Toymaker Teams with “Science Guy” Alum on New Video

Issaquah, WA., May 11, 2002 – Rick Hartman is an unlikely celebrity. But in the past two years, this soft-spoken, former elementary school teacher has found himself appearing as a guest on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” on stage at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, and on the cover of Pacific Northwest Magazine.

What’s all the commotion about? Hartman is a toymaker, or, more accurately, “The Toymaker.” It’s a name given to him by a reporter that seems to have stuck. His specialty is building playful contraptions with children and teaching them about art, science, craftsmanship, history and good old-fashioned fun. He also holds several patents for toys that have been commercially produced and sold in toy stores around the world.

For Hartman, toymaking is more than just arts ‘n crafts–it’s entertainment. “I’m kind of like a folk singer,” Hartman explains. “Except instead of sing-alongs, I do build-alongs.”

Hartman researches classic folk toys from around the world and reinterprets them into projects that can be easily built by kids aged 5-14 using simple, everyday materials. Everything from film canisters, yardsticks, paper clips and scraps of wood are likely to end up in one of his projects. At childrens festivals, schools, libraries and museums across the country, Hartman makes toys with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 children each year.

Spotlight on Creativity

Hartman has just produced his first video aimed at kids, parents and teachers. It’s called “The Toymaker’s Workshop with Rick Hartman.”  In it Hartman shows viewers how to build their own intriguing folk toys including a mysterious noisemaker from Australia, a whirling puppet from India, and a tricky catch toy from China. The Toymaker also demonstrates how to make two ingenious hand tools–a simple hammer and a simple saw–and how to use these makeshift tools to build toys.

Not surprisingly, youngsters play an important role in the show. “I wanted to capture some of that magic that occurs when kids pick up tools and start creating,” Hartman says. “Kids are naturally inventive, and I wanted to shine a spotlight on that, to celebrate it.”Hartman also includes a segment in which he interviews a professional toy inventor, “so that kids can see how much they already have in common with the successful creators of our time.”

Much of the action takes place inside Hartman’s magical toy studio, a converted two-car garage overflowing with gadgets, gizmos, gears and more. Hundreds of recycled soda bottles hang on one wall, each filled to the brim with irresistible inventing supplies like springs, beads, tongue depressors and ping-pong balls. Classic folk toys from around the world with names like Fishing Pig, Piano-Playing Bear, and Pecking Hens perch on shelves alongside hammers, saws and C-clamps. A human-sized, brightly painted puppet named Happy makes several cameo appearances in the show.

And then there’s the workbench, a deliberately simple-looking plywood-and-two-by-four affair upon which Hartman demonstrates his projects. “Toymaking and inventing can take place almost anyplace,” Hartman says. “You don’t need a fancy workshop or complicated tools.”

Hartman says he draws inspiration for his show from “The New Yankee Workshop,” a popular PBS woodworking series for adults. “I wanted to create a How-To show but with a twist: just beneath the surface lies a magical world of inventing and creativity that kids can really relate to.”

Quiet, Captivating Style

To help capture some of that magic on videotape, Hartman hired Mike Boydstun, a veteran director and editor from the PBS/Disney series “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” A multiple Grammy award nominee and the producer/director on several platinum home videos, Boydstun had just the right mix of skills Hartman was looking for. “I knew I needed an all-around expert to guide me through this show,” Hartman says. “Mike brought the technical know-how as well as the artistic, comedic and musical instincts I was looking for.”

And while he’s often compared to Boydstun’s former boss Bill Nye, Hartman says his approach to teaching and entertaining kids is quite different from the famously frantic Science Guy. “My style is much quieter, ” Hartman says. “I like to let the energy spring from the kids and their work rather than from myself. They’re the ones who are jumping around with excitement by the end of the show, and that’s the way it should be.”

The subtlety of Hartman’s delivery can be dramatic–in one amazing sequence, for example, he demonstrates how to build an entire toy without using any words. The young toymakers in his audience sit in rapt attention, mesmerized by the silent, mime-like performance. Afterwards, the Toymaker whispers a single word, “go,” and his students leap into action, eager to build their own version of the project.

“Sometimes if you speak in a hushed voice–or no voice at all–you capture kids’ attention better than if you shout,” Hartman explains.

