|BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman
INTO THE ENTRAILS OF THE TOY BUILDING, OR HOW DOES ONE PRODUCE A GAME?
At six feet six inches, Howard was the tallest person there. And with mustache and beard, I guess I was the hairiest. Our wrinkled grays and browns were also out of place among the checkered polyester pants and buff briefcases that surrounded us on all sides. This was the Toy Building, a 15-story Mego-block structure on Twenty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan, where America's fun moguls decide what will be put under next year's Christmas trees. "How's business?" The president and chief financial backer of Class Struggle, Inc., had come to pay their respects ... and to find out how to produce our game.
We wandered through the halls looking at display rooms filled with stuffed pandas, electric yo-yos, lead soldiers, rubber badges, magic wood/glue/gum/guk, and the occasional game: Beat/Attack/Destroy ... The proportion of plain tacky to expensive trivia was about two to one. It was a supermarket full of striped dreams and polka-dot promises. Something for every taste and tastelessness. "How's business?" No toy was less exciting than "dazzling" or less wonderful than "super." As a kid, I would have liked nothing better than to be let loose in such a playhouse. As an adult, I couldn't help noticing the big price tags and bored expressions on everyone who worked here. My colleagues all! I am now a part of the industry, I thought, feeling strangely excited and wanting to greet "Harold" and "Jake" (names I overheard on the elevator) with a hearty "hello" and a slap on the back. "So, how is business?"
With Class Struggle, Inc., all but launched, I found myself getting an indecent amount of pleasure from "fulfilling my socialist duty." No denying it. Starting a small business is setting out on an adventure. There are exotic places to visit and important decisions to make. I could understand why many people whose whole lives consist of being told what to do are so attracted by a chance to become their own boss. Maybe becoming a businessperson is not like taking castor oil, after all. Or maybe I was just pleased to be doing something at long last of which my parents approved: "Nowadays," they told me, "everybody needs a second job."
"Can I help you gentlemen?" asked a practiced voice.
"No, we're just looking."
"Sorry. We're not open to the general public. Just to store buyers."
"Well, we're not quite general public either," I replied, a little uncertain of my footing. "You see, we have a game and we're looking for someone to manufacture it. Do you happen to know of a company that makes board games?"
He did. But they didn't. They, however, knew of Juvenile Packaging, a company in Brooklyn that does make board games. Howard and I also visited several game stores, seeking advice from their owners. Games Gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street and Eight Avenue is New York's premier game store, with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling games, just games, every possible variety of games. Its whiz-kid owner, John Stevenson, made us our first offer to produce Class Struggle. Not himself, of course-he sold finished games. But he knew the industry and had connections. The idea of a game called Class Struggle struck him as more ridiculous than funny, and not the least threatening if it helped him turn a buck.
"Look, this is like a vanity press," Stevenson said. "You want your creation produced, you pay the man and take your chances." The comparison with a vanity press, where people pay to publish their books just to see their names in print, didn't help our confidence any. Financially, it's a nonstarter.
"But do you think a game called Class Struggle will sell?" Howard couldn't help asking. "Stranger things have happened," was the honest reply. "For a 10 percent commission off the top, which sounded quite reasonable, and one third of all the profits (just in case it took off), which sounded unreasonable, Stevenson said he would take the whole thing off our hands, and sell the game in his store.
Leads also turned up in back issues of industry magazines. We called them, and they in turn gave us the names of several companies that we called or visited. I even phoned Ralph Anspach, whose success with Anti-Monopoly had so impressed me. Ralph told me that Anti-Monopoly was produced by a small firm in Minneapolis. No, the owner was politically very conservative and would not be interested in any game called Class Struggle. Ralph asked me if I knew how many new board games fail every year. I didn't, but said yes, believing that my game was so different that such statistics would not be relevantwhy get frightened for no reason? If I knew all that and still wanted to go ahead, Ralph said, well, then, good luck. (I have since learned that at least 95 percentsome estimate 98 percentof the 300 to 400 new board games produced each year fail.)
