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One Man's Tiny Plastic Universe

(Page 2 of 2)

The office has a special "inner sanctum." You can't get in without a special card to open the door. That's so the toys they're working on will stay secret.

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By now, so many Playmobil figures have been produced that, if they were real people and had their own country, it would be the most populous nation on earth: 1.3 billion!

Today's Playmobil figures look pretty much as they did in the beginning. The first year the company had three "themes": medieval knights, construction workers, and American Indians. Beck's favorite is the pirate ship, introduced in 1978.

Now there's a Playmobil train that includes a car sprayed with graffiti and a "street action" collection showing a racially mixed group of kids playing basketball.

It's clear from the letters kids send to Playmobil that a lot of them think of themselves as part owners of the company. They have lots of ideas. The letters (many with drawings) are carefully logged, answered, and filed. Ideas are tallied so that the firm can tell how many letter-writers asked for Playmobil cavemen this year, for instance.

But the company that Beck works for, the Brandsttter Group, is run by grownups. And at times, grownups say no. No, for instance, to a real, working siren on the fire truck: "Sirens would get on parents' nerves," the company wrote back. No to dinosaurs: Human figures are central in the Playmobil universe, and there were no humans when dinosaurs lived.

No to submarines and an airport with jumbo jets: To keep to the Playmobil scale, the subs or jets would have to be too big.

There's a fair bit of demand for ancient Greeks and Romans, especially from fifth-graders beginning to study them in school. But the company says no to them, too: Fifth-graders are getting too old for Playmobil, and the company says it wouldn't make sense to produce a theme for an age group that's about to "graduate."

Historically Accurate, Yes; But Not Politically Correct

In a glass case in his office, Playmobil inventor Hans Beck displays some of his favorite creations, including some that never made it to stores.

A band of medieval troubadours with a muzzled bear sold in Germany, but did poorly in England. "Cruelty to animals!" was the protest. A group of medieval hunters with a deer they have just killed also flopped in England, where a lot of people oppose hunting, Mr. Beck says.

Another collection "we had second thoughts about," as he puts it, and never brought to market featured medieval punishments, including toy stocks for Playmobil baddies to put their (benignly smiling) little heads and hands in. There was even a "baker's cage." In the Middle Ages, bakers whose loaves were larger or smaller than the standard size were put in such cages and dunked once or twice in the nearest river. (This didn't generally hurt them, but it did encourage them to get it right next time.)

A group of 19th-century Chinese railroad workers, complete with a cart full of perfect little railroad ties, was never in stores, either. These so-called coolies proved to be politically incorrect. It is a fact, though, as Beck points out, that gangs of Chinese laborers helped build America's transcontinental railroad.

"When you're presenting a picture of a time past, you have to show all sides of it," the toymaker insists. But this has to be done with Fingerspitzengefuhl, he says. The German word means "a special sensitivity in your fingertips." What Beck means is that you have to do it carefully and sensitively.