A Playful Past

Hartman appears to have playfulness in his genes. His father, a retired marketing executive, was in his youth a professional yo-yo demonstrator and nationally ranked ping pong player. At the age of 77, Hartman senior now travels the Senior Olympics circuit and is a gold medallist in both billiards and golf. “No doubt about it, Dad loves to play,” Hartman says. “He instilled in me a sense that to play is to stay young.”

Hartman’s wife, Lee, is also a playful sort. She’s a youth minister and mom by day, and a talented singer-songwriter who wrote and recorded the theme song for Hartman’s video. It’s a catchy number called “You’re the Toymaker” that includes the lines:

Come on in to Rick’s toy workshop
Once you start you won’t want to stop
Making stuff with your hands
Tools and toys and inventions…

Hartman discovered early on that he had mechanical skills as well as an ability to work with kids. As a teenager, he enjoyed earning merit badges like Home Repairs and Electricity on his way to becoming an Eagle Scout. His first job in high school was as the handyman at a summer day camp in suburban New Jersey where he grew up. “Kids just sort of gravitated towards me,” Hartman recalls. “It was a little bit like Tom Sawyer getting his friends to whitewash the fence for him. They wanted to do all sorts of chores for me–painting, fixing, raking–anything to avoid some of the traditional camp activities. It was the first inkling I had of something I’ve come to believe in deeply over the years: kids—just like adults—crave work that has meaning, that’s important.”

After graduating with a degree in English literature from Brown University in 1983, Hartman toured the U.S. by bicycle and car, picking up odd jobs along the way. He worked as a deckhand on oilrig supply boats in the Gulf of Mexico, a roofer in the Pacific Northwest, and even had a brief stint as a department store Santa Claus during one humid holiday season in New Orleans.

Eventually he made his way to Kodiak Island, Alaska, where he lived on a fishing boat for two years while writing for the local newspaper. That’s where he met Lee, also a reporter at the time. The couple now has two children, ages 2 and 5.

Gadgets Land Him on Leno

Hartman earned his teaching degree in 1989 and taught in public elementary schools for four years in the Seattle area. At the same time, he started developing new toy ideas, building prototypes and learning about the business side of the toy industry and the patenting process. First came Pro Thumb Wrestling, a miniature wrestling ring for playing the classic children’s game. Then came Spinsation and Hoop-2-Hoop, two tricky gizmos that test a player’s coordination. Next came Crazy Cords, a motorized crafts gadget for creating multi-colored friendship bracelets and shoelaces.

His latest professional creation earned him U.S. Patent number 5,971,829 for an invention simply named Motorized Ice Cream Cone. That’s the toy that landed him on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” in the summer of 2000. During the segment, watched by millions of Americans, Hartman exchanged one-liners with the host over the “labor-saving” benefits of his motorized cone. Hartman: “You know, Jay, ice cream cone technology has basically been stagnant for the last 200 years…” Leno: “So you feel Americans are getting way too much exercise?” Hartman: “I think we need to improve it…clearly there was a need–and the US Patent Office agreed– for an ergonomic ice cream cone!” Leno: “Why do I get the feeling you’ve done infomercials?” Hartman: “Oh I don’t know, I guess I’ve watched Ron Popeil a lot!”

Though Hartman left full-time teaching in 1993, he never wandered far from the classroom. He began applying his talents as a teacher and inventor at local schools and community centers and soon discovered that kids loved the simple projects he showed them how to build out of everyday objects like popsicle sticks, recycled film canisters, and clothespins. “I felt like I was tapping into some kind of basic need, a hunger kids had to build stuff with their hands,” Hartman recalls. “I knew almost immediately I was on to something special. I went home and told my wife—Don’t ever let me stop doing this.'”

From those early beginnings, Hartman has developed dozens of programs and is continually researching and testing new projects. “I’m busier than ever,” he says, summarizing his growing list of endeavors: He’s got children’s festivals to prepare for, where up to 3,000 kids can turn out in a single weekend to build toys. Then there’s his work with the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in Washington, D.C., where he presents programs and consults. And there are the hundreds of workshops and assemblies he delivers at schools, libraries and for a growing list of corporate sponsors like The Home Depot, Reader’s Digest, and The Washington Athletic Club.

More information about Rick Hartman’s School of Toy can be found at www.schooloftoy.com