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Name from History: Abe Bookman created future-telling Magic 8 Ball right here in Cincinnati

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Posted at 11:00 AM, Nov 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-07 11:00:07-05

CINCINNATI -- Imagine it's 1950. Abe Bookman, a first generation Russian-American working out of small factory at Fifth Street and Central Avenue, is holding a Magic 8 Ball he made for Brunswick Billiards that he's about to release to the general public.

Before flipping the 8 side down to peer into its deep purple window and read his fortune, Abe adjusts his signature bow tie and asks the shiny black ball: "Will they remember 66 years from now that I was your maker?"

His chances for a positive response are good: exactly 50-50. But the Magic 8 Ball knows better. Its 20-sided dice floats to the window's surface to tell him: "Reply hazy try again."

Abe Bookman marketed the original Magic 8 Ball first as a paperweight and then as a fortune-telling toy.

That response would not have rattled Bookman. He might have tried again later, as another of the ball's five neutral responses suggests. But more than likely, he would have smiled just a little and gone back to work.

That's because labor, which involved overcoming adversity with ingenuity and perseverance, was what Abe loved, said his son, Don Bookman.

"He never took a vacation. He was always working, always tinkering, always perfecting something," said the retired Blue Ash orthodontist of his late father (1898-1993).

The Magic 8 Ball, in all the kooky forms it has taken since Abe created it, has persevered like few other novelty toys of its age. When Time magazine named it one of the all-time top 100 toys in 2011, the ball's current maker, Mattel, reported sales of 1 million.

That kind of success never made Abe rich or famous, but it quietly propelled him and several generations of his family toward lifestyles much more comfortable than what he had experienced.

Abe lost his father about the time he graduated from Hughes High School. Census records show he worked as an electric shop lineman, a soap maker and an auto mechanic as a young man. He graduated from Ohio Mechanics Institute at age 23, worked as a clothing store manager in Avondale through the Great Depression, married Shirley Fish at age 39 after eight years of dating, settled in Bond Hill and reared a son and a daughter.

It wasn't until he was in his early 50s, however, that Abe found his life's work in the Magic 8 Ball. Even though it was a rousing success among young people, it was "just an anecdote" in his son's life.

When Don would tell his classmates that his dad made Magic 8 Balls for a living, "they'd say, 'Oh, really. Uh, I don't believe you.' It wasn't a big deal."

If only those youngsters had known the whole story behind the toy and Don's dad, it might have been a big deal.

Russian father was mechanical

Abraham Charles Buchmann -- he changed the spelling of his last name in the 1950s to avoid the anti-Semitism his son said he experienced in business -- was born into the only Russian-Jewish family living in Blanchester, Ohio, in 1898. Abe's father, Samuel, who ran a foundry and spoke Yiddish, had come to Clinton County around 1895 after his farming project in South America was destroyed by a storm of locusts, Don said.

Eventually, Samuel moved the family to a rental property on Riverside Avenue near the Little Miami River in what was Symmes Township. He worked as a junk dealer, according to the 1910 Census, before moving the family to Corryville. Samuel's name stopped appearing in the city directory in 1916, replaced at the Piedmont Avenue address by his wife, Dora Schwartz Buchmann. Abe left the McMicken College of Liberal Arts after a brief stint in 1917 to help care for his family.

Abe was the oldest of three children. He was small -- just 5 feet 3 inches tall -- but powerfully built and he excelled in gymnastics, Don said. He was sweet yet stubborn and well-liked within his small circle of friends.

"My father was unafraid of heights," Don recalled. "There was a railroad trestle over the river near Morrow Bridge that didn't have any sides. As a boy, as a young teenager, he and his friends would walk on the rails across that open trestle. When a locomotive came, they would hang off the structure and then pull themselves up after the locomotive had passed.”

Money was always an issue for the Buchmanns, even more so after Samuel's death, but Abe managed to put himself and his siblings through college. His keen sense of financial efficiency and reliance on Cincinnati's tight Jewish community were key to his personal and professional successes.

"He had that 1930s Depression mentality, but not to the extreme a lot of people had," Don said. "He could be a risk taker."

