-Doh famous. “Keeshan liked Play-Doh and wanted it on his show,” recounted Rhodenbaugh. “But Joe told him that we didn’t have any money for advertising. So Joe offered him 2% of our sales if he would feature it on the show once a week. Well, the Captain liked it so much that he started putting it on three times a week! I don’t think there was ever a contract, but I remember signing checks and sending them to his production company. After that we got on DingDongSchool (with Miss Francis) and Romper Room. We had the country saturated with television.”

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