Within a couple of weeks, we came up with five full bids, three from companies that manufacture games and two from middlemen, like Stevenson, who would "prepare a package" and take their cut. What greatly amused us was that everyone warned us to be careful in dealing with others in the industry: "People steal, don't pay, break promises, etc." The implication always was, "I am a person you can trust." The bids ranged from $2.49 to $4.50 per unit for the production of 5,000 games.
In choosing a producer, we tried to be guided by three criteria: quality, price, and a union shop. None of the companies that bid on the game had a union shop, and they all assured us we wouldn't find one that could do the job. Quality was something everybody promised, but until we saw the finished product, there was no way of knowing. That left priced, and with bids varying as much as they did, price became the decisive factor.
The lowest bid came from Sam Gouldner of Juvenile Packaging. He would do all the components of the game except the dice and rule booklets for $1.95. The Guardian newspaper, which is unionized, agreed to print the two rule booklets for 23 cents and Athol Industries, like Juvenile Packaging not unionized, would make the dice for 30 centsfor a total cost of $2.48 per game.
There were also some major one-time expenses. The mechanicals, negatives, printing plates, setups, and cutting diesI didn't know what they meant eitherwould cost about $3,500. This in hand, we could make as many games as we wanted. An injection mold to make plastic markers for the different classes turned out to cost $10,000, so we decided to go with pieces of colored cardboard attached to little wooden blocks. "We'll get a mold when we do an edition of 100,000," I jested.
Gouldner smiled. He had a full, welcoming smile, just like that of Arthur Godfrey, whom he strikingly resembled. Dressed in a spiffy light gray suit, gold tie clip and brilliantine-shined shoes, Gouldner ruled over what looked like a functioning junk pile in the middle of the grimiest industrial section of Brooklyn. Juvenile Packaging produced several toy items, boxes for clocks, and now ideological weapons for the revolution.
Gouldner had been a member of the Young People's Socialist League in his youth. After becoming a businessman, his politics drifted rightward. "It's something that happens to the best of us," he said in a baritone voice so low that it seemed to require instrumental accompaniment.
"We don't expect to stay in business that long," I protested. "In for a quick million, and out before the virus takes hold."
"It doesn't take that long," and this time he laughed. As a former socialist, Gouldner readily admitted the social inequalities described in the game. His sense of fun was also tickled by the humor. But as a businessman...well, it was our money. No, he wasn't interested in buying shares in our corporation. "You fellows are going to have quite a job getting stores to carry a game called Class Struggle. They also don't like to buy games from a one-game company."
"We professors have a secret plan," I assured him.
"It's called 'faith,'" Howard added, grimacing in pain at his own insight.
We liked Gouldner, and trusted him. I admit to feeling a little uncomfortable when he wouldn't sign the contract that Izzy drew up, which simply stated the terms we had already agreed upon. "What if a key machine breaks down? I'll do my best to get the work done in the two months as I promised. You'll just have to trust me." We paid Gouldner half of the money in advance, with the other half due when he showed us the finished printsthat is, just before the games were due to run off the assembly line.
How did I feel doing business with a non-union shop? Not that good, but not that bad either, since I didn't think we had much choice. Less than 20 percent of the workers in America were unionized (down for a high in the 1960s of about 36 percent). In Class Struggle, the role of unions in securing Workers' interests is clear and urgent, but Class Struggle, Inc., the business, had to operate in the world as it is. Wishful thinking is bad business and worse politics. Beyond that, we never sought to be a model Marxist business, whatever that is. Our aim was not to teach by example, but to convey a socialist understanding of capitalism to many people who had never heard one, to convey it to them in a game that they bought in stores. This meant starting a business and acting like businessmen. To us, lower costs did not mean higher profits, but lower prices and more sales, more people being introduced to Class Struggle (and class struggle).
During this period, meetings of the board of directors of Class Struggle, Inc., were held ever Sunday evening in my Greenwich Village apartment. Following our family's French traditions, we all gathered around a table replete with Camembert, Roquefort, Boursin, and Jarlsberg. Good cheese quickly became a Class struggle tradition. Howard, who has a passion for cheese, ate enormous portions of the stuff whenever things got rough, but in these early meetings he was content to share his favorite cheeses with the rest of us.
