Sex in a Box: The Twisted History of Twister

If it hadn’t been for Johnny Carson, Twister may have never gotten off the ground.

On the May 3, 1966, episode of the Tonight Show, Carson took a few minutes to demonstrate the little-known new party game. His guest that night was the blonde bombshell actress Eva Gabor. After a few right foot reds and left hand blues, Carson and Gabor were playfully entangled and the studio audience was in hysterics. Twister went on to sell more than 3 million copies over the next year.

“The game that ties you up in knots” sprang from the imagination of a St. Paul-based ad man / inventor named Reyn Guyer in 1965. Guyer’s firm, the Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design, was hired to do a local back-to-school promotional display for Johnson brand shoe polish. As Guyer tinkered with a colored polka dot paper mat to highlight kids’ shoes, he realized he might be onto something bigger – a game where people acted as the game pieces. Guyer first called his invention King’s Footsie, testing it out on some fellow artists and designers. The fun that four people were having while crammed into provocative shapes onto a 4 x 6 mat was all Guyer needed to see.

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“It didn’t make any difference what the game was at that point,” Guyer told me, “because we began to laugh so hard that it was obvious we were onto something.”

Guyer pitched King’s Footsie to 3M, but they passed. He then hired game designers Charles F. Foley and Neil Rabens to help him further develop the idea. The three of them came up with eight different game ideas for the polka dot mat. The obvious winner was called Pretzel, a test of balance and skill that eventually became Twister. They then licensed Pretzel to Milton Bradley, and that’s where the story gets, well, twisted.

Some accounts say that the company changed the name to Twister against Guyer’s wishes. But Guyer says that the name Pretzel was not legally available. “Still, Twister didn’t seem to have the positive resonance that Pretzel did,” Guyer says, “nor did it really describe the game that well. But it’s solid proof that it doesn’t matter what you call something. Once you name it, that’s what it is.”

Other accounts claim that Foley and Rabens walked off with the patent, taking credit for the invention. It’s true that theirs are the only names on the patent, but according to an interview with Rabens, on the day they applied for the patent, they signed over the rights to Guyer. They made a verbal agreement with him to get a certain percentage of profits, but Rabens says it was not honored. He and Foley soon went their own way, starting their own toy company.

Guyer remembers it differently. “There is a patent, and quite frankly, I wasn’t part of it. Foley and Rabens did a fabulous job and we worked together on it. I feel badly that they didn’t stick around to develop a division of our company. People have a tendency to attribute new products to one person, and I’ve never, in any of the products I’ve developed, seen it happen that one person did it. You share ideas and it’s a process.”

Too Hot for the Sears Catalog

Meanwhile, back in 1965, some execs at Milton Bradley were reportedly uncomfortable with Twister’s sexual undercurrent and felt it went against the company’s clean image. To others, the game – one vinyl mat, one plastic spinner - seemed like a profit-making dream. But in its first months on the market, Twister barely sold at all. Retailers were confused by it. “Sears didn’t think it was appropriate for their catalog,” recalls Guyer. Just as Milton-Bradley was about to give up hope, the PR firm that was promoting Twister tried a last-ditch idea, pushing it to the Tonight Show.

After the spectacle of Carson and Gabor entwined, Guyer says, “people were lined up fifty deep at Abercrombie & Fitch the next day in New York, and Twister was born.” One of Milton-Bradley’s competitors accused them of selling “sex in a box,” but they countered with TV commercials that pushed it as a fun game for the whole family. Looking at the commercials now, there is something slightly disquieting about the thought of a multi-generational pile-on, but in the ‘60s, there was no stopping Twister. It was named Game of the Year in 1967. And like the Hula Hoop, it became one of the biggest fad toys of the decade.

Guyer attributes part of its success to timing. “Ideas that become iconic tend to break rules or norms. Twister broke the rules in a social setting. People had not up to that point been granted the possibility of being that close and enjoying it in a group setting.”

Over 65 million people are said to have now played Twister, and it has found its way into all aspects of pop culture. Weird Al Yankovic and R.E.M have sung about it. Bill & Ted beat Death in a game of it in one of their movies. The characters on Friends played it. Twister tournaments have become popular fund-raising events for college fraternities and sororities. And in 1987, 4,160 students at University of Massachusetts set a world record, laying out mats for one big tangled marathon of Twister.

As for the game’s creators, Foley and Rabens went on to invent a few now-defunct games such as Grab a Loop and Bing-Bang-Boing, as well as the first plastic handcuffs. And in 1969, Guyer helped pioneer another landmark toy - the Nerf Ball. He remains an active designer, with his latest invention a new backyard game called King’s Court.

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November 3, 2011 - 9:22am
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