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Elliot Handler, cofounder of Mattel with wife; at 95

The 1959 Barbie was named after Mr. Handler’s daughter. The 1959 Barbie was named after Mr. Handler’s daughter. (Mattel Inc.)
By Mae Anderson
Associated Press / July 23, 2011

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NEW YORK - Elliot Handler, who with his wife helped Mattel Inc. grow from a small, home-based picture-frame business into the largest US toy maker and created the Hot Wheels brand, died Thursday. He was 95.

The company first produced picture frames, but Mr. Handler started making dollhouse furniture and other wooden toys on the side from scraps. Mattel’s first hit product was a “Uke-A-Doodle,’’ a child-size ukulele, and the Burp gun, a cap pistol.

Mattel’s success took off after it made a gamble and bet its entire net worth at the time on a sponsorship of Disney and ABC’s “The Mickey Mouse Club.’’ The show was a success, and Mattel became a household name.

Mr. Handler’s wife, Ruth, created the Barbie doll in 1959, naming it after their daughter. The doll quickly became an American icon and a touchstone of cultural politics. Today it is one of Mattel’s best-performing brands. Ruth died in 2002 at the age of 85. Ken was named after their son Kenneth.

In the 1960s, trying to create a toy that would be as big a success with boys as Barbie was with girls, Mr. Handler hit upon an idea for miniature die-cast vehicles with sleek designs. Hot Wheels were introduced in 1968 and became a big hit.

Elliot and Ruth Handler were named cochairmen of Mattel’s board in 1973 and left the company in 1975. The couple were the first living inductees to the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 1989.

Mr. Handler was born in 1916, the second of four brothers, and grew up in Denver. He met Ruth in 1932 at the age of 17.

“We were very saddened to learn about the passing of Elliot Handler, the Mattel founder who created some of the world’s most beloved toys,’’ Mattel said in a statement. “He not only inspired and delighted the employees of Mattel but generations of children around the world. Mr. Handler leaves his daughter, Barbara Segal. His son, Kenneth, died in 1994.