As actors prepare to bring new life to a famed New Haven toy inventor’s former factory floor, they feel the mythical man’s presence, watching over their shoulders.
That man is the late, great Alfred Carlton Gilbert (at left in photo, in cardboard form) — magician, olympian, chin-up champion, hero to little boys everywhere, and, most famously, inventor of the Erector Set.
A. C. Gilbert’s life and legacy is the subject of the latest production by A Broken Umbrella theater company, which has a made a name for itself by delving into New Haven’s past to produce original site-specific theater around town.
The company’s latest specific site is Erector Square, Gilbert’s former factory and now the home to numerous local artists’ studios. In a second floor space in Building Five, A Broken Umbrella is preparing to debut Gilbert The Great Friday.
A Broken Umbrella’s Rachel Alderman (at right in photo) and Janie Alexander (at left) offered a tour of the space and spoke about the challenge of compressing the incredible exploits of Gilbert’s 76-year lifespan into a one-hour performance.
Asked about the Bowflex workout machine (pictured) in a room backstage, Alderman said the men in the company — several of whom share the role of Gilbert — have become obsessed with fitness, as Gilbert was.
Gilbert set the world record for chin-ups and world records in pole vault. He tied for gold in pole vaulting at the 1908 Summer Olympics. In his youth, he was a speed-bag boxer in the circus. Years later, he had a chin-up bar and exercise equipment in his factory office.
In the early aughts, Gilbert studied sports medicine at Yale, financing his education by working as a magician. He co-founded Mysto Manufacturing in Westville and started making magic sets. This company eventually became the A. C. Gilbert company, making toys of all kinds, including the Erector Set.
Gilbert had always been an entrepreneur, said Alderman. As a kid, he would shoot squirrels and sell their pelts.
But Gilbert’s entry into toy manufacturing was about more than just turning a profit. Gilbert saw himself as a man on a mission: to help build a stronger America, starting with the nation’s little boys.
Riding the train to toy fairs in New York, Gilbert saw steel girders for new buildings going up. At the toy fairs, he saw the cheap and flimsy items other people were selling. He resolved to make creative, interactive, educational toys, and invented the Erector Set.
The toys came as kits, with miniature metal girders that could be bolted together to make buildings, cars, and machines. Eventually, the sets came with motors, so that kids could learn about electricity.
In today’s terms, Gilbert would have been a proponent of “early childhood education,” Alderman said.
During World War One, when the government considered shutting down toy production to divert efforts to the war, Gilbert testified against it. Young boys need to play with guns if they’re going to be good soldiers when they grow up; they need to build things if they’re going to be engineers.
“He had this idea, that we need to develop our boys,” Alderman said, “to develop a strong America.”
Gilbert’s company sold “atomic kits” with real radioactive elements, and lead casting kits that allowed boys to cast their own tin soldiers — yesteryear’s 3-D printer. He bought the American Flyer toy train company and added electricity, inventing the modern model train. His company also built all kinds of small appliances, like fans and hand-held vacuums.
While Gilbert presented himself as a father-figure to little boys everywhere, it wasn’t until late in his career that he discovered toys for girls, coming out with a pink microscope.
In the meantime, Gilbert built a toy-creation empire in New Haven, employing scores of people at his factory on Peck Street. That empire began crumbling in the 1950s with the advent of television entertainment.
“Disney happened,” Alderman said. “People stopped making and started watching.”
Gilbert passed in 1961. His factory closed in the late 1960s.
Now, years later, when the former factory is filled with not toy-makers but art-makers, Alderman said she wants visitors to feel the spirit of the man behind Erector Square. “We really want you to feel his presence.”
As she builds the set, Alexander said she finds herself thinking, “Am I true to what he put out there?”
“We do feel responsibly for trying to tell a story that respects his legacy,” Alderman said.
A Broken Umbrella has developed that story in its usual free-form fashion, by getting members together in a room and brainstorming, improvising, and revising.
Alderman and Alexander wouldn’t reveal much about the plot except that it takes place in 1954, when five workers at the Gilbert factory find themselves in a research and development lab in the factory.
“They’re tasked with a mission that becomes more than they can handle,” Alderman said. She described the show as “really fun, fast moving, whimsical, and poignant.”
Alderman said the show is intended as a celebration of “making” in New Haven, once a hub of manufacturing and now a home to artists and bio-tech companies.
The show runs for three weekends. The May 31 performance will feature a “talk-back” about Gilbert with Bill Brown of the Eli Whitney Museum, the source for much of the shows historic sources and original materials.