The New York Times - Movie Reviews
"The Man Who Saved Christmas - CBS TV"

A Toy Maker who's Rich, and also Sweet and Good
by ANITA GATES, December 13, 2002

America has been in need of a hero from the business world. "The Man Who Saved Christmas," a good- natured film that has its premiere Sunday night on CBS, offers one: A. C. Gilbert, the toy maker who invented the Erector set. Of course, he made his money shortly before World War I and has been dead for 40 years. In the film, Gilbert pays his employees well and dresses up as Santa for their children. He gives them medical insurance, Christmas bonuses, even free on-site day care. When the war comes and the federal government asks Gilbert to transform his toy factory into a munitions plant, he tries to be a good citizen by going along with the idea. But he eventually concludes that there are some things even war shouldn't set aside, and one of those things is a child's Christmas. His toys are educational, too, as he repeatedly points out. (The market for A. C. Gilbert's Erector sets, Antiques, Page 47.)

The film's first accomplishment is that Jason Alexander, who plays Gilbert, is so convincingly cherubic and sincere that the specter of his most famous character - the acerbic urban single George Costanza of NBC's "Seinfeld" - keeps a low profile. His Gilbert is so nice that when he learns that his son and his father have conspired one night to make him think he's losing his mind, he's delighted. It was for a good cause.

This is a slightly too sweet, slightly too familiar holiday story complete with two Christmas-dinner scenes, one brave brother going off to the front and an inspiring speech that melts the hearts of a chamberful of grumpy Washington politicians.

A. C., as many people call him, has his problems. His gruff father (Edward Asner) wanted him to be a doctor. Of the toy business, he says, "This lunatic enterprise of yours is a failure." But as A. C. tells him, "Dad, magic and toys can sometimes do more for children than pills and surgeons." His little son, Al (Jake Brockman), isn't the baseball-playing boy's boy he hoped for. And the fact that he's a serious, extremely intelligent, well-read youngster doesn't impress his father. Luckily, A. C.'s wife (Kelly Rowan) is perfect and, in a pre-feminist way, the real brains of the business.

It's no surprise that Gilbert's story has a picture-perfect happy ending. And when his brother offers a toast to A. C., he probably really is the richest man in town.


The New York Times - Antiques

A Perfect Toy for a Nation of Inventors
by WENDY MOONAN, Dec. 13, 2002

Introduced nearly a century ago, the Erector set was the new toy for a new age. Initially packed in sturdy red wooden boxes, Erector sets included tools, equipment (screws, nuts and bolts and steel girders) and all the plans that boys needed to construct models of sleek planes, streamlined trains, steamboats and modern skyscrapers.

A. C. Gilbert (1884-1961), the visionary who produced the Erector set in 1913, was not the first man to make such kits. Toy manufacturers like Meccano in England began making metal construction kits in 1901, and companies in Germany, Italy and France soon followed them. Nonetheless, in no other country was the metal construction kit such a hit.

"Between 1913 and 1966, Gilbert sold more than 30 million Erector sets, earning its nickname as `the world's greatest toy,' "Bruce Watson writes in his new biography of Gilbert: "The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made: The Life and Times of A. C. Gilbert, the Man Who Saved Christmas" (Viking, 2002, $24.95). "But it's hard to consider it a toy."

Noel Barrett, president of the Antique Toy Collectors of America and a frequent guest on "Antiques Roadshow" on television, said: "Erector sets come from a time when kids could spend a lot more time working on toys. Construction with an Erector set is not easy; it's tedious work. But it's a classic toy, from a time when toys really taught planning."

L. Andrew Jugle is a Midwestern collector who owns enough old Erector sets to fill up a tractor trailer, which he does when he wants to take his collection to a convention or a collectors' meeting. His Erector archive includes old ads, manuals, photos, letters and other materials.

"Gilbert built toys you could learn something from even if you didn't realize it," he said. "Gilbert was making toys for kids 10 to 15 years old. No one does that anymore because kids are adults at age 11 now." (A television review of "The Man Who Saved Christmas," a program about Gilbert on CBS Sunday night, is on Page 38.)

