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Charles Foley 1930-2013

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Twister co-inventor with ties to Charlotte dies

It was nearly 50 years ago, Neil Rabens remembers, that he had the idea for a party game in which people would face each other and move their hands and feet on large colored dots.

But it took his colleague Charles Foley, he says, to turn that idea into an inspiration: Instead of facing each other, make people intertwine on the dots.

They called the game Pretzel. But when game maker Milton Bradley acquired it, the game took on the name now known by millions: Twister.

Foley, a father of nine who lived in Charlotte years after Twister became a cultural phenomenon, died July 1 in St. Louis Park, Minn., from complications caused by Alzheimer’s disease. He was 82.

Foley was born in 1930 in Lafayette, Ind. He started inventing at a young age, his son, Mark Foley, told the Observer. When he was 8, he developed a latch that automatically closed the gate to his grandfather’s cattle pen, Mark said.

He joined the Air Force at 21 and served three years. His love for invention never left, and in 1962 he took a job at a Detroit development company called Research to Reality.

In 1966, Foley moved his family to St. Paul, Minn., where he worked at Reynolds Guyer House of Design. It was there that he met Rabens and the two designed what would become Twister. Inventions became their passion.

“We did a lot of walking around malls, seeing how things could be improved,” said Rabens, 84. “We’d do crazy things like fly a foam kite down the freeway.”

Rabens had the idea for a party game on a mat, he said. “But Charlie put it all together – he had such a creative mind.”

The game is played on a large plastic mat with four rows of green, yellow, blue and red dots – 24 in all. A spinner instructs players to place their left foot, right foot, left hand or right hand on certain colored dots. As the game progresses in a tangle of arms, legs and torsos, the last person standing wins.

As Foley and Rabens marketed the game to companies, some were skeptical of the suggestive aspects of a game that involved intertwining bodies. Foley was undeterred. He told game marketers it would sell millions, Rabens said.

“Once you get men and women in play positions, unless you’re drinking, you forget the sex thing,” Foley told the Observer in 1994. “The urge to win takes over.”

Eventually Milton Bradley picked up Twister. In 1966, Foley and Rabens brought the party game to the New York Toy Festival, where it was a big hit.

Soon Johnny Carson and actress Eva Gabor were limb-locked on “The Tonight Show,” playing Twister in front of a national audience, and the craze took off.

“It tickled me when Johnny said, ‘Whoever came up with this is pretty clever’ ” Rabens said. “The next day they couldn’t sell enough of them.”

But when the money started rolling in, Foley was left out, Rabens said. As salaried employees of Reynolds Guyer House of Design, they were forced to share profits at the owners’ discretion, Rabens said.

Foley and the owners couldn’t agree on a fair percentage of royalties, so he and Rabens left the company, Rabens said.

They started their own firm: Research and Development of Minneapolis.

In 1975, Foley’s wife Kathleen died, and he lost his business during the nation’s energy crisis.

“In spite of all he invented, did he get rich? No,” Mark Foley said. “But he was always inventing something.” Among his other inventions were toy handcuffs and Un-Du, a liquid adhesive remover.

Invention lured Charles Foley to Charlotte in 1987. He joined Innoland, a Pineville-based toy development company that had contacted him and wanted to market his plastic dartboard. He bought a house in south Charlotte and remarried in 1990. He left Innoland in the 1990s to go into business for himself, and retired soon after. In 2005, he moved to Minnesota to be closer to his family, Mark Foley said.

Twister, meanwhile, remains popular. On Friday it ranked No. 46 among the Top 100 games on Amazon.com.

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