In the Kingdom of Klutz

Photo: Rod Searcey

Four years after he left Stanford in 1972, John Cassidy was still happily dodging a buttoned-down career. He had packed off to Bangladesh, drifted down to Mexico and washed up in graduate school. In the fall of 1976, while serving as a river-rafting guide in northern British Columbia, he found himself on the banks of the Skena River, trying to improve his juggling with lacrosse balls.

He would drop them. They would skitter impossibly.

That's when Cassidy had an idea that would change his life: juggling cubes.

Back in California, Cassidy sewed together swatches of old blue jeans and stuffed the cubes with lima beans. Working with a fellow river guide and Stanford friend, he tethered the bags to a booklet they wrote, Juggling  for the Complete Klutz. In simple and impish prose, the book explained "the little trick of getting . . . three objects to dance around your hands." The kit, which was modeled after the faddish Pet Rock, caught on in stores near Stanford and then around the country.

Nineteeen years later, Cassidy has written 50 Klutz guides, covering everything from paper airplanes to pickup sticks, gardening to guitar-playing. Aimed primarily at children, the products fall in the crossover category of edutainment. Many are sturdy, vibrantly colored hybrids of how-to books and kits of gadgets, tools and props. They're popular as smart, moderately priced birthday gifts, indestructible travel pastimes and rainy day gems. And they win awards for education and design. Six books in the Klutz line have been recognized by the Parents' Choice Foundation and eight have made the Publisher's Weekly Children's Best-Seller list.

Over the years, Klutz has morphed into a funky and improbably successful business. The company ships more than 5 million items a year and has a staff of 40. Its annual revenues have climbed to more than $33 million. And while it took a couple of years for the exercise-book-with-jump-rope to break even, Cassidy says that no product has ever lost money.

***

Cassidy is tall and rumpled, with a droopy moustache that would be the centerpiece of a Klutz artist's caricature of the boss. Like his books, Cassidy is droll, subtle and easy to like. His sense of humor, which seems to have frozen in his junior high school days, is the primary source of the company's ironic charm.

But the disarming humor hides the qualities behind the success of Cassidy--and of Klutz. Contrary to the genial impression he gives, Cassidy remains an anti-establishment subversive. And behind the casual Klutz exterior, he is buoyantly ambitious.

His subversiveness seeps out in the books he writes, which are filled with winks, nods and attitude. The products are partisan to kids. Adults are treated as obstacles to pleasure, like ghosts of children who learn words for big feelings and forget the emotions themselves. The subtitle of Kids Shenanigans is Great Things to Do That Mom and Dad Will Just Barely Approve Of .

Cassidy's ambition has grown with his company. At first, he was content to create diversions for delayed adolescents (people like himself)--and to make sure he was back on the river by summer. Now, he aims to make his educational packages as engaging as his juggling book and other early products. The "secret long-term goal" of Klutz, according to its tongue-in-cheek catalogue, is to be the "most respected, best-loved company in America." It adds: "We think big."

At 46, Cassidy actually has an even loftier target: to create products not only with the perennial appeal of marketplace winners, as he has done, but with the staying power of classics.

***

The son of a New Jersey businessman, Cassidy was an earnest kid who made Eagle Scout in his teens and came to Stanford in 1968. But in the spring of his senior year, while his friends were landing jobs and signing up for grad schools, Cassidy was in less of a hurry. His housemates on Harvard Street called a meeting to discuss his future. They wanted to make sure he had one.

Their problem (he wasn't worried) was solved temporarily by the selective service board. Cassidy was drafted by the Army. As a conscientious objector, he had to find an alternative form of service.

He signed up with the relief organization CARE, which sent him to Bangladesh to work as a truck and bus mechanic. The desperate state of the country's economy required every mechanic to repair vehicles any way he could. Cassidy once used a paper clip--the only piece of wire he could find--to revive a dying pick-up.

Despite this resourcefulness, Cassidy is typically self-deprecating about his stint in Bangladesh. In his fast, slightly nasal patter, he'll tell you the country almost crashed because of him. "In a lot of these Third World basket cases, the roots of the problem are incredibly complicated and they go way back to colonialism. They go back to natural forces. But in the case of Bangladesh, they can trace it back to me, one guy. Why is this country a basket case? Cassidy. 1973-'74."

After Bangladesh, Cassidy went to Mexico to work on his Spanish and eventually followed his friends to graduate school. He enrolled for a masters in education at Stanford. But he was still restless and, he says, not cut out for teaching. He couldn't get excited about the work.

What he really had in mind, he now admits, was a scam: making a living without working for it. He had hooked up with a group whose obsession was running rivers in the West. He was enjoying himself on a busman's holiday with other guides when he had his juggling brainstorm beside the Skena.