William Brown, the director of the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, Conn., said, "These toys were preparation for real life." He described the Erector set as "an instrument of invention." His museum, devoted to inventions, has several models of Gilbert's Erector sets, gifts from Gilbert relatives in nearby New Haven.

Unlikely inventions have come out of the hands of Erector set tinkerers. Mr. Brown said the origin of the artificial heart in 1948 was a device made with an Erector set and a motor at the Yale Medical School in New Haven. "Dr. Bill Glenn, a teacher there, backed the idea as part of student Bill Sewell's research project for a medical degree," he said. Sewell built a bypass device outside an animal's body by using Erector set parts and an Erector set motor to pump blood to the heart.

In his biography of Gilbert, Mr. Watson cites another example. In the early 1990's, Mark Summers was asked to invent a virtual-reality attraction for California Adventure, Disney's newest theme park in Anaheim. He designed a ride called "Soarin' Over California" on his computer, but he couldn't get the apparatus to do what he wanted on his computer screen, namely, have the seats fly over the screen.

Finally, he took his old Erector set out of the attic and bolted together a frame with pulleys and wheels and suspended seats. He took this to his bosses to show how the seats could be made to soar over the theater screen. (The younger engineers called it "Flintstone engineering.") The model showed that the ride could be built, and it made its debut in the spring of 2001.

Today, Erector sets are still made (see, but the thousands of American collectors of vintage Erector sets are interested in those made before the company was bought in the mid-1960's. After several changes in ownership, it now belongs to Brio, a Swedish-owned company based in Germantown, Wis. "The new Erector sets are less complex and use plastic," Mr. Watson said. "They include human figures. They are not about rebuilding the industrial world."

Most collectors are men, and the range of prices is wide, from a few hundred dollars to $15,000 for a vintage Erector set from the 1920's. Mr. Jugle said that buyers tend to fall into two groups, those in their 40's and successful people in their 60's and 70's. "Of the second group, I'd say about 90 percent of the people have advanced degrees; they are the doctors, scientists and engineers," he said. "Then there are the men who have a million dollars they are willing to spend on their Erector set collections."

The top collectors around the country include Bill Bean and Dan Yett of Ohio, Ted Howard of New Jersey, John Drury of Chicago, the magician David Copperfield and Mr. Jugle.

Mr. Jugle goes to the Toy Collectors Association meetings twice a year and attends the annual meeting of the A. C. Gilbert Heritage Society, which numbers a few hundred members. "The best old sets tend to be in places where there was money," he said. "New York was rich; Denver had mining; Texas had oil; and Wichita and Kansas City had a lot of railroad building."

The old sets have wonderful names: "The Crazy Inventor Series," "Dirigible Airship," "The Musical Ferris Wheel," "Super Excavator." The only trouble is, children are not supposed to use them. "Nowadays, you cannot sell old Erector sets to children because they have sharp edges," Mr. Jugle said. "The consumer protection people think children will eat the nuts and bolts. Each set must be marked with a label reading: `This is an adult collectible, not a toy.' "

Not that collectors plan to use the vintage sets they buy. Value is linked to condition. "That's the irony of it," Mr. Juble said. "The Erector sets that were used got cruddy and rusted. The only ones that survived were never used. Collectors want only the virgin sets that are untouched."

Mr. Barrett said: "Erector sets only get into serious value when they are in near-perfect shape. They should be in their original box, preferably the red wooden box, with all the pieces wired down to their original retaining plates, and with all the original papers and the lithograph inset in the lid." He conducts two auctions a year in Lambertville, N.J.

Why are Erector sets still so appealing? "Magic was the key to every toy Gilbert sold," Mr. Watson writes. "And each worked a kind of magic back when most Americans made things instead of just selling them, and when industry, not information, was the label of the age. Gilbert boys together built America. They built the roads, factories, dams, buildings, cars, trucks and tractors, the simple gadgets and rocket science that brought the country out of the 19th century and hurled it toward the 21st."
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A CBS Special!
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