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Marvin Hecht, owner of Chicago’s Cut Rate Toys who spent 60 years in the toy business, dead at 92

His philosophy? ‘Low price, high volume.’ He’d buy up odd lots at toy shows and closeouts from Hasbro, Mattel and other toy-makers, figuring that even when times were tough, parents want their kids to get the toys they dream of.

Marvin and Renee Hecht inside their Cut Rate Toys store on Devon Avenue in Edgebrook in 2001.
Marvin and Renee Hecht inside their Cut Rate Toys store on Devon Avenue in Edgebrook in 2001.
Jim Frost / Sun-Times

Marvin Hecht survived the Cabbage Patch doll craze, tiffs over Tickle Me Elmo and Happy Holidays Barbie hysteria.

He dealt with kids’ toy lust and parents’ desperation to find must-haves for Christmas, managing hordes of shoppers who jostled to snag Pokemon paraphernalia, Happy Holidays Barbies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Oh, those Ninja Turtles. “Honest to God, it puzzles me, but every week we run out” of them, he said in a 1988 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “I can’t see what the attraction is.”

Mr. Hecht, who spent about 60 years in the toy business, died Aug. 2 at Highland Park Hospital, according to his daughter Linda Karmin. A Winnetka resident, he was 92.

He ran Hecht’s Toyland in Evanston before opening two Cut Rate Toys stores, the first at Devon and Western, the second at Devon and Central, working into his 80s.

“He didn’t do retirement well,” his daughter said.

Marvin Hecht’s Cut Rate Toys drew crowds.
Marvin Hecht’s Cut Rate Toys drew crowds.
Provided photos

Mr. Hecht’s philosophy regarding toys was “low price, high volume.” He’d buy up odd lots at toy shows and pick up closeouts from Hasbro, Mattel and other toy-makers.

Even when times were tough, Karmin, who grew up working in the business for her father, said he figured, “People would skimp on a lot of things, but they won’t on toys.”

Before the advent of big-box stores holding sales starting even before Thanksgiving turkeys were out of the oven, he’d be open on the holiday.

“We figured the only way to compete with the big stores was to offer low prices and be open when they aren’t,” he said in 2001. “It’s now the busiest day of the year.”

The Thanksgiving Day crowd in 2001 at Cut Rate Toys, 5409 W. Devon Ave., where the line of people waiting to check out snaked through the entire store.
The Thanksgiving Day crowd in 2001 at Cut Rate Toys, 5409 W. Devon Ave., where the line of people waiting to check out snaked through the entire store.
Robert A. Davis / Sun-Times

At times, he could seem intimidating. “He would get on the microphones and say, ‘Get your children’s hands off the toys, or get them out of the store now,’ ” his daughter said. “I mean people were terrified of him.”

But he was just trying to protect his inventory, she said.

And the man behind those gruff-sounding announcements was also a talented pianist who wrote songs for his three daughters.

“My dad wanted nothing more than to be a father,” Karmin said.

In the morning, he liked to make breakfast for his kids, she said, and he was always up for a game of cribbage or chess, or to soothe a crying grandchild, or go to their games.

At work, she said, “He had customers who loved to go in and talk to him.

“He led by example. He worked hard all his life. He practiced the piano. He was frugal.”

The low prices at Cut Rate Toys meant customers would stock up. Here, Jamila Hernandez loads up for Christmas at the store’s Thanksgiving Day sale in 2003.
The low prices at Cut Rate Toys meant customers would stock up. Here, Jamila Hernandez loads up for Christmas at the store’s Thanksgiving Day sale in 2003.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Young Marvin grew up in Ottawa, Illinois, and stayed in touch with his boyhood friends the rest of his life. After a year at Northwestern University, he served in the Philippines with the Navy during World War II. Returning home, he finished his bachelor’s degree at Northern Illinois University. A lover of the music of Chopin, he went on to get a master’s degree at the old Chicago Musical College.

His even bigger love was baseball. He went to umpire school and traveled the country to officiate in the minor leagues and later for local college games, according to his daughter.

During the 1979 Major League Baseball umpires’ strike, Mr. Hecht helped call two White Sox games. “It was definitely one of the highlights of his life,” Karmin said.

After college, he worked at a relative’s toy store on North Michigan Avenue. Between that experience and meeting his future wife Renee, he decided the toy business was a good way to have the security to support a family.

Mr. Hecht also loved vintage cars. When his 1950 Dodge Meadowbrook was picked to be used in the 1987 Matt Dillon movie “The Big Town,” the filmmakers asked him to play the part of a cabbie who picks up Dillon’s character.

“Funny how they would beg a 60-year-old umpire-toy store owner to be a movie star,” he wrote for the Sun-Times about the experience. “They must have had me confused with my lookalike, Robert Redford.

“Don’t ask me what kind of guy Matt Dillon is. The only two words he spoke to me in the four-and-a-half-hour rehearsal period were ‘Blackstone Hotel,’ which he repeated all 43 takes.”

In addition to Linda Karmin, Mr. Hecht is survived by his wife Renee, two more daughters, Jacqueline and Gineen, and six grandchildren. Services have been held.

Toward the end of his life, he had dementia.

“But when my son would talk to him about baseball games just a few weeks ago, my dad knew every single play of a game he saw in 1937,” Karmin said. “He knew the batting order. My son pulled it up on his phone, and it was all true.”

Marvin Hecht with his wife Renee (far left) and their daughters Jacqueline (left), Gineen (right) and Linda Karmin (front, in cap and gown).
Marvin Hecht with his wife Renee (far left) and their daughters Jacqueline (left), Gineen (right) and Linda Karmin (front, in cap and gown).
Provided photo