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Elliot Handler dies at 95; co-founder of Mattel, inventor of Hot Wheels

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Elliot Handler, a pioneering toy maker who co-founded Mattel and invented Hot Wheels, has died. He was 95.

Handler died Thursday from heart failure at his Century City home, according to his daughter, Barbara Segal, after whom the Barbie doll was named.

In 1945, Handler and his wife, Ruth, founded Mattel out of a garage workshop in Los Angeles with their friend Harold "Matt" Matson. They called it Mattel, a name fashioned from Matson and Elliot.

The first Mattel products were picture frames, but Handler soon developed a side business making dollhouse furniture out of picture frame scraps. After the Handlers bought out Matson, they turned Mattel's focus to toys.

Handler's product development and design talents were complemented by his wife's marketing savvy. Early successes were musical toys, such as the Uke-A-Doodle, a child-size ukulele, and a cap gun called the Burp Gun, which the Handlers advertised on the new medium of television.

The company's biggest hit was Ruth's invention of Barbie, a teenage doll with a tiny waist, slender hips and impressive bust who debuted in 1959 wearing a black-and-white striped swimsuit. Ruth had been inspired by her daughter's fascination with cutout paper dolls and named Barbie after her.

At first, Handler and male toy buyers were skeptical of the doll's potential.

"Ruth," Handler reportedly told his wife, "no mother is ever going to buy her daughter a doll with breasts."

He was wrong, and Barbie became the top-selling fashion doll in the world, beloved by young girls and collectors alike. The stylish and buxom doll also prompted controversy: Many critics attacked the doll for being anti-feminist and said Barbie — with her 39-21-33 proportions — promoted unattainable body expectations for young girls.

By 1965, sales topped $100 million and the company joined the Fortune 500, due largely to massive sales of Barbie. Today, Mattel is the world's largest toy maker and is headquartered in El Segundo.

In the late 1960s, Mattel was looking for a toy that would appeal to boys as Barbie had to girls. Handler came up with an idea for miniature die-cast vehicles that would incorporate speed, power and performance, as well as cool car designs.

Introduced in 1968, Hot Wheels featured customized designs and eye-catching paint jobs and went on to become a No. 1-selling toy brand.

But the couple faced a downside of success.

Daughter Barbara and her brother Kenneth were said to be teased incessantly because of their affiliation with the famous dolls (Ken, Barbie's longtime boy toy, was introduced in 1961). Kenneth died in 1994.

In 1975, Elliot and Ruth Handler were ousted from the company by new corporate managers. Three years later, Ruth was accused of having doctored Mattel's books to deceive shareholders and was sentenced to community service and heavily fined.

Elliot Handler was born April 9, 1916, in Chicago and grew up in Denver.

He moved to Los Angeles after high school and, in 1938, married Ruth, his high school sweetheart whom he had met at a charity dance. He studied industrial design at the Art Center School in Los Angeles (now Art Center College of Design in Pasadena) while she worked as a secretary at Paramount Studios.

Before founding Mattel, he was drafted to serve stateside in the Army.

In recent years, Handler lived a quiet life, renting out a studio space where he would often go to paint, his daughter said.

"They were something — my mother was ahead of her time, that's for sure, and he was such a great designer. He had such a great flair for creativity," she said of her parents.

A soft-spoken man, Handler was known at Mattel for his thoughtfulness and insistence that all employees call him by his first name at a time when such informality was unprecedented.

Bob Eckert, chief executive of Mattel, said Friday that Handler had remained an important part of the company and was invited every year to meet with employees at its headquarters, where he showed a continued fondness for toys.

"He's so motivating to people, particularly in our design center where we create toys," Eckert said. "He was the creative juice for the company and really our inspiration."

In addition to his daughter, Handler is survived by a brother, Sidney Handler of Woodland Hills; five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Ruth died in 2002. http://articles.latimes.com/2002/apr/28/news/mn-40473

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 W. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles.

andrea.chang@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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