A Christmas Story: The Rehkemper brothers make toys in the West Loop

Q: Daddy, where do toys come from?
A: Two brothers in the West Loop

Steve and Jeff Rehkemper
Steve (left), 51, and Jeff, 46

This year, when your child asks you if Santa Claus is real, here’s what you say: “There are two Santas, they’re brothers who live in Chicago, and right now they’re inventing toys so cutting-edge that you can’t have them until 2013 because the world just isn’t ready.” If the kid demands more information, tell him these Santas’ real names are Steve and Jeff Rehkemper and they work and play in a magical 14,000-square-foot West Loop workshop scattered with robot parts, doll heads, motorcycles, and pinball machines.

Do they make all the toys in the world there? your child might ask. “A lot of the good ones,” you’ll say. “They invented the first remote control helicopter for kids. Oh, and that Rubik’s Cube with all the lights and noises that Mommy and Daddy got you a few years ago—”

Oh, yeah. My Rubik’s Revolution. Where is that?

“Oh, uh . . . I think Mommy took it to work. We’ll get it back later. Anyway, people liked it so much that it won the 2008 Toy Industry Association game of the year award.”

Did they learn to make toys at the North Pole?

“Actually, they’re from a small town called Breese, Illinois. Their dad was a builder, and they used to tag along to construction sites. Jeff studied tool and manufacturing technology and then took a job making medical device prototypes. Steve got a degree in industrial design—”

Daddy, I’m bored. Can I watch The Wiggles?

“Hold on. It gets good. Steve got a job at a place in Chicago called Marvin Glass and Associates, which used to be where every good toy in the world was invented.”

Yeah? Like what?

“Oh, Mouse Trap, Operation, Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Lite-Brite.”

[Silence.]

“Anyway, Steve invented this game with marbles and plastic clowns called Stuff Your Face, and it got so popular that a famous man named Johnny Carson played the game on TV. So Steve left Marvin Glass and persuaded Jeff to come invent toys with him.”

And then they moved to the North Pole?

“Rogers Park, actually. They borrowed money from their dad, bought a bunch of machines, and began tinkering.”

What did they eat? While they were tinkering.

“Tombstone pizzas. Lots of Tombstone pizzas. Meanwhile, Steve and Jeff kept their workshop door open so children walking home from school could come in and play with their creations. Steve would get ideas for toys from watching monkeys at the zoo or from going to the movies, and Jeff would figure out how to build those ideas. They invented an electronic yo-yo, an interactive fish, finger bikes, Giga Pets, and Aqua Blast volleyballs, then they’d try to license them to big companies that could make lots of them. They’ve been doing it for 27 years, and they have made the big companies more than $1 billion.”

Do they have elves?

“They have a flying-toy specialist, a mechanical wizard, and a couple of electronics geniuses. But they’re all human-sized. No pointy green hats or curly shoes. And no flying sleigh. Steve drives an open-cockpit Spec Racer Ford. Jeff’s got a Benz.”

What about that Santa at the mall who asked if I wanted an Xbox and I cried because he smelled like Grandma’s basement—

“A big phony. You’ll never have to sit on Steve or Jeff’s lap, because they know what you want before you do.”

You mean like a dump truck that works and plays and dances and snores and farts and tells jokes?

“Exactly. They just invented that. It’s called Rocky the Robot Truck, and Mattel is already selling them hand over fist—”

I WANT ONE I WANT ONE I WANT ONE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE—

(At this point, gently remind your kid that Steve and Jeff have to get a lot of toys to a lot of children, but a plate of cookies on Christmas Eve never hurts. They like chocolate chip.)

 

Photograph by Jeff Sciortino

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