Joe- Hi Jim, please could you introduce yourself and explain a little about the position you had at Kenner and the kind of work you were involved in?
Jim- Hi Joe, my name is Jim O’Brien and I was the Senior Art Director for Kenner from 1986 to 2005 when I retired. I was originally hired for that position to replace a retiring Art Heffner in August of 1986 by the Director of Packaging, Bob Fox.
After Bob left Kenner, my friends and colleagues Mike Carroll & Terry Bernard shared responsibilities for the packaging department. When Mike later left the company, Terry was promoted to Director of Packaging, a position he held until 2001 when Hasbro took over.
This is a picture of Dave Reid (Kenner Art Director), myself in the middle and Mike Carroll (Director of packaging structures) on the right. It was taken at the 1988 toy fair, 2 years after I joined the company.
Here are some images of the many lines I worked on, usually for their entire existence. All photographs were shot at the Kenner studio on my behalf. This was so I had something to show to future prospective employers in case of redundancy, which was unfortunately a common occurrence and usually right around Christmas time.
Joe- What a fantastic set of photographs, you’ve been involved with so many successful toy lines. I know you are a talented artist in your own right with a history in art and design so please tell us a little bit about your own artistic background and the companies you worked for before Kenner.
Jim- Before I joined Kenner I had been the art director for the US playing card company for 14 years and prior to that I was the “Publications Officer” for the University of Cincinnati. That was really more of a design office that designed pamphlets, booklets, posters, books, catalogs etc for the various colleges and the administration offices. I started there in August of 1966 after returning from active duty with the the US coast guard reserves. During my 6 months service I worked on the base newspaper as their artist (the public information office).
Prior to joining the coast guard reserve I worked at a Cincinnati art studio but didn’t get to work on any Kenner projects. That particular studio was the Mott Studio and they did a lot of P&G (Procter & Gamble) work and some fashion work along with work for a number of local Cincinnati ad agencies. I started at Mott Studios after graduating from the Cincinnati art academy in May of 1965 (a 4 year program of art and design).
Joe- Working for Kenner from 1986 to 2005 you must have seen a lot of things change over the years. How did the advent of computer design impact the process of creating toy packaging?
Jim- It definitely changed quite a bit over the years. Actually I have an interesting story which shows just how fast things did change. Back in 1993 after a fall from the roof cleaning my gutters, I spent 13 days in intensive care followed by 6 surgeries on my elbows, wrists, face and head. In that time I was away from work for 6 months from Nov. 1993 till May 1994 then again in Sept.1994 thru November 1994 due to additional surgeries. Then I broke my leg in 1995 and couldn’t use crutches due to my arms so I missed even more work. During this reasonably short period, the computer had all but taken over the traditional way of creating finished art for printing. Many of the art Studios were forced to buy multi-million dollar computer systems because P&G demanded they have this equipment. Sadly, most of the studios eventually went bankrupt due to these expenditures. They also hired many techies who knew little about creative design and only concentrated on production. We at Kenner hired newly graduated production people to also handle production in house.
The equipment the studios were required to buy was not the MAC base systems but extreme high resolution systems that large publishers owned. I never had a MAC at Kenner until 1998 since they wanted us on PC’s to communicate with the marketers and upper management.
Joe- I can quite believe it! It must have felt like things changed overnight for you (and by the sounds of it, not for the better!). Lets go back to the mid 80’s now and your work on the Real Ghostbusters toy line. Could you tell us what role you played in the look of the packaging and give us your memories of the toys themselves?
Jim- Well, my job was to work with whichever design agency we would be partnering with for the toy line so for Ghostbusters I worked with the design agency “Lipson and Associates” who created the line look and all of the packaging for the toys. By line look I mean everything from the colour of the boxes to the artwork. The individual Illustrators and designers at the design agency would do the illustration art for the packaging based on our direction but most of the other things I was directly responsible for.
What I remember most about Ghostbusters is that the background color of the original packaging was a color that I chose and had to fight for. It was almost refused by upper management at Kenner because some marketer said “purple is a girl’s color”…but I convinced them otherwise.
One of the original brand managers actually wanted to change the color of the package to yellow at the end of the lines life in an attempt to generate some new life into it. I don’t think we ever made any in that color even though we created a number of comprehensive packages and options at the time.
I actually had a picture on file of me during that time. If you look closely you’ll be able to spot a roll of “Ecto-plazm” stickers with the Real Ghostbusters logo on the shelf above my head.
Joe- That’s a fantastic photo Jim, thank you for sharing it! I’m sure you remember many of the Real Ghostbusters toys, did you have any favourites?
Jim- Sure I remember a few, the pictures I recently looked at while I prepared for this interview helped of course but I do remember the “Fearsome Flush figure”, he was my favourite I think. They were a lot of fun to work on.
(Real Ghostbusters product photography taken for Jim at Kenner)
Joe- Fearsome Flush is everyones favourite! Must be something about toilet humour…
So, you mentioned the design agency that did all the packaging artwork for the toys, what became of the art after it had served its purpose?
Jim- As with most agency artwork, once they had been used, the Illustrations for all Kenner Ghostbusters packages were put in large file folders that were stored in the Oakley Kenner Facility (this Facility housed Toy storage, packaging files, the Play Doh manufacturing line [factory], Quality Control Engineers, Safety Engineers).
Joe- Did you visit the Oakley Facility much while at Kenner?
