This sci-fi toy is about to become a TV star. Its Willy Wonka inventor says it’s a benefit to the human race

His eyes lighting up with messianic fervor, his silver hair falling over his shoulders, Richard X. Zawitz explained why the Tangle, the wearable, twisted toy he invented decades ago, is so much more than a simple whimsical and curvy toy.

It is a manifestation of essential energy, a symbol of eternity, a boon to the human race, he said, as he showed human-sized entangled sculptures at the South San Francisco headquarters of Tangle Creations.

“Over the years, I discovered that I had some sort of magical item,” he said. “There’s no getting around it. What else could this be? How else could a curvy plastic noodle last for 40 years in this world? “

Indeed, the Tangle has tapped into many trends while selling 250 million copies, according to the company. A chrome version was among the first art toys sold by MoMA in New York. It has FDA approval as a therapeutic for stress relief, hand therapy, and smoking cessation. Michael Jackson posed for Italian Vogue wearing a 4ft stretched Tangle slung across his chest as a shoulder strap. He was spurred on by the national fascination with restless toys. He’s a TikTok darling. And soon he will star in an animated series.

Richard Zawitz practices before going to work on a new sculpture at Tangle Creations headquarters in South San Francisco.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“It’s tactile, visual and very sensory,” said Chris Byrne, an independent toy consultant also known as The toy guy. “It’s endlessly fascinating when you play with it. It can be very meditative.

Vivid energy, Zawitz, 75, believes that now the flexible coil is on the verge of even greater emergence on the world stage, where it can help manifest peace through creativity.

During the days of the Flower Child (“I’m a classic character of the Sixties,” he says), Zawitz was a sculptor and student of Asian art and philosophy, who became fascinated with circles, spirals, waves and curves. This led to his invention of the Tangle. It started out as a walnut wood sculpture, 3 feet long when opened end to end, made up of several 90 degree joints that could be manipulated.

“No one could get rid of it,” he said. “I had the revelation that I could do this thing for everyone.”

A statue holds a Tangle toy at the Tangle Creations headquarters in San Francisco.  The toy has gone through several impregnations and will soon be the star of a children's program.

A statue holds a Tangle toy at the Tangle Creations headquarters in San Francisco. The toy has gone through several impregnations and will soon be the star of a children’s program.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

So in 1980 he created a portable plastic Tangle and a larger chrome Tangle sold in museum shops and high-end department stores. His father ran a business buying and selling used hotel furniture in Fifth and Bryant in the city.

Zawitz, who had moved here from his native Massachusetts after college in Hawaii and several years traveling in Asia, worked there all day and then stayed awake all night with a crew assembling Tangle parts made in China.

In 1989, the company behind Slinky became its distributor and sold 500,000 to Kmart. Mattel then cleared it for construction toys, although they failed to gain traction. McDonald’s distributed it with Happy Meals. Walmart introduced it to checkouts, selling $ 9 million. Zuru Toys, an aggressive new toy company based in Hong Kong, was marketing it until a year ago.

Along the way, Zawitz had to fend off the toy pirates who ripped off his designs.

The art of sculpture created by Richard Zawitz can be seen in the main art exhibit hall at Tangle Creations headquarters in South San Francisco.

The art of sculpture created by Richard Zawitz can be seen in the main art exhibit hall at Tangle Creations headquarters in South San Francisco.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“Fortunately, the gods were smiling,” he said. “My first year in business, I met a guy in Hong Kong who told me I needed a patent for my product in Taiwan, so I applied and got. I was copied so much that I started getting copyrights, patents, and trademarks all over the world.

Today, three generations of the Zawitz family – Richard, his son, daughter-in-law and grandson – run the business in a renovated former warehouse that’s half an art gallery for Zawitz’s sculptures and an impressive collection of Asian art. They add new ideas like light up balls and light up sportswear.

And there are many different tangles in all sizes, textures, and colors.

Zawitz’s titles are Tanglemaster, Sculptor, and Thaumaturgist, or magician.

The toy showroom at Tangle Creations headquarters features the namesake product which has sold over 250 million copies.

The toy showroom at Tangle Creations headquarters features the namesake product which has sold over 250 million copies.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“As a person who believes in metaphysical things, in alchemical transformations, I turned plastic into gold,” he said of Tangle’s success.

Tangle could achieve blockbuster status through licensing deal with WOW! Unlimited Media for an animated series tentatively titled – what else? – “Tangle”.

“Tangle is a phenomenon that hasn’t received the attention it deserves,” said Michael Hirsh, CEO of WOW !, whose pedigree includes Barbie animations, Octonauts and a TV version of “Madagascar” from Dreamworks. “Richard imbued it with Taoist philosophy and the ideas he studied in his youth during its construction. He manages to touch on so many aspects that are important to children’s television today.

While not wanting to give away any premise for the series, Hirsh said, “We’re going to capture the flavor of Tangle as being a problem-solving device that’s also imbued with a sense of what’s right in it. universe. “

Richard Zawitz is one of the various works of art he created at Tangle Creations headquarters.

Richard Zawitz is one of the various works of art he created at Tangle Creations headquarters.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Production schedules mean the show’s release is a few years away.

Research is increasingly showing that restless toys like Tangle can help people improve focus and deal with issues like ADHD, autism, and impulse control.

“Tangle toys move smoothly in your hands to take on different shapes without becoming the center of your attention,” said Roland Rotz, a clinical psychologist who co-authored “Fidget to Focus,” a book on how to perform repetitive sensorimotor activities. in the background can help people improve their attention and other cognitive skills.

A Tangle Creations toy sits in the showroom at the company's South San Francisco headquarters.

A Tangle Creations toy sits in the showroom at the company’s South San Francisco headquarters.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“This visual motor event is reminiscent of doodling,” Rotz said. “This underlying stimulant helps your ability to listen and pay attention. It works the same as meditation.

Zawitz, who exudes Willy Wonka-style exuberance with a touch of Ram Dass-style mysticism, is considering his own version of the Golden Ticket. Called the Missing Link Contest, it would be a global (via geocaching) scavenger hunt for a very special Tangle with a million dollar prize.

“I want to make a fashion bigger than the Rubik’s Cube,” he said. “Not only is Tangle a fun thing that can reach anyone without any education, it is extremely beneficial to the human race.”

Carolyn Said is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: csaid@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @csaid