Elliot Handler, who with his wife grew Mattel Inc. from a small home-based picture-frame business into the largest U.S. toy maker and created the Hot Wheels brand, died on Thursday. He was 95.
The company first produced picture frames, but Handler started making dollhouse furniture and other wooden toys on the side from scraps. Mattel's first hit product was a "Uke-A-Doodle," a child-size ukulele and the Burp gun, a cap pistol.
Mattel's success took off after it made a gamble and bet its entire net worth at the time _ $500,000 _ on a sponsorship of Disney and ABC's "The Mickey Mouse Club." The show was a success and Mattel became a household name. Its annual sales grew from $5 million to $14 million in three years.
Handler's wife Ruth created the Barbie doll in 1959, naming it after their daughter. The doll quickly became an American icon and a touchstone of cultural politics. Today it is one of Mattel's best performing brands. Ruth died in 2002 at the age of 85. Ken was named after their son Kenneth, and other Barbie dolls were named after grandchildren.
In the 1960s, trying to create a toy that would be as big a success with boys as Barbie was with girls, Elliot hit upon an idea for miniature die-cast vehicles with sleek designs. Hot Wheels were introduced in 1968 and became a big hit.
Elliot and Ruth were named co-chairmen of Mattel's board in 1973 and left the company in 1975. The couple were the first living inductees to the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 1989.
Handler was born in 1916, the second of four brothers, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. He met Ruth in 1932 at the age of 17.
"We were very saddened to learn about the passing of Elliot Handler, the Mattel founder who created some of the world's most beloved toys," Mattel, based in El Segundo, Calif., said in a statement. "He not only inspired and delighted the employees of Mattel but generations of children around the world. The 30,000 employees of Mattel are proud to continue his legacy and love of play for generations to come. We extend our deepest sympathies to his family."
Handler is survived by his daughter Barbara Segal. His son Kenneth died in 1994 of a brain tumor.