June 14, 2006 in Nation/World

Batteries charge patriotism

Margaret Webb Pressler Washington Post
Photo courtesy of Litzky Public Relations photo

Richard Levy of Bethesda, Md., an inventor of the Furby and hundreds of other toys, has created the first-ever self-waving flag.
(Full-size photo)

Displaying the Stars and Stripes

» Today is Flag Day, which commemorates the official adoption of the U.S. flag in 1777. Here are some guidelines for display of the Stars and Stripes, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

» “The flag should not be flown in rain or snow unless it is an all-weather flag.

» “When placed on a stage at a church or auditorium, the flag should always be “in the position of honor” at the speaker’s right.

» “When the flag is hung over a street, it should be displayed so the “union” (the blue field with the stars) faces north or east.

» “The flag should never be allowed to touch the ground or floor, and should never be used as clothing, bedding, or drapery.

» “When the flag is no longer fit for use, it should be destroyed, preferably by burning.

WASHINGTON – There’s probably no image that more typifies American patriotism – now in peak season, with today being Flag Day – than the Stars and Stripes waving in the wind. Unfortunately, getting that magical effect takes work. As many people have experienced, you have to hoist the flag up a pole, handling it ever so gingerly, and then, of course, you need a breeze. But not anymore.

Richard Levy of Bethesda, Md., is a prolific inventor who has produced what he calls the world’s first-ever self-waving flag. You know Levy, even if you don’t realize it. His somewhat unusual mind is behind about 200 toys for adults and kids, including the mega-hit Furby, which he co-created.

Called “The Wave Stars and Stripes,” Levy’s waving flag looks deceptively simple in the box. But press a button and – voila! – the banner undulates gracefully, as if Mother Nature herself had descended on your desk and powered up a gust. In the background, take your pick of patriotic anthem: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” or “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”

For Washington, it’s the ultimate office toy. And it’s showing up in some high-profile offices here.

Levy has sent the flag to President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and John McCain, R-Ariz., among others.

“Letters have started to come back,” Levy said, including missives from Cheney, Lieberman and Rumsfeld. “What’s not to like?”

His outreach has worked. The product has only just hit stores and it already has fans. When a reporter tried to reach former ambassador Richard Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, to discuss the invention, his assistant initially referred the inquiry to the press office. But then she found out what the call was about.

“Oh, you’re calling about our little wavy flag? Hang on,” she said.

Moments later, Solomon was on the line, expressing his love for his self-waving flag.

“Visitors, whether American or foreign, walk in and we have a talk about world affairs, and as they’re walking out I say, ‘Oh, by the way, just press that button.’ And they all break up,” Solomon said.

“Some people might find flag-waving a little over the top, but most people respect the flag, and it’s an unusual way, and a lighthearted way, to show it,” he said.

The Wave flag idea came to Levy from California inventor Ron Milner, who co-created the Atari 2600, the hugely popular 1975 video-game console.

“I loved the idea,” Levy said.

Milner sent Levy a mockup made in a plastic flowerpot. The finished product uses an ingenious system of rotating coils sewn into channels in the flag (now patented). It can be squeezed or crushed and will pop right back open and wave again.

Two years ago, Levy shared the flag idea with SRM Entertainment Ltd., a manufacturer of electronic toys outside Philadelphia. SRM President Stephen Mickelberg said he knew it was a winner right away and agreed to manufacture it.

The flag was unveiled at the International Toy Fair in New York in February, and SRM has sold it to Toys R Us, Kmart and CVS/pharmacy nationwide, no small feat for a new product. Mickelberg said it is too early to say how sales have been, but he is hopeful, based on retailers’ initial reactions. It sells for $24.99, batteries included, he said.

“Obviously, we’re hoping it’ll be a strong product for the Fourth of July,” said Erin Pensa, a spokeswoman for CVS Corp., who added that competition is stiff even to get patