When Twister debuted in 1966, the party game was hardly an instant hit. Retailers thought the human-pretzel game too risqué, and orders were so slow that Milton Bradley was due to stop production. That is, until one memorable appearance on a late-night television show rescued Twister from the scrap heap and turned it into a pop-culture sensation.
In 1966, Minnesota ad man Reyn Guyer was brainstorming a mail-in giveaway for a shoe polish made by Johnson’s Wax when he had an idea for a new board game to be played not on a table top, but on a floor. He envisioned a large mat checkered with squares on which players stepped as they played. “As far as I knew, there were no games on the market where the players acted as the game pieces,” Guyer writes on his web site.
Guyer found a large cardboard sheet, drew 24 colorful 1-foot squares in a 4-by-6 arrangement and called in eight of his co-workers to play a game in which they moved around like chess pieces. “The game was a riot, and I immediately knew this was more than a promotion for shoe polish. It had the makings of a retail product,” Guyer recalls.
Lacking experience in the toy business, Guyer hired industry veteran Charles Foley and artist Neil Rabens to help him refine the concept. Rabens 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. (On the patent filed in April 1966 for “Apparatus for Playing a Game Wherein the Players Constitute the Game Pieces,” Foley and Rabens are listed as the inventors. However, it was Guyer who would receive the game’s royalties.)
The game the team perfected, which they called “Pretzel” for its ability to twist people into unique shapes, was simple to play. A spinner told a player to put either a hand or a foot on a particular colored dot, and the winner was the one who stayed up the longest without elbows or knees hitting the ground. Pretzel required coordination, flexibility and absolutely no hangups about personal space.
When Guyer’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. “They warned Mel that the idea of being that close to someone––especially someone of the opposite sex––was socially unacceptable,” Guyer recalls. “The rule we were breaking almost broke the deal. Thankfully, Mel Taft was a rule breaker too.”
With Taft’s backing, the toy company 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.” Guyer disliked the new moniker, which reminded him of tornadoes. “Having grown up in the Midwest, where twisters killed people, I thought the new name was a terrible choice,” he recalls.
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 that one company salesman called “sex in a box” 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 was, well, a bit twisted. The buyer from Sears Roebuck thought the game “too risqué” to be included in the company’s Christmas catalog. “Sears was so powerful back then, its decision on a product could make or break it. Twister was dead,” Guyer writes.
With demand flagging, Milton Bradley considered pulling Twister from the market. Before it could cancel production, however, the toy company’s public relations firm scored a coup by getting the game onto the premier late-night television program in the United States—NBC’s “Tonight Show.” Milton Bradley president James Shea told the Boston Herald in 1978 that, by assuring consumers that the game was wholesome fun, television exposure was absolutely vital in determining Twister’s fate. “Our feeling was that it could be either a gigantic success—or a colossal flop. But one thing we did know—it needed demonstration. And demonstration meant television.”
With an average of 12 million Americans tuning in every night, the “Tonight Show” was among television’s greatest showcases. On the night of May 3, 1966, host Johnny Carson played a game of Twister with glamorous actress Eva Gabor, star of television’s “Green Acres.” Sidekick Ed McMahon worked the spinner and guffawed from his couch as Carson and Gabor, wearing a low-cut gown, got down on all fours and contorted in strange positions. The stars were in knots, and the audience was in stitches.
The impact of the hilarious segment on Twister sales was immediate as the game struck a vibe in the “Swinging Sixties.” “The next day, the famous F.A.O. Schwartz store in New York was deluged with customers,” Shea recalled. 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.” In what was reputedly the first marketing tie-in between a toy company and a liquor producer, Milton Bradley distributed a book of Seagram’s Seven-Crown drink recipes with a Twister theme to 15,000 liquor stores across America.
While kids and adults alike were swept up in a Twister craze, teenagers proved to be the game’s sweet spot. By October 1966, store clerks were telling Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper that Twister was “sending up a storm among college and high school teens.” During the 1960s, Twister became as much a staple of teenaged basement parties as shag carpeting and faux wood paneling glued to the walls.
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.
Now produced by Hasbro, Twister was enshrined in the National Toy of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, in 2015 along with the Super Soaker and the puppet. 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 ’60s.