At first, Cassidy tried to sell the juggling cubes at Stanford. He and partner Billy Clyde Rimbeaux (a friend who took the rakish name while working on the river) gave free juggling lessons on campus. But it wasn't until they wrote the booklet to accompany the cubes that sales took off. When they depleted their inventory of 3,000 books, they knew they needed some business expertise. They turned to Darrell Hack (now Lorentzen), whom Cassidy met rappelling down the wall of Stern's Burbank Hall back in college. Hack had recently earned a master's at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

The trio expected to boom or bust. Instead, they had unspectacular but decent sales. For five years, they were the only reps at the annual American Booksellers Association convention with just one product, the same every year. They kept coming back because the juggling kit was building a clientele. And still Cassidy would say that his goal was to make a few bucks and return to the river life.

As Klutz branched out (the second book, on hackeysack, came in 1982), Cassidy's debt to the river became apparent. "One of the things about the  river life is that you learn lots of little things that are fun, and you're always mastering new skills," says Robb Moss, who worked as a guide with Cassidy and now teaches filmmaking at Harvard. "Juggling, tying knots, playing guitar."

On the river, these diversions were dismissed as "unmarketable skills." To the astonishment and envy of his river buddies, Cassidy figured out how to market them.

By 1982, five years after the first kit was introduced, Klutz had mutated from a scam into a nice little business. Says Cassidy: "We found ourselves staring down the barrel of a career."

***

The key to klutz is Cassidy's ability to demystify a subject and connect to his readers. In his first book, Cassidy sought to show that anyone can toss three objects and keep them in the air. It promises: "If you can scramble an egg, find reverse in a Volkswagen or stumble onto the light switch in the bathroom at night, you can learn how to juggle."

Rocking back in an office bursting with piles of projects, Cassidy talks about how he approaches his readers. "The idea is you don't want to appear to be an expert. In many cases, certainly in mine, you are quite honestly not an expert, and there is no talking down. In all cases, you want the reader to come away from the reading experience going, 'You know, I think I might even be smarter than this book.' "

That's the wile at the heart of Klutz merchan-dise--that the klutzes who make the stuff are klutzier than the klutzes who use it.

That pose is part of Klutz's marketing savvy. The company does no advertising, has no big corporate accomplice and courts little fanfare. But Cassidy has juggled at a 1993 presidential inauguration party in Washington, and a Klutz song was once beamed up to a U.S. space shuttle orbiting the Earth. And distribution--which, Cassidy writes, began "via the bicycle and backpack system"--is so good that the books can be found in the most unlikely places.

A few months ago, I found a display of Klutz items in a place called The Apple House, a tourist shop about 60 miles from Washington, D.C., near the site of the largest caverns on the East Coast in Luray, Va. There, next to the stalagmite and stalactite coffee mugs, the Klutz rack seemed a bit hip and out of place. I called Cassidy and said I was amazed to discover his goods in such an out-of-the-way corner.

He chuckled. "I keep expecting to get a phone call from The World, saying, 'This is The World, and we've got enough, okay? You know, the stuff is like dog hairs. We're ankle deep. When we need more, we'll get back to you.' And I'm like, 'I totally understand, I've been expecting this call for years.' "

***

Not far from Stanford, Klutz roosts in a converted warehouse that looks like an architect's studio. It's decorated with rubber chickens and other Klutz products and works-in-progress. A pleasant voice answers the phone: "Klutz Galactic Headquarters." Among the plaques in the entryway is a Gold Record from the Recording Industry Association of America. It's for sales of a half-million copies of the album that goes with the first of four Klutz KidsSongs books. The singer, Nancy Cassidy, has a soothing, low voice. She's also John's wife and, in his words, "his spiritual guide."

They met in 1974 on a trip along the Stanislaus River in Northern California. Nancy was guiding disabled kids for Environmental Traveling Companions. John stopped at their campsite to hand off some food left over from his group. It was a ritual he would repeat whenever he had the chance, as much to see Nancy as to help her kids.

Today, the Cassidys live a few blocks from Klutz headquarters with their boys, Cody, 12, and Scotty, 9. They own the same Harvard Street house Cassidy rented as an undergrad. When I stopped in to see them, we spent the evening grass-sliding on pizza boxes down the hill sloping from the Dish. It was just for fun, but I wondered if the family might be in the early stages of product development ( The Klutz Guide to Snow-Free Sledding and Other Off-Season Adventures ?).

The Cassidy boys do their part for Klutz by helping to create new products. Their "World Wrestling Federation energy" has, John says,  inspired Klutz's Backseat Survival Kit for car trips and Make Believe: A Book of Costume and Fantasy . Meanwhile, Darrell Lorentzen's girls conjured up books on Cat's Cradle, Friendship Bracelets and Braids & Bows , a Publisher's Weekly Children's Bestseller.

Lorentzen now lives in Connecticut and Rimbeaux in New Mexico. Years ago, they left Klutz in Cassidy's hands. But Cassidy is strikingly loyal to them. They remain full equity partners even though, Cassidy jokes, "I'm stuck with the dirty dishes."

