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
"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
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
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
"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 Erectorworld.com), 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
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
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
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."
Front Page Smithsonian History of the Man Who Saved Christmas
Bill's Work On the Movie...
Greenbergs' Guide to Gilbert Erector Sets
Other Photographs &