The creation of a toy that would become an American classic was triggered in 1956 by a Fourth of July parade of ants at a Studio City picnic.
While gazing at the industrious insects, novelty-toy entrepreneur Milton Levine was transported back to childhood and his uncle’s farm, where he collected ants in jars and watched them “cavort,” Levine told The Times in 2002.
“We should make an antarium,” he recalled announcing.
With his brother-in-law, Levine soon devised what was eventually named Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm, which was an instant hit in the fad-crazy 1950s. More than 20 million of the now-familiar green ant colonies were sold in Levine’s lifetime, according to the Westlake Village company that makes them.
Levine, who was known as Uncle Milton, died of natural causes Jan. 16 at a Thousand Oaks assisted-care facility, said his son, Steven. He was 97.
At first, the ant farm was sold through a mail-order business that Levine established in 1946 in Pittsburgh with his brother-in-law, E.J. Cossman, a gifted pitchman. The whimsical ant community was one more offbeat product from a company that marketed plastic shrunken heads to hang on rear-view mirrors and spud guns that fired potato pellets.
After moving the company to Hollywood in 1952, Levine decided that he needed a “unique product” if the business were to succeed long term, he told The Times in 1986.
Once Levine hit on the idea for the ant farm, models were fashioned out of plastic tissue dispensers. The first farms that were sold — two sheets of transparent plastic that framed sand topped by a farm scene — looked much like they do today. He advertised them in The Times by saying something akin to “Watch the ants dig tunnels and build bridges” and received so many orders for the $1.98 product he “couldn’t believe it,” he said in the 1986 interview.
The ant farm became a classic partly because it “stoked the curiosity” of budding scientists and provided a fascinating educational experience, said Tim Walsh, a toy historian who last interviewed Levine in 2006 for the documentary “Toyland” (2010).
Because ants won’t survive on the store shelf, they are obtained by mailing in a coupon that comes in the box, which added to the toy’s mystique, Walsh said.
“Part of the thrill of the ant farm was that you had to wait and check your mail every day” for the 25 or so ants to arrive in a vial, Walsh said.
The insects were gathered by ant rustlers who were paid a penny apiece for red harvester ants from the Mojave Desert.
Over time, the ant farm was tinkered with. The original glue was toxic to some ants, so a replacement was found. Sand made way for white-ish volcanic ash, which made the ants more visible.
Both Levine and Cossman promoted the ant farm on television. Levine made an “executive” ant farm of mahogany and glass for Dick Clark and spoke at length with the puppet Lamb Chop on “The Shari Lewis Show.”
In 1965, Levine bought out Cossman, who went on to become a marketing guru. He died at 84 in 2002.
Cossman & Levine Inc. was renamed Uncle Milton Industries, a re-branding that came about partly because Levine often said he was tired of hearing the joke, “If you’re in the ant business, where’s the ‘uncle?’”
Milton Martin Levine was born Nov. 3, 1913, in Pittsburgh to Harry and Mary Levine, Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father started a chain of dry cleaners.
In the Army during World War II, Milton led a platoon that built bridges in France and Germany. He met his future wife, Mauricette, when the French citizen was playing classical piano at a USO in Normandy.
After the war, Levine followed the advice of a newsletter that said the best businesses to go into were toys or bobby pins, both of which were in short supply, he later recalled.
The multimillion-dollar company Levine co-founded became known for educational and scientific toys that include frog and butterfly habitats, planetariums and mini-greenhouses. After the business moved to Westlake Village in the mid-1990s, Levine retired and his son ran the company.
When Uncle Milton Industries was sold in June to Transom Capital Group, a private-equity firm, it was valued at between $30 million and $40 million.
“Ants work day and night, they look out for the common good and never procrastinate,” Levine told The Times in 2002. “Humanity can learn a lot from the ant.”
More than once, Levine said of ants: “I found out their most amazing feat yet. They put three kids through college.”
Besides his son Steven, Levine is survived by Mauricette, his wife of 65 years; daughters Harriet and Ellen; sisters Pearl Cossman and Ruth Shriber; and three grandchildren.