Whether it's his own kids or the children of friends, Cassidy is always looking for product-testers. His godson, Christopher, the son of a couple with whom Cassidy shared that house 25 years ago, sometimes serves as a one-kid focus group.

On a recent East Coast swing, Cassidy made a detour to spend time with Christopher and his family. Cassidy brought along an advance copy of a new Klutz puzzle book and was eager for Christopher's reaction. Cassidy invited me over, and I watched Christopher, 12, warp into silence as he fiddled and futzed with his godfather's latest creation.

His absorption reminded me of Klutz face-painting sessions at my house, when my daughter (then 6) sat unblinking as I changed her into a dalmatian or she carefully worked a brush to transform me into El Dog.

It was a school day (Christopher was playing hooky to be with Cassidy), and the three of us walked to an elementary school nearby to say hi to Christopher's younger brothers at lunchtime.

Cassidy acted as if it were commonplace for a couple of middle-aged men and a 12-year-old boy to stroll into the cafeteria to josh a student, then into a class to razz another. Taking their cues from Cassidy, the teachers cheerfully waved us along.

***

As cassidy's interests have changed, he has steered Klutz into new areas. In the company's first phase, Cassidy and Co. focused on delayed-adolescent novelties--juggling, hackeysack, a lightning-bolt-through-the-head apparatus. The juggling book remains Klutz's all-time best-seller, at 2 million and counting. The company calculates that if you stacked all the Klutz cubes sold (at three per juggling kit), the tower would rise for 813 miles.

Beginning in 1984, when Cassidy's first son was born, he rediscovered the universe of kids and pushed the company in its next direction. His second-phase creations are as much fun and almost as physically engaging as the juggling set, but they are unmistakably educational. The goal is to teach kids--something, anything--in a fun and creative way. The prototype is a project that Cassidy published in 1991 with San Francisco's Exploratorium, called Explorabook: A Kids' Science Museum Book .

The book explains how to construct an anti-gravity machine, bend light waves (the set includes a Fresnel lens, a sheet of plastic with precise ridges that magnify things four times) and how to pull off other feats of science. In the second sentence, Cassidy elevates the Klutz attitude to an ethic: "If you own the Explorabook for more than a few hours, and do not bend or smear any of its pages, nor tear open the agar packets, nor attempt to lose the attached magnet, then you are probably not using it correctly."

This same spirit of hands-on education led Cassidy to write a book about magnets ( Magnetic Magic ) and one about geography ( Earthsearch ). He's working on a volume with New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and fiddling with a project about math. In a life where nothing is wasted (remember the paper clip in Bangladesh), the year Cassidy spent in ed school had a purpose after all.

In Klutz's third phase, Cassidy is teaming up with some of the giants in children's literature to create products that combine two or more talents. Cassidy is negotiating with Eric Carle ( The Very Hungry Caterpillar ), to produce a book on collage illustration. The model is a book he did in 1992 with watercolor illustrator Thacher Hurd.

While working on that project, Cassidy and Hurd met for breakfast every two weeks at Betty's Oceanview Diner in Berkeley. Hurd showed Cassidy his doodles, Cassidy enthused, and they talked about doing watercolor.

Eventually Hurd asked, "Now, you're writing this thing, right?" Cassidy said, "Don't worry about it." Two weeks before the deadline, Cassidy banged out the text. Hurd says the tone was "just right." Sales of the book dwarf others by Hurd that are considered very popular.

Says Hurd: "It was a totally fresh experience. My image is of Cassidy driving around in his old station wagon, thinking up ideas and doing what he likes to do. He's an original, creative person, and his field of vision is constantly enlarging."

For the next phase of klutz, Cassidy is planning forays into new media: television, perhaps the movies, and, of course, cyberspace. He's talking with producers about a series--Klutz TV--that would "take the irreverent attitude" of Klutz and adapt it for "It's still blue sky," he says, the plans, but it's where he wants to go. Another frontier awaits in the interactive world. Cassidy is at work on what would be the first Klutz CD-ROM. The idea is to present kids with video clips and al- to overlay their own audio tracks. Imagine a 10-year-old rewriting the final scene of Casablanca. The project (again) was inspired by one of Cassidy's own boys.

"I remember one evening about a year ago, I almost had to call a doctor for Scotty, my younger son, he was laughing so hard. He and his friend, they were having a sleep-over. They were making digestive noises and engaged in fairly lowbrow humor.

"Both were on the floor and they were silent but just shaking, you know? I felt like throwing water on them. They were having so much fun with that."

Cassidy thought how it might be even more fun to put this sort of soundtrack over existing video. "It's like giving kids the chance to throw tomatoes from the back row."

Which is something John Cassidy knows a few things about.


Lincoln Caplan is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.