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How Johnny Carson Saved Twister

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 27, 2022 3:01 am

How Johnny Carson Saved Twister

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 27, 2022 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here’s history geek Christopher Klein to tell the story of how Johnny Carson saved Twister.

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There's a better way to fly private. This is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about just about everything, as you know. And up next, a story by author Christopher Klein. He's the author of four books.

He's also written for the Boston Globe, the New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and American Heritage. Here's Chris tell the story of how Johnny Carson saved Twister. It's 1965, and Wren Geyer is working for his family's Minnesota ad agency, designing point-of-purchase displays for products such as Pillsbury cake mix and 3M tape. And one day, he's brainstorming ideas for a mail-in giveaway to promote back-to-school sales of a shoe polish made by Johnson's Wax. And he's thinking of something that would tie in with shoes, and he gets this idea for a new board game to be played not on a tabletop, but on the floor. He envisions a large mat checkered with squares on which players are the pieces. Geyer found a large cardboard sheet, drew 24 colorful squares in a 4x6 arrangement, and called in coworkers to play a game in which they moved around like chess pieces.

The game was a hit, and Geyer knew he had an idea too good to waste on shoe polish. He figured this could be a mass-market game, but the problem was he had no experience in the toy industry, so he enlisted the help of industry veteran Charles Foley and artist Neil Rabins to help him refine the concept. Rabins came up with the idea of having players place their hands as well as their feet on the game board, while Foley thought of putting six circles of the same color in four rows so that players would become entangled. The inventors even came up with a catchy retail name for the game, Pretzel, because of its ability to twist people into unique shapes. The game was simple to play.

A spinner told a player to put either a hand or a foot on a particular color dot, and the winner was the one who stayed up the longest without elbows or knees hitting the ground. Pretzel required coordination, flexibility, absolutely no hang-ups about personal space. When Geyer's team pitched Pretzel to game maker Milton Bradley, the company's head of research and development, Mel Taft, was immediately sold. Other Milton Bradley executives, however, thought the board game too provocative, that the idea of being that close to someone, especially someone of the opposite sex, was socially unacceptable.

One company salesman even called it Sex in a Box. Taft pressed ahead, though, and Milton Bradley agreed to produce the board game, but with a new name. Since a toy dog called Pretzel was already on the market, Milton Bradley changed the game's name to Twister and marketed it as the game that ties you up in knots.

Having grown up in the Midwest, though, Geyer disliked the new moniker because it reminded him of deadly tornadoes. Right foot blue, right foot blue, left hand red, left hand red, left, right, yellow, green, yeah, Twister! Milton Bradley found a company that manufactured shower curtains to produce Twister's vinyl mats and placed cartoon characters on the packaging to make the game more innocuous.

It appeared at first, however, that the naysayers concerned about the game's sexual overtones were correct. Major retailers who gathered at the annual Toy Fair in New York thought Twister too risqué as well. Sears Roebuck wouldn't even include it in the company's Christmas catalog.

With demand flagging, Milton Bradley considered pulling Twister from the market. Before it could cancel production, though, the toy company's public relations firm scored a coup by getting the game onto the premiere late-night television program in the United States, NBC's Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The following program is brought to you in living color on NBC. From New York, The Tonight Show, starring Johnny Carson. This is every fan along with Doc Severinsen and the NBC Orchestra inviting you to join Johnny and his guests. With an average of 12 million Americans tuning in every night, The Tonight Show was among television's greatest showcases.

And now, here's Johnny! On the night of May 3, 1966, host Johnny Carson played a game of Twister with glamorous actress Ava Gabor, star of television's Green Acres. Sidekick Ed McMahon worked the spinner and guffawed from his couch as Carson and Gabor got down on all fours and contorted in strange positions.

The stars were in knots, the audience was in stitches. The impact of the hilarious segment on Twister sales was immediate. The next day, customers deluged toy stars such as F.A.L.

Schwartz. Promotional spots on Art Linkletter's House Party and The Mike Douglas Show also raised the game's profile. And Milton Bradley's newspaper advertisements began to boast of the sensational new party game seen by millions on TV. While kids and adults alike were swept up in a Twister craze, teenagers proved to be the game's sweet spot. During the 1960s, Twister became as much a staple of teenage basement parties as shag carpeting and faux wood paneling. By December, Milton Bradley's factories were turning out 40,000 boxes of Twister a day, and it still wasn't enough to keep up with holiday sales.

The toy company even scrapped a planned advertising campaign tied to New Year's Eve to allow its production line to catch up with demand. By the end of 1967, three million Twister games had been sold, and it became one of the decade's most popular games. When Twister was enshrined in the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2015, actors recreated the moment when Carson and Gabor saved the game from history's dustbin. Since its release, an estimated 65 million people have played Twister, proving that it, unlike shag carpeting and fake wood paneling, was no fad of the swinging sixties. And a special thanks to Greg Hengler for producing the piece, and a special thanks to Christopher Klein for telling the story of the night Johnny Carson saved Twister. And by the way, what a coup for that PR firm. I mean, Twister was dead on arrival. And by the way, it's hard to imagine for people born, let's say, after 1980 to understand the power of the Sears catalog.

And if the Sears catalog said no, it would be the equivalent today of Amazon saying no. It was that powerful. And my goodness, what a fun game. I know it was one of the great games at parties when I was a kid, and what a great way to just laugh and be stupid. And by the way that it's enshrined in the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York is no surprise.

65 million people have played the game, a great piece of storytelling by Christopher Klein, the story of Twister, and how a late night talk show host saved it and made it the game it is today here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming. That's To learn more, visit

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Whisper: medium.en / 2022-12-27 04:38:15 / 2022-12-27 04:42:27 / 4

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