EAST AURORA, N.Y. — With the pump of a finger, the View-Master has given generations a 3-D look at everything from man's first moonwalk to the adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants.
The iconic toy occupies a place in the National Toy Hall of Fame, alongside Barbie and Mr. Potato Head, and has inspired many a Web site. This year, it achieves another mark of success, its 65th anniversary.
For the uninitiated, View-Master is the handheld gadget that resembles a squarish pair of plastic binoculars. It spins a circular reel a notch each time the user pushes down its arm to reveal new 3-D images, which are often sequenced to tell a story.
"People who grew up in the '70s think it's a '70s thing," collector Eddie Bowers said, "and people who grew up in the '50s think it's a '50s thing. It's their childhood."
Jim Silver, publisher of the Toy Book, an industry magazine, said parents' fond memories and an effort to keep the reel subjects current has lent to its success. "Parents love to buy things for their children that they had when they were young and that they loved," he said.
Reels' size and shape stayed the same
The public got its first good look at View-Master at the 1940 World's Fair in New York, a year after its creator, amateur stereo photographer William Gruber, introduced it in Portland, Ore. By 1941, more than 100,000 stores were carrying it.
The military adopted it during World War II for training reels, and the 1950s saw an abundance of reels of national parks and other scenic attractions, intended as souvenirs for adults. For kids, View-Master obtained licensing to use Disney characters in 1951 and those and other movie and television favorites have been mainstays of the line ever since.
More than 1.5 billion reels have been issued since 1939.
Most appealing to collectors is that any one of those white paper reels, with their 14 thumbnail film images, will work in any View-Master viewer. The reels' size and shape have never changed.
"The first reel that was produced in 1939 would still work in our newest viewer that came out today," said Mike Sullivan, marketing manager for View-Master at Fisher-Price. The East Aurora toy maker took over View-Master in 1997 after Tyco Toys, which had owned it since 1989, merged with Fisher-Price parent Mattel.
The company has experimented with higher tech View-Masters, like one that used cartridges instead of the reel. It found it best not to stray from the classic. "Anytime we don't use the reel, we don't have the success," Sullivan said.
Bowers, just back from a 3-D convention in Portland that attracted a subset of View-Master collectors, said the non-talking, reel-using models are the only ones he wants in his collection of 50 or so viewers and hundreds of reels.
"To me, that's what a View-Master is," said the Dallas collector. Bowers later picked up a stereo camera and now makes his own reels from family events, including his sister's wedding.
For the 65th anniversary, Fisher-Price has produced a box set with compilation reels from each decade. Viewers can click their way from a 1930s view of the Golden Gate Bridge through a shot of pop singer Brandy in concert.
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