Reuben Klamer and the Death of a Talisman

Remembering the inventor of the Game of Life, Reuben Klamer, who also invented several children’s toys.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child — which meant listening to Mel Allen, “the voice of the Yankees,” do all the broadcasts of the Bronx Bombers on the radio. In turn, Allen would summon the ghost of Grantland Rice: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / to mark against your name / He writes — not that you won or lost / but HOW you played the game.” Never mind that Rice was alluding to football — the ritual piety fit the occasion. So, I played along — and, like most people, lost.

Reuben Klamer
Reuben Klamer.

Now that I am old, I learned that the Game of Life was invented in 1959-60, while I was listening to Mel and Red Barber do what came naturally, just as Red’s protégé Vin Scully did, first in Brooklyn, then (for six decades) in LA. As Tommy Edwards sang, “It’s All in the Game” — the #1 hit of 1958.

Now the inventor of the Game is dead. He left the board room on Sept. 22, 2021, three months after reaching 99.[1] His name was Reuben Klamer, and while he was hardly a household name, the Game was his main claim to fame.

He also invented several children’s toys, including one called a phaser, based on a special prop he devised for Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, in 1964-65. Roddenberry told Klamer he needed a “really big gun” for his new TV show, presumably to help with ratings. Reuben Klamer understood implicitly. Without soliciting John Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Charlton Heston to serve as his stunt doubles, let alone, appear on Ed Sullivan to test audience response, Klamer came up with a new weapon that the U.N. might envy — and could use.

When you think about it, has anyone had more influence on society, globally as well as locally, than someone who designs toys, games, props, and gadgets that comprise the world of ersatz thrills called mass (marketed) media? Not just for kids, either: grownups succumb to its lure, be it the “Pink Panther” sports car or Gaylord the Walking Dog — both offspring of Klamer’s fertile mind, with its bent for pleasing every kitschy taste that no one ever went broke underestimating, at least (not) in America.

Born and raised in Canton, Ohio, Klamer’s parents were Romanian Jews who wanted a better life for their son than the one they never had in the old country. He went to George Washington U., Ohio State U., and U. of Michigan, earning a master’s degree in engineering to complement his training in marketing. Then he joined the Navy as a midshipman at Northwestern U., serving in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. Returning home from the war, Klamer promptly adjusted to life as a civilian. He worked in air freight, then opened an ad agency on route to becoming a game-changer. Spin the wheel of fate….

Busy as a military-industrial beaver can be, Kramer dreamt up toy skates, made knock-off hula hoops, and practiced his vicarious aim on TV’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E., only to stun the fictional world of Star Trek, less than a star-date later. Klamer’s employers reaped the rewards, since they held the patents; so, in the end, the inventor of the phaser was as alienated as every alien on camera, as were the audiences he helped to entertain yet never met. They never knew who he was, either, yet they all had one thing in common: they were losers, for whom the tube provided a nightly means of escape from pain, suffering, and death. Like prime-time TV, phasers numb the victim — as pacifistic a weapon as the Cold War ever produced, on board the aptly named Enterprise. Beats getting your head bashed in playing football, America’s surrogate for geopolitical might.

Is it mere coincidence that the NFL Hall of Fame is in Canton? Or that the league itself, sponsored by an automobile dealer, was incorporated on June 24, 1922 — four days after Reuben Klamer’s birth? Did the fault lie in his stars, not in himself? After 99 years of muted glory, all of it pre-destined, it must have haunted Mr. Klamer to witness Donald Trump, a loser if ever there was one, proclaim himself a winner, especially since, despite breaking all the rules pertaining to the game of life, including some that the manufacturer didn’t bother to codify and include with the instruction sheet, he wasn’t. If I were Klamer, I’d kvetch about it on my toy kazoo — and invent a toy klezmer, to play klezmer music every Sabbath, for whatever ersatz solace that might bring.

Alas, the best laid plans of mice, men and Rootie Kazooties oft go astray, like busted plays that result in broken bones, severe concussions, and wrecked lives for maimed football martyrs, week after week, while jaded spectators enjoy a vicarious thrill, watching helmeted gladiators beat each other’s brains out in a sold-out Coliseum where Roman numerals mark the decline and fall of a corrupt empire. Just ask Jethro Pugh about that one: after Jerry Kramer’s game-winning, gun-jumping block, the Ice Bowl cameth down on Jethro like the Jock Ewings of Almighty Dallas.[2] Irate Texans suspected Pugh was disloyal to his country. Yet even Cowboys get frostbite, especially on New Year’s Eve.[3] It’s a pity that Reuben Klamer died when he did, at aetat XCIX. But then, I suspect that he was board of the whole thing.

A century from now, people will still play the game, regardless of how the rules may change or devolve. The only issue is, will there be anybody left to play? Or will the whole pageant fade, for lack of any life? Talk about an endgame, Charlie Brown…if that’s what winning is all about, then I’m glad I’m a loser.[4]

After all, winning isn’t the main thing…somehow, just saying that makes me feel numb. Must be the voice of Vince Lombardi, echoing in the gloom of Yankee Stadium, after the Packers beat the Giants 16-7 to win their second consecutive NFL title on December 30, 1962, on a bitterly cold day in the Bronx. As Lombardi returned to his hometown in triumph, I left mine in utter defeat, old sport. As all-American Adams know, you can’t go home when you don’t have one — that is, unless you count Mar-a-Lago as Vaterland, rather than as mock-diasporic. Exile is as exile does itself in: a Hallmark Card, from Mr. (and Mrs.) Chump.

Having a pipe dream, D.T.? Wait for me, Mel…. How about that! I can see it now, like the toys of yesteryear — Proustian memories of watching A Christmas Story, with no further commercial interruptions. Set Red Ryder Gun on stun. Remember, kids, it’s not over, even when it’s over. The Scorer comes with an eraser. Like the Iceman, only without yon field of screams.

[1] Reuben Klamer Wikipedia.

[2] A decade later, Pugh confessed to recurrent nightmares involving Jerry Kramer and quarterback Bart Starr, whose one-yard plunge (sic) into the end zone gave the Packers a 21-17 victory. Never one to make excuses, Pugh played the entire 1971 season with appendicitis, delaying surgery in order to help his team reach (and win) Super Bowl VI, 24-3. He played seven more seasons with an injured back. Cf. “End is near for Pugh,” Tuscaloosa News, Jan. 15, 1978.

[3] Cf. “December 31, 1967: Weather during the Ice Bowl.” National Weather Service, 50th Anniversary of the Ice Bowl.

[4] Not so Charles A. Dawes, whose “Melody in A,” written in 1911, became “It’s All in the Game” after Carl Sigman wrote lyrics for it in 1951. Mr. Dawes, a banker and businessman by trade, became Vice-President under Calvin Coolidge in 1924. A year later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for the eponymous Dawes Plan, which aided European economic recovery from WW I. Dawes’ tune found its way into the musical repertoire via Fritz Kreisler and Tommy Dorsey before it became a hit tune, not long after Dawes’ death. Dawes never collected royalties, which is just as well, since he was ashamed of the little concert piece he had composed 40 years earlier. Yet (as we now know) he never felt queasy about being privy to inside dope that convinced him to sell off all his stocks and bonds only two days before the Great Crash in 1929. For details, see Annette B. Dunlap, Charles Gates Dawes: A Life (Evanston, IL, 2016). Dawes died at his home (now a National Landmark) while watching a baseball game on TV, thus proving the adage “a winner knows when to quit, and a quitter knows what you don’t.”

Dennis Rohatyn
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