Uncle Milton Industries President Frank Adler shows off some of the projects of the Westlake Village based company including the iconic Ant Farm, the educational toy that started it all.

Uncle Milton: Ant Farm inventor’s company proving educational toys are still best

December 14, 2011
Santa Paula News

He conquered the subterranean world and later outer space, but almost 60 years later Uncle Milton is still showing the world toys are more than playthings - learning experiences enjoyed into adulthood.

Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm was the craze of the 1950s and the company and the toy that spawned a frenzy and still sold in the millions was highlighted in September at Moonlight at the Ranch V: “Shake, Rattle & Roll!” A display of the two most famous Miltons of the 1950s - comic Berle and toy entrepreneur Levine - drew much attention and comment.

Berle, AKA The Thief of Badgags who dominated the early days of television died at 93 in 2002. Levine, AKA Uncle Milton Industries, Inc. passed away in January in Thousand Oaks at the age of 97. 

But the company Levine co-founded is still going strong in Westlake Village and, from the comments of Moonlighters, his contribution of the Ant Farm will never be forgotten - or replicated - if its inclusion on lists of the 100 greatest toys of all time is any indication.

But when you do your holiday shopping at local stores you’ll see the Uncle Milton Industries name on a variety of items, like those remote controlled lightsabers that Uncle Milton Industries President Frank Adler said could appeal to those two million “active collectors of Star Wars memorabilia.”

It’s more than collecting: most of Uncle Milton’s products have an added ingredient that only the purchaser can provide, brain power to either construct the item or use it to learn about a variety of subjects - from tarantulas and rocket design/trajectories/aerodynamics of Boba Fett to lunar phases demonstrated by Moon in My Moon and yes, domestic issues when it comes to the inhabitants of Ant Farm and teaching kids to appreciate and respect nature. 

What became Uncle Milton Industries started rather modestly in the 1940s with novelty items such as plastic shrunken heads and spud guns, but it was the Ant Farm that became a sensation in the fad-crazy 1950s. Unlike most fads, this one had staying power.

Asked how many products now carrying the Uncle Milton name, Adler had to think a moment: “Wow, probably all told about 100, double from a few years ago... and I think we’ll double it again next year.” A new product line coming up is linked closely with National Geographic: “We’re a great fit with them,” in the past offering a line of items more passive than what is now in the works, a series of products geared toward the exploration of the outdoors.

“We want to get kids off the couch in a real engaging way” that Adler said would include a activity guide written in such a way as to mimic an explorer’s journal of instructions. The nuts and bolts of the series will be rocks and leaves and trees and other items to be identified and catalogued. And it will feature modern touches such as an expedition sky flare for signaling purposes (even just to signal what fun is being had) with LED technology that, once deployed, “helicopters back to earth.” 

Exploration is a gender-neutral activity, especially for younger children: “We love that aspect of it,” as well as the venue being as close as a kid’s own backyard. Uncle Milton liked making kids think, stoking their curiosity such as his own had been when as a boy he found himself fascinated with ants.

According to Adler, over the decades the great outdoors has become an unexplored frontier as it has competed with television, computers and e-games. “When we identified that lack of exploration” available to kids “we went in that direction,” donning the creative pith helmet with National Geographic, which in one form or another reaches 400 million consumers monthly.

Already on the market is Ant Farm Revolution, like it’s name something completely new and different as created by video game designer Will Wright. The new farm is a cylinder, the first ever, and light activated to show the inhabitants on the ceiling in a darkened room.

The giant silhouette of the ants in their 3D tunnels makes one think of “Them,” the first “big bug” film of the nuclear fallout fearing 1950s. “There’s a number of ways we’ve done the Ant Farm over the years,” said Adler, “but never like this!” And that includes the first time an Ant Farm has been licensed outside the company, which prides itself on its legacy of live nature products. 

Providing the fun factor is also important, and the In My Room line of products - how about a ceiling fireworks show complete with sound effects or shooting stars of even the complete solar system - appeals all ages. “Yes, we do appeal to the kid in adults” with products that, Adler said, “resonate across generations, that ‘Wow!’ factor.” 

There were plenty of “Wows” in September when Moonlighters spied the display highlighting the lives and accomplishments of Berle and Levine, the latter character and his Ant Farm garnering much attention and positive comments.

Over the years Levine was interviewed numerous times and widely quoted, with his “Humanity can learn a lot from the ant” a favorite. But perhaps Levine, the man who invented toys for children’s minds and had a trio of his own, ultimately summed it up when he said of ants: “I found out their most amazing feat yet. They put three kids through college.”

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