After settling on Gouldner as producer, our attention shifted to problems of distribution and publicity. For a fee, Juvenile had agreed to mail the games out from their plantthe details were still to be worked outbut who would take the orders, answer mail, place ads, and the like? All members of the board agreed to help with selling and publicity, so it didn't seem as if there would be much to do. Someone working 20 hours a week, we thought, could do it all.
Little Shawn Thomas's parents, Jo Ann and Paul Gullen, had just finished with one traumatic birth experience and seemed ready, if not very eager, for another. Paul, my friend for over a decade, is a published poet, who speaks in cadences and dreams about having enough free time to write a novel. The market for poetry and first novels being what it is, he worked at the time in a bookstore. Jo Ann had already run an office for an architect. Together, they said, they could handle one part-time job, and even agreed to work out of their apartment. It would be easier for Jo Ann, who had the baby to care for, and of course cheaper for Class Struggle, Inc.
"But what credentials do they have in business?" Howard asked.
"They once owned a bookstore," I replied.
"How'd they do?" he persisted.
"They went bankrupt."
"Terrific." After meeting the Gullens, Howard was quickly reconciled. Jo Ann had kept books before. She was quick, bright, well organized, and answered the phone with the authority of a radio preacher.
As friends we related as equals. Paul and Jo Ann were now my employees. It was for me to decide how much money they made and how they were to spend the time I paid for. He owed me something and there could be no messing up. Could I forget this when we talked as friends? Could he? At the time, I consoled myself with the fact that this was only a part-time job, that it was still the bookstore where he worked that put most of the bread on his table. Paul was a friend first and an employee second, and I was determined to keep the priorities straight.
One of the earliest problems the board, which now included Paul and Jo Ann, had to resolve was whether to take on Nelson Rockefeller. Izzy informed us that by putting the face of a living person on the cover of the game, we were infringing on his privacy and breaking the law. He could sue us. Everyone agreed that one of the most attractive features of the game is the photo of Marx arm-wrestling with Rocky. Particularly in New York, where Rockefeller's face is well known, this picture guaranteed us instant notoriety.
There were really three questions here. Would Rocky sue? If he did, would he win? And if he won, what would he get? Izzy recalled that the Rockefellers forced some fast-food chain to change a radio jingle that used the family name.
"A David versus Goliath suit would only result in a lot of publicity for Class Struggle," Jo Ann observed.
"And for the class struggle, not Rockefeller's favorite cause," Ed added.
"Maybe he has a sense of humor," Paul suggested. As a poet, nothing seemed too farfetched.
"Settled," and I bought my coffee cup down with a bang. "He won't sue...but if he does?"
"Then," Izzy replied, "we claim the game is really a kind of book, something educational. It's legal to use the face of a living person in 'educational material.'" "You mean we might even win such a suit?" Howard asked.
"I wouldn't bet on it. Better if he doesn't sue," said Izzy. His legal training had made him more cautious than the rest of us.
"It depends what he wins if he wins," Ed countered. "Doesn't he have to show that our action caused him financial loss to collect damages?"
"Right," Izzy admitted. "If he won, probably all that would happen is that the judge would make us take his face off the cover off the game."
"Then on with the suit," Milton exclaimed, giving voice to our common sentiment. "It's a small price to pay for a chance to wrestle with Rockefeller. Why should Marx have all the fun?"
From that moment on, the fear that Rockefeller might sue us was replaced by an even stronger fear that he might not. Until Rockefeller's abrupt demise a year later, David never gave up waiting and hoping for Goliath to make his move. Alas, to no avail.
Setting a price for the game was also a matter of long, involved discussions. In the toy industry, the standard practice to charge a retail price that is four to five times what it costs to produce any item. When we first heard of it, this struck us as an outrageous rip-off. We would be satisfied with much less profit, so we could charge less for our game. That most of this difference went to pay storeowners, sales representatives, jobbers, shippers, warehousemen, advertisers, accountants, bankers, and landlords (we could never afford insurance) is something we didn't fully grasp at the time. I think it is hard for anyone who hasn't actually been in business to realize how much of what comes in has to be paid to other businessmen. A planned society would greatly reduce these expenses, helping small businesspeople and consumers alikebut that is another story.
