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Playmobil Celebrates a Bittersweet 35th Anniversary

As the International Toy Fair starts in Nuremberg, the toy industry is celebrating a milestone and mourning a loss. Playmobil turned 35 this week, but its creator, Hans Beck, died just short of the occasion.

A playmobil castle and dragon play set

Playmobil now offers a wide variety of figures and play sets

Thirty-five years have passed since the first Playmobil toys sparked children's imaginations and their still on the job. Many adults, too, remember their first Playmobil figures fondly, which, when they first hit the market, were only available in green, blue, red or yellow.

The accessories were limited, but distinctive, allowing a child to turn a American Indian into a policeman in the blink of an eye.

The 7.5-centimeter (three-inch) men were created out of necessity. The oil crisis of the 1970s spelled financial doom for the toy manufacturer Geobra Brandstaetter when the cost of producing large pieces of plastic became too much.

Playmobil creator Hans Beck

Playmobil creator Hans Beck died just days before the 35th anniversary

Company owner Horst Brandstaetter asked his research director Hans Beck to come up with a toy figures for children.

On Jan. 30, 2009, Hans Beck died at the age of 79 and was unable to see his creation turn 35.

Industry doubtful, but children excited

In 1974, there was 19 different articles in the Playmobil line: construction worker, American Indian, and knight figurines and all the accessories to create three different imaginary worlds.

The figures were an instant success, mostly due to the fact that children were able to act out the world their parents and other adults lived in with figures that could actually grab on to things or bend their legs to sit in a car.

No one, however, expected such long-term success, but today, 35 years later, over 2.2 billion figures have been produced.

Fan letters from kids

Playmobil construction workers

Construction workers were among the original figures created in the 1970s

Children have sent in countless letters over the years asking if the company could make their Playmobil figures. This past summer, for example, most of the letters asked for school playsets.

However, there are clear limits to the kinds of things the company will produce, explains Playmobil Managing Director Andrea Schauer. There is no such thing as a Playmobil soldier or an Iraq War play set, but the battle between good and evil can be acted out through chivalrous knights or police officers.

Playmobil figures are so famous they've even managed to make it onto the stage and television.

In Stuttgart Schiller's opera "The Robbers" was acted out using Playmobil and television host Harald Schmidt uses the figures to act out different scenarios on his late night talk show.

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