Jim- I seldom went to the Oakley Facility but when I did it was usually to discuss problems that the safety or quality engineers had with a package! An example would be the time a lawyer and safety engineer made me put “Cape does not allow the user to fly” on a Batman toy package that showed a kid wearing a Cape that was part of the Toy…go figure.
I remember our toy instruction director called all of the Art Studios we were using and said they had to deliver any photo samples or style guides of licensed products to him for storage at Oakley too. At the time there were Toy Collectors (mainly Star Wars Collectors) who were going through the Dumpsters at Kenner so they started tightening up security so that this stuff wasn’t stolen. There were also a few model makers who were fired for making additional photo samples to sell to collectors.
Later, in the 1990s, the Quality and Safety Departments were moved into the Elsinore Building with the rest of us. The Play-Doh Factory was closed in Cincinnati after Hasbro took us over and Oakley was mainly used as a storage facility.
Joe- Those dumpster divers are probably famous and well respected collectors now haha! This next question might seem like an odd one but it’s one I’ve always wanted to know the answer to and who better to ask than someone from the packaging department (it’s also one for any proof card/printing process geeks out there).
Having cromalin proofs of the packaging printed up to be signed off on before things went into production seemed like it was an important part of the Kenner process, yet I’ve never seen any Real Ghostbusters cromalins. Do you recall if any were printed for Ghostbusters packaging or did something change which meant they weren’t used?
Jim- It was a long time ago but I want to say that yes we would have had full color cromalins as the last check off for all lines at that time including Ghostbusters. All departments would sign off at the finished art stage which at the time I believe was B&W stats of the finished art. Then we went to color separation (which was expensive) and another sign off.
Many times we had additional changes at that stage which require a second set of cromalins. These signs off would take up to three days to complete because legal wouldn’t come to the sign offs and required every other department to sign off before they would review it. All these cromalins would then go into a large box for each toy after the package was printed. At the end of the year, all of the files would be shipped to Oakley for storage. As I recall these files were suppose to be kept for 7 years (legal requirement) then they would be pitched. These files contained the finished art, cromalins and any other photos and art for the line.
Where they are now is anyone’s guess but it’s possible they were destroyed which could be why you haven’t seen any.
Joe- So there is still hope that some will surface, that’s great! In contrast to the amount of cromalins that are known, quite a large number of proof cards for the Real Ghostbusters line seem to have survived. Do you remember if those were printed in the states and how many Kenner would have received at the time?
Jim- We used proof cards for all kinds of things internally. I would think that the proof cards that were used for toy fair samples would have been printed in small quantities in the US, yes. All the film separations were done in the US (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky) and that’s who produced the cromalins too so that makes sense. After that they would have been sent to Hong Kong or wherever else they were produced. I don’t remember how many of each we received but we often had batches of them so I would say quite a few.
Joe- You’ve touched on your career as an artist before joining Kenner so I wanted to come back to that if you don’t mind. In a previous conversation you told me that you were the guy who drew the great Kenner Terminator Gooney bird image which most Kenner collectors will be aware of, can you tell us what that was originally for?
Jim- Yes I did draw the Kenner Bird dressed as the Terminator. It was for a sales meeting originally but then we used it on the Coffee Cup which is probably where you collectors know it from. I think Pete Kelly (VP of Sales) asked me to do that for him.
(Coffee mug photo courtesy of Kennercollector.com)
I did a bunch of things for the sales department. When there was no budget, I stepped up as “the world’s cheapest artist” (aka free). Many of the Retirement/Anniversary drawings I did on my own time at home, I always enjoyed drawing for colleagues and hopefully they all enjoyed receiving them.
Below are pictures of some of Jim’s Kenner illustrations and signature caricature birthday art for the following employees:
C. Steiner , D. Erb, P. Kelly, T. Bernard, M. Carroll, J. Baston & T. Felton.
Joe- I’m sure they loved them and probably still have them! You were at Kenner for almost 20 years and were part of so many toy lines. Did you ever hold on to anything as a memento of your time at Kenner apart from your photos?
Jim– No, I didn’t keep much from my Kenner days other than a few awards which I’ve since parted with. I was never into collecting toys. They were just things I helped make but the toys themselves were for the kids. I think the generations of toy people after me were more into the collecting.
A lot of people did take things home though. I remember seeing a Marketing VP loading her car with a bunch of toy packages on lines she worked on. I thought it was strange since she wasn’t married and didn’t have any children but maybe she could foresee them being collectable I don’t know. I also remember Marketers taking items used at toy fair (furniture and display items) home with them. One Marketer had a whole infant furniture room of things she requested for a Doll display at Toy Fair sent to her house after Toy Fair. One of the perks of the job I suppose, if that’s what you were into.
Joe- Did you get on with the more business orientated members of staff at Kenner?
Jim- Some…not all! The marketers could destroy the fun of the toy by taking a feature out of a toy or package to save a fraction of a penny. One Marketer told me “if it doesn’t help a TV commercial it’s not worth it” and those kinds of decisions after months and months of hard work are hard to deal with.
Actually that reminds me of a GM Marketer who talked to a class I took while at UC. He asked the Class “What dose GM make?” Everyone was saying – “cars, Trucks, Chevys etc” and he said we were all wrong. His answer was “No! GM makes money!” (and that is why the US auto manufacturing went down the toilet).
Joe- Jim it’s been wonderful to speak to you, thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else you want to say about your time at Kenner and indeed to those reading this interview?
Jim- Kenner was all about fun and I’m very glad I was a part of that for as long as I was. Thank you all for your interest in what I did for a living.
-In memory of Jim O’Brien | 1943-2019-