Our chief concern at this moment was to get Class Struggle into as many hands as possible, so we approached the problem from the other end. What would people, particularly workers and students, be willing to pay for a board game? No one in our group had bought a board game in years, and $10 struck us as a kind of psychological barrier, an outer limit of acceptability that we should honor at all costs. Looking back on these discussions two prices hikes later, I'm struck by how little attention we paid to determining our exact costs and how much time went to unraveling the ideological and psychological ramifications of a $10 price. Amateur night in the boardroom!
Our ideas about distributing the game ranged from business to politics. No one knows how many Americans consider themselves socialists of one sort or another. Estimates range from a few hundred thousand to a couple million. This is "the Movement." Neither an opposition nor a counterculture, it has aspects of both. Wherever they are and whatever their number, we felt certain that people in the Movement would all want to get a copy of the first Marxist board game, particularly as Class Struggle avoided sectarian answers and stressed themes different socialist tendencies have in common. After all, what simpler, less threatening, and more amusing way to introduce children, friends, and relatives to radical ideas? The problem was how to contact all these unseen comrades. We decided to place mail-order ads in a dozen Left publications and try to sell the game directly in the couple of hundred radical bookstores spread throughout the country.
To sell Class Struggle beyond the Movement, to workers, students, and others, meant getting the game into toy and department stores. Between the producer and the stores lay the distributor, salesmen who sell the product to stores for a commission. Parker Brothers and a few other major toy companies do their own distributing, but everyone else uses professional distributors, most of whom have their offices in the Toy Building. Stevenson, Gouldner, Anspach, and others to whom we talked all said that our success would depend to a large extent on our distributors, on how large and well connected they were, and on how much they pushed the game.
I recall Stevenson explaining, "A sales rep may work for five to 10 companies. Each one has a dozen or more items, that's 100 toys and games. In the 15 or even 30 minutes that he's talking to the buyer, how much time do you think he is going to devote to your game?" Howard had just said that it would take a little time to point out to a store buyer how Class Struggle is different, how funny it is, and why it will sell. "No," Stevenson went on, " you guys are going to have quite a job getting salesmen to give you that kind of time, assuming you find someone who's willing to take on such a controversial game in the first place."
"And if there are a lot of favorable press stories?" Howard asked.
"Well, with good publicity," Stevenson admitted, "anything is possible."
From this and similar discussions, we concluded that this was not the time to get a good distributor. Once Class Struggle had burst upon the public and picked up a couple of good newspaper stories, then, we figured, we could get the distributor we wanted and maybe a deal that was something less than blackmail. That put a lot of pressure on us to begin life with a Big Bang.
A press conference, we decided, was the perfect occasion to carry the message of Class Struggle's availability to all America.
"But will the press come?" Jo Ann asked.
"Did TV cover the Kennedy assassination, the Normandy landing, the trip to the moon?" was Milton's quick response.
"Yes," Jo Ann came back, "but did they cover Heinz's announcement of a new, improved chicken-noodle soup?"
"Hopefully, we fall somewhere in between," I broke in. "It will depend a lot on how it's handled. We have to do a professional job. Who has ever run a press conference? Antiwar demonstrations don't count."
Izzy said his friend Irwin was a PR specialist who would be glad to advice us. We began to list what we needed to know. Whom do we invite? Where do we hold it? What day and time of day is best? What do we do besides display the game? What do we dine and wine them with? Newspapermen, all seemed to agree, were heavy drinkers.
"I know just what to feed them," Milton said. "Class Strudel."
We all groaned, but Milton went on, "and we'll serve drinks in glass muggles."
"This has to be fairly serious." Paul's aesthetic sense had been ruffled.
"Why?" Milton asked. "We have to show that we can laugh at ourselves, too."
"Funny and corny are not the same thing," Paul insisted. Puns, slogans, and publicity gimmicks tumbled out of Milton's mouth without letup and, like a spring rain, were wet, soggy, and refreshing in turn. I liked a lot of Milt's suggestions and tried to look at each one on its own merits. I think Milton would have made Class Struggle a household name in no timeif we'd only had a couple of million dollars to spend on advertising. "And who is going to record the event?" Milt wanted to know. The wife of one of his friends had dreams of becoming a professional photographer. She would do it. "Cheap?" "Free," he answered us. "Maybe a couple bucks."
