By Darcy Eikenberg
Let’s pause for a moment to celebrate three unique innovators who died this year: Curtis Allina, Art Clokey, and Walter Morrison.
What–you haven’t heard of them? I bet you know their creations well: Pez, Gumby, and Frisbee.
I dare you not to grin when saying those three words! Pez, Gumby, and Frisbee collectively represent fun, silliness, play, and many more happy emotions we want in our lives today.
When each of these gentlemen’s obituaries appeared within a month of each other, it made me pause. What lessons did their innovations teach? As I strive to be more creative and innovative, what inspiration can I take from their journeys? After exploring their lives and legacies further, here are the top three things I discovered:
1. Great Innovation Can Happen Even if Life’s Hard
You’d think that if you were a master of something as creative, as inventive, as FUN as any of these three playthings, that you probably lived a charmed life. But that was far from the truth:
• Clokey was sent to live in a children’s home when his mom’s new husband rejected him after his natural father died in a car accident.
• Allina’s family perished in concentration camps in the 40s, leaving him as the sole survivor.
• Morrison, a WWII pilot, was shot down and spent 48 days as a prisoner of war in Stalag 13.
Those setbacks didn’t get in their way–in fact, they may have led to even greater creativity and innovation. For example, Morrison’s aeronautic skills helped him refine his original flying disc. The abandoned Clokey was eventually adopted by a well-known composer who introduced him to an artistic life that certainly led him to pick up a handful of clay.
2. Accept Whatever Comes
Gumby’s 1956 debut on “The Howdy Doody Show” led the stop-motion character to his own short-lived series and ongoing syndication. But his popularity faded in the 70’s, and creator Clokey struggled financially, according to published accounts.
Then a young comedian named Eddie Murphy played a foul-talking Gumby on Saturday Night Live in the 80’s. Many expected Clokey–the man who created TV’s religious-toned “Davey and Goliath” and who once planned to become an Episcopal priest–to be shocked and ashamed at how his creation was mangled.
But according to interviews, he loved it, although he was happy it was on late at night when children were sleeping (remember, this was the pre-TiVo era.) By accepting someone else’s interpretation and going with the affectionate outpouring, the edgy performance rejuvenated Gumby, and put the green guy in the hands of a whole new generation.
3. You Don’t Have to Create to be Creative
Pez was originally a Viennese mint, marketed to adults as an alternative to smoking. In fact, the stemmed dispenser was designed to look like a cigarette lighter. When the idea emerged to repackage the candy for children, company exec Allina had to persuade the conservative, European home office that the change would make sense.
Pez historian (now there’s a job!) David Welch told The New York Times that no one really knows exactly whose idea it was to put heads on Pez dispensers. However, Welch shared, “The idea came from the United States. And for the idea to have come out of the United States and made it to Austria where it could be approved, Allina was the only guy who could have made that happen.”
So whether Allina actually envisioned a Santa head on a stack of peppermints, we’ll never know. But he was the one to enable the creative move, to actually make it happen, and in the end, is credited with making the now multi-million dollar industry come to life. Not a bad legacy.
Speaking of legacy, it is worth noting one other thing these three men had in common. They all lived long lives: Pez’s Allina passed away at 87. Gumby animator Clokey died at 88; and Morrison, Frisbee’s father, died at 90. They left behind not only their respective innovations, but also buckets of inspiration for the creative spirit in all of us.
Where do you find your innovation inspiration–at work, outdoors, or at home in your garage? From music, TV, or a stroll through the mall? Who inspires you most–people you know well, or people you’ve only known from afar?