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DANVERS

For love of the games

Former executive pens Parker Brothers history

He crowned the 2003 National Monopoly Champion in Atlantic City, after a ride aboard an Amtrak train dubbed ''The Reading Railroad." He knows that Illinois Avenue is the property on which most players land in a typical Monopoly game. And that it takes more than a stroke of good luck to snap up tony Park Place or Boardwalk.

 

Now Phil Orbanes -- Monopoly expert and games historian -- is giving an inside look at Parker Brothers, the famed Salem game company that rolled out some of the world's most famous board games: Monopoly, Clue, Trivial Pursuit, and Sorry! among them.

Orbanes, a former vice president at Parker Brothers, has written ''The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit," the first major history of the company, now owned by Hasbro Inc., the world's biggest toy maker. The book was published last month by Harvard Business School Press, one of the first titles in a new line of business history books.

Orbanes, who now runs Winning Moves Inc., a Danvers game company, years ago wrote ''The Monopoly Companion." The book of tips and trivia was gleaned from years of judging Monopoly tournaments all over the world. But ''The Game Makers" is more than a trip around a Monopoly board, he said.

''This is not just a book about Monopoly," Orbanes, 56, said during an interview at his Danvers office. ''I wanted to tell the story of Parker Brothers, a company whose games helped shape the culture and values of America."

Orbanes left the company in 1990, but Parker Brothers is still in his blood. Winning Moves, which has $6 million in annual revenue, is licensed by Hasbro to sell Parker Brothers classics such as Clue, Ultimate Stratego, Pit, and this season, Go to the Head of the Class, to specialty retailers. His experience makes him uniquely positioned to tell the Parker Brothers story, an observer said.

''He has a love for the history of games that you don't often find," said Bruce Whitehill, a founder of the Association of Game and Puzzle Collectors. ''He's done a lot of valuable research on Monopoly. He's definitely one of the experts. He likes to share his knowledge with people, too."

Orbanes spent the last year writing the Parker Brothers story. Parker Brothers was founded in Salem in 1883 by 16-year-old George S. Parker, who was later joined by two older brothers. Orbanes interviewed surviving Parker family members, including retired company president Randolph P. Barton of Manchester-bythe-Sea, the grandson of the founder.

Barton also provided Orbanes with George Parker's original papers. Pocket diary entries, original invoices, photos, and letters were found in an old black steamer trunk that Parker once used while traveling the world. The papers provide rare insight into the company's early history, including the momentous decision to buy Monopoly in 1935.

''What astonished me was the depth of research Phil did, particularly on the early years," said Barton, 71, who retired in 1984 from Parker Brothers. ''A lot of what he uncovered was news to me. . . . He's told a wonderful story."

Without Parker's personal papers, Orbanes never would have been able to get inside the curious mind of George S. Parker, a ship captain's son who started his company with $50 and a knack for fun, he said.

''George Parker felt games should be played for fun," said Orbanes, a former Topsfield resident who now lives in Amesbury. ''A lot of the games played at that time taught moral values. They were less about fun. . . . The way he looked at games was revolutionary. He had no money to speak of, but he built a successful company on a dream."

Parker did more than realize a dream. With Monopoly, Parker Brothers forever changed game history. The strategy game is still one of the top-selling board games in the world, produced in 26 languages in 80 countries. But as hundreds of workers across the North Shore know, the story of Parker Brothers isn't all about fun and games. Its history is also one of risk and rough competition.

It flourished as a family-run business until 1968. That's when cereal maker General Mills got hungry for acquisitions. It bought Parker Brothers, among other new businesses. But General Mills also left Parker Brothers in the hands of the Parker/Barton families. The firm prospered, building a big corporate headquarters in Beverly, and turning out hits such as the Ouija board and inventing Nerf, the foam toy, at its Salem factory.

But change and challenging times followed. In 1983, General Mills spun off its toy division into a separate business unit. The move marked the beginning of the end for the beloved local firm. A year later, Randolph Barton retired, ending almost a century of family control. During the '80s, Parker Brothers was sold, dodged a hostile takeover, and survived bankruptcy. Hasbro bought the company in 1991.

Hasbro immediately shut down game manufacturing in Salem. The Nerf line later was moved to lower-cost plants out of state. Hundreds of workers were laid off. Today, the original Salem factory is gone, replaced by condominiums. The Beverly headquarters is now owned by a French video-game maker.

Some see Parker Brothers' reversal of fortune as a lesson in 20th-century American business practice. ''Parker Brothers was a classic family business," said John J. Fox, a retired history professor at Salem State College, who conducted an oral history of Parker Brothers in the 1980s. ''The people who worked there, worked for a family. They were treated like family. . . . But over the years, once it was sold and it became part of a conglomerate, that changed over time. . . . And now it is gone, at least locally."

But Orbanes said he thinks there is much to learn from the Parker Brothers story. George Parker, who never went to college, ran the company on 12 simple rules. Among them: Play by the rules but capitalize on them. Learn from failure; build upon success. When faced with a choice, make the move with the most potential benefit, despite the risk. Don't be petty; share what you learn.

''Those were the principles he lived by and they were imbued on the generations who followed him," Orbanes said. ''Where I think the company got into trouble, was when [successive owners] stopped paying attention to them."

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