Henry Orenstein, 98, dies; Force behind Transformers and Poker on TV
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Henry Orenstein, 98, dies; Force behind Transformers and Poker on TV
Henry Orenstein, president of Topper Toys, with toys based on Sesame Street, in New York, July 23, 1971. Orenstein, a Holocaust survivor who built a major American toy company, later persuaded Hasbro to start its line of Transformers action figures and in his 70s patented an ingenious way to better televise poker tournaments, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Livingston, N.J. He was 98. Christopher E. Jones/The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK, NY.- Henry Orenstein, a Holocaust survivor who built a major American toy company, later persuaded Hasbro to start its line of Transformers action figures and who in his 70s patented an ingenious way to better televise poker tournaments, died Tuesday at a hospital in Livingston, New Jersey. He was 98.

The cause was COVID-19, his wife, Susie Orenstein, said.

A Polish Jew, Orenstein survived a hellish journey through five concentration camps — and the shock of his parents’ murders in a cemetery in Poland — to become a merchant of fun.

The Topper Corp. which he started in the 1950s, made the Suzy Homemaker line of miniature appliances, the Johnny Seven One Man Army toy gun, the Betty the Beautiful Bride and Dawn dolls, Zoomer Boomer trucks, Ding-A-Ling robots and Sesame Street educational toys. Topper, originally known as De Luxe Premium and for a time as De Luxe Reading, was said at one point to be the fourth-largest U.S. toy company.

To market his Suzy Cute doll in 1964, Orenstein hired Louis Armstrong for a television commercial that also included three little girls.

“Oh, you can bend her legs, bend her arms, and bathe her, too,” he sang exuberantly. “She has a chair, a dish, a cup. You press her tummy, her arms go up!”

Six years later, Orenstein sponsored Al Unser Sr.’s race car, which won the Indianapolis 500. The victory helped ignite sales of Topper’s Johnny Lighting miniature cars (rivals to Mattel’s Hot Wheels). He gave Unser, who died Dec. 9, a $30,000 bonus after he won.

But in March 1972, with Topper burdened by debt, Orenstein stepped down as president and chief executive. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection the next year. He said he had lost all his money.

He refashioned himself as a toy inventor (he held dozens of patents) and broker. During the Toy Fair in Manhattan in the early 1980s, he saw a Japanese-made toy — a tiny car that could easily change into an airplane — and recognized more elaborate possibilities.

“He started playing with it and said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve seen in at least 10 years,’” recalled Susie Orenstein, who, as Carolyn Sue Vankovich, met her future husband in 1967 when she was demonstrating Suzy Homemaker at the Toy Fair. “He had the sparkle he got when he got excited.”

Henry Orenstein put together a deal between Hasbro and the Japanese company, Takara, which led to Hasbro’s introduction in 1984 of Transformers, toy robots that could turn into vehicles or beasts. They would become hugely popular, spawning an animated television series and a series of movies.

“Ideas don’t come in little pieces. It’s in; it’s out. It’s there, or it’s not,” he told Newsweek in 2016. “I was just an inventor. You needed a big company to do what I thought should be done: making real transformations from complex things to other complex things.”

Alan Hassenfeld, a former chairman of Hasbro, told Newsweek that Orenstein was “absolutely the catalyst that made this happen.” He added, “To be able to take a car and, with a little bit of dexterity, change it into another toy, that was something magical.”

Orenstein also sold toy manufacturers on his own ideas, among them Dolly Surprise, a doll whose ponytail grew more than 3 inches when her right arm was raised, which Hasbro bought.

Orenstein was born on Oct. 13, 1923, in Hrubieszow, Poland. His father, Lejb, was a grain merchant, and his mother, Golda (Strum) Orenstein, was a homemaker.

The Nazi invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, prompted Henry, his father and his brothers Felek and Sam (another brother, Fred, was in Warsaw) to flee to Soviet-occupied Poland, leaving his mother and sister, Hanka, behind. They spent more than two years there before returning to Hrubieszow.

But the mortal danger for Jews in the town had escalated. The Gestapo executed his parents and other Jews in 1942 in a cemetery. In July 1943, Henry and his brothers were loaded onto a cattle car and taken to the Budzyn concentration camp in Poland.

Four other camps followed: Majdanek and Plasznow, also in Poland, and Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen, in Germany. About 10 days into a death march from Sachsenhausen in the waning days of the war, he and his brother Sam were liberated.

“My heart started to pound with joy,” Orenstein wrote in his autobiography, “I Shall Live: Surviving the Holocaust Against All Odds” (1987). “It was true. We were free! Now we shouted with laughter and hugged one another.”

His brother Fred had also survived, but his sister was killed at the Stutthof concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. Felek had also been killed.

After two years in displaced persons camps and an apartment in Stuttgart, Germany, Orenstein immigrated to New York in 1947. He lugged bales of cotton for a clothing company; opened and sold a grocery store in New Jersey; became a salesman for a food company; and, with an uncle, started the novelty company that grew into Topper.

“I think I have proved that this is still the land of opportunity,” he told United Press International in 1962.

He found another opportunity in the late 1980s.

“He liked to play backgammon, which I thought was boring,” Susie Orenstein said. “I suggested that he take up poker.”

He began playing in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. His game was seven-card stud, in which four cards are face up and three are face down, or hole cards, and only the holder of the hand can see them. While watching a poker tournament on television, he realized that the excitement he felt while playing was not being conveyed.

“He said, ‘This isn’t the game we played,’” Mori Eskandani, a professional poker player who produces televised poker programming, said in an interview. “‘If everyone can see the hole cards, they’d see how great it is.’”

Orenstein spent six months developing a table with miniature cameras mounted beneath each player’s station — cutouts with non-glare glass that let the cameras look up — which would show the hole cards and transmit the images on television. He patented his idea of a hole-card camera in 1995 and got his first customer a few years later when the Discovery Channel licensed it for its “World Poker Tour.”

“We called the table ‘the Holy Grail,” Eskandani said.

In addition to his wife, Orenstein is survived by a son, Mark, and a daughter, Annette. His marriage to Adele Bigajer, whom he met in a displaced persons camp in Germany, ended in divorce.

In 2003 Orenstein — a competitive player who won the 1996 World Series of Poker seven-card stud tournament — cajoled Jon Miller, an NBC Sports executive, to use the hole-card camera table on the network’s programs “Poker Superstars,” “Poker After Dark” and “National Heads-Up Poker Championship.”

“He revolutionized the game for a whole generation of poker fans who would not be able to see it as it is without Henry’s creativity and ingenuity,” Miller, the president of programming for the NBC Sports Group, said in an interview.

Other networks avoided violating Orenstein’s patent by moving the tiny cameras from below the table to inside the players’ table-edge armrests, or rails, which made the hole cards visible to the cameras when the players looked at them.

Orenstein was inducted in the Poker Hall of Fame in Las Vegas in 2008.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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