We also decided that we needed a slogan, something that said it all quickly and attached itself to the memory like glue. After an evening of weighing the relative merits of "Highest Marx?" and "Recommended by the Bored of Education," we finally settled on "Class Struggle is the Name of the Game." Almost immediately, we place teaser ads in The Village Voice and in microscopic print at the bottom of the front page of The New York Times which simply read, "Class Struggle is the Name of the Game." We ran six of these in the hope of setting the whole town abuzz with a question to which the game's appearance would be the welcome answer.
In these final weeks before the press conference, I remember feeling a little uneasy about my new role and its responsibilities. The joy and excitement I felt as expect father about to witness the birth of a long-awaited baby couldn't obliterate the pulsating doubts I had buried under the practical tasks of each succeeding moment. On the contrary, the imminence of what had been so long promised brought these worries to the surface. Class Struggle had already begun to take up much more of my time than I had expected. As thankful, too as I was for Howard's largesse, I was not at all comfortable with so much of my friend's money riding on my creation. We had to succeed.
There was also the question of how my new game and business would affect my reputation at NYU and in the academic community at large. In the university, reputation is legal tender; it equates with money, security, and influence. Only scholarly achievements contribute to it. Works that a lot of people read, that are understood or enjoyed too much, works that make money, cannot be "serious." They are not respectable. Professors who do such work are taking a walk at the edge of the abyss. In a hokum world, credibility is an increasingly fragile asset.
A talk I had with my friend Ray Rakow around this time contributed to my growing malaise. Ray is a former psychoanalyst who recognized that the socially induced maladies that crossed his couch require a social cure and exchanged his personalized craft for political activism. When I told Ray I had gone into business selling revolution in toy stores, he looked sadly disappointed. Ray was invited to an open house for potential investors a couple of months earlier, but had not come. "Business is unhealthy for children and other living things," he advised. "You're not going to come out of this unscarred. Besides, class struggle is too serious a subject to play games with."
I was taken aback by the cold water that Ray threw on both the game and my idea of going into business. It may have been the first really negative reaction I got from someone whose opinions I respected. I wanted to hear more of Ray's doubts and to explain more fully my own position, but I had an appointment with Gouldner to discuss production delays and couldn't stay. We agreed to meet again soon. Ray was not lacking a sense of humor or political sense. I couldn't figure out what was bugging him. Why couldn't he understand? His words nagged at me and fed my own uneasiness at becoming a businessman. It was almost two years before Ray and I met to finish our discussion.
On my way to Gouldner's, I couldn't help but reflect on the sad fate of another academic turned businessman, Bob Bonic. Bob, who had grown up with me in Milwaukee, reached his 40th year a respected professor of mathematics, but he, too, had another passion. In his case, it was darts. Feigning more nonchalance than he could have felt, he walked away from a tenured position and with his life savings opened up a bar for dart players in an untraveled corner of Soho, Manhattan. Bob's second wife, Jill, an aspiring actress who enjoyed being married to a professor, had little interest in darts and less in helping build and run a bar, an activity that began to take up all of Bob's time. Dart players, as it turned out, don't drink very much. Business never took off, but Jill did. After a couple more years of dashed hopes and unrelenting penny-pinching agonyalmost as painful for Bob's friends to watch as for him to go throughBob lost the bar and went bankrupt. There were a half-dozen morals one can draw from this story, but the one that stuck in my craw concerned the damage that business misery can inflict on family life. Unlike Jill, Paule understood why her husband had gone into businessthat would help. But I was determined to keep Paule and Raoul as far away from Class Struggle, Inc., as geography and cohabitation allowed.
When I arrived at my appointment with Gouldner, he informed me in a perfectly matter-of-face tone that a rise in the price of paper made it necessary for him to raise the price he had quoted us to produce his part of the game.
"By how much?"
"To $2.75," Gouldner said, avoiding my eyes.
"From $1.95?" My voice dropped to the floor, where my heart had preceded it. "That's about one third more."
"Sorry, Bertell, but I really have no choice. Should we go ahead?"
With no contract in writing, it was I who had no choice, and Gouldner knew it. So much for going with the lowest bid! Our band of super educated professors had been given a first, painful lesson in the ways of business.