Yet, Abe's son said, "he never added up how much money they had because he worried he'd find they were running out."

Clairvoyant connection

Abe's big break came from an unexpected person: Albert Carter.

Ten years Abe's senior, Carter was the son of a Cincinnati clairvoyant named Laura Carter Pruden. She had invented a chalkboard gizmo called a Psycho-Slate that allegedly could predict the future and made her a sought-after medium around town.

His mother's mysticism fascinated Carter, and he went about inventing a more sophisticated future-seeing device out of a tube of thick liquid and floating dice with "yes" and "no" sides. Max Levinson, a Cincinnati shop owner who happened to be Abe's brother-in-law, wanted to sell Carter's Syco-Seer but felt the "liquid-filled dice agitator" needed refining and that Abe was the man for the job.

Carter and Abe combined their first names into one and formed Alabe Crafts in 1946. They applied for a patent, but it would be granted too late for Carter.

Described as a "genius" and a "gypsy" by those who knew him, Carter was an alcoholic. In 1948, he died at age 60 of a hemorrhage in the Bristol Hotel downtown, but not before selling Alabe Crafts to Abe for $250. Carter, Don said, insisted he be paid in installments.

Don said he never met Carter but can recall his father's version of the story.

"Carter said, 'Don't give it all to me or else I'll drink it all up,' " Don said.

Working out of his shop at 348 W. Fifth St. (the current site of the Duke Convention Center), Abe set out to reduce the production costs of the Syco-Seer by slimming it down. He rebranded it as the Syco-Slate but had minimal success selling it. The patent came through after Carter’s death in 1948, just in time for a second redesign. Abe put the slate inside a crystal ball but that did little for sales, though it did spark the interest of a major American corporation.

Magic 8 Ball is born

Enter Brunswick Billiards. Giveaways were popular marketing tools in the mid-20th century, and the Chicago company approached Abe with the idea of turning the crystal ball into an 8 ball. The promotion packed a premium punch, and when it ended, Abe ran with the idea, first as a paperweight and then as a toy, for the rest of his career.

This is how the toy is packaged by Mattel today.

He continued production with partner Sid Korey, working downtown and later in a factory on Gest Street in Queensgate to create novelty versions that included a bowling ball and a baseball. Abe sold the Magic 8 Ball to Ideal Toys in 1971, but stayed on as a consultant, his son said. Ideal, in turn, sold the toy's production rights to Mattel in 1987.

Don said he retains a basement full of Magic 8 Ball memorabilia and many memories of making Magic 8 Balls on the fifth floor of Alabe Crafts on weekends and in his spare time. Abe helped pay for his son's education at the University of Cincinnati by matching whatever Don earned at Alabe.

Abe, his son said, came to work every day in a white, short-sleeve shirt and a bow tie because regular ones were too long for his short torso. Despite the number of times he dug into the junk pile under his 30-foot-long workbench or tinkered with the formula of the Magic 8 Ball liquid, he came home looking as clean as when he departed.

When Don struggled with a project, his father would look at him and say, “There's more than one way to do things. Go up there and try something else.”

“He never thought anything couldn't be done,” Don said.

And if his father felt frustration, he never showed it.

"He was quiet and spoke extremely slowly,” Don explained. “You always wanted to finishes sentences for him. ... He was very slow to anger and always had a small smile on his face."

Abe’s patience made him the one his family turned to when it was time to teach someone to drive, Don said. And he stayed strong until succumbing to prostate cancer at age 95.

In sharing a photograph of Abe with Brian Powers, a reference librarian at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County who recently curated a display on Cincinnati-based toys, Don wrote this email about his father:

Abe Bookman, shown here at age 87, spent his early days in Clinton and Warren counties. He is buried in Blue Ash. Photo provided by Don Bookman

“Dad was 87 years old in this picture. (He) still had a reaction time good enough to catch a fly in the air (he would release it outside so as not to harm part of nature) and would hop up from playing with kids on the floor without the ‘old man’ groan. We thought nothing of letting him drive our kids to St. Louis to visit my sister. Dorian Gray to the end.”