In 1966, he was part of the team that invented the game Twister
MORA, Minn. – When the letters arrive asking for his autograph, Neil Rabens can't help but shake his head.
"It's not like I came up with a cure for hemorrhoids or something," laughs Rabens.
Some would argue he stumbled on something even better. In 1966, he was part of the team that invented the game Twister. "And I get it all the time," says Rabens. "'How'd you come up with that?'"
Those who ask are treated to a pretty good story.
Rabens path to the game "that ties you up in knots" began in the mid-1960s when he went to work for Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design in St. Paul, where he teamed up with Charlie Foley, a creative thinker who had also recently joined the firm.
Foley and Rabens were tasked with developing games for Reynolds Guyer, which had already been toying around with the idea of a stand up game enlisting its human players as the playing pieces.
"I initially came up with the hand and foot thing," says Rabens, "but I had it laid out so people weren't intertwined."
While Rabens envisioned players contorting on colored dots individually, Foley suggested rearranging the dots so they'd be forced to physically interact.
The game they called Pretzel – later changed to Twister – was born.
"Back in the late 60s being in close proximity to someone else in a social setting was only approved of when you were dancing," said Reyn Guyer, the son of agency founder, who supervised the development of Twister.
Foley, who passed away in 2013, shares the patent for Twister with Rabens. "Dad spent two days with a patent examiner explaining to them there's nowhere else in the world with a game like this and this needs to be patented," said Mark Foley, Charlie's son.
Rabens, an illustrator, sketched the drawings that grace the patent and the original Twister box.
But other challenges had to be met, including how to make a dotted vinyl mat large enough to accommodate four adults. Foley turned to a shower curtain manufacturer.
"Dad told them they'd sell a million units in one year," said Mark Foley. It was all conjecture of course, and nearly misplaced.
Reyn Guyer, the son of the agency founder who supervised the development of Twister, remembers his heart sinking when he received a phone call from Milton Bradley - to whom the game had been licensed - informing him Sears had deemed Twister too risqué for its catalog.
"Back in the late 60s being in close proximity to someone else in a social setting was only approved of when you were dancing," said Reyn Guyer.
But the game some had dubbed "sex in a box" was about to get a huge break. When Johnny Carson played Twister on the Tonight Show with Ava Gabor, the audience howled with laughter.
"The next day at Abercrombie & Fitch they were lined up," said Guyer. Twister went on to become the gotta-have-it game of 1966 and a toy department fixture to this day.
"We've been very, very fortunate to have enjoyed living with it for all these years," said Guyer, whose family still receives royalties for Twister. He estimates sales of the game the past 48 years in the "hundreds of millions of dollars."
Hasbro now produces and markets Twister, after purchasing Milton Bradley.
Though Mark Foley says his father and Rabens profited little off the game they patented, he remains proud of his father's contribution. "I'm proud that he felt he made a difference in people's lives and he brought joy and happiness. That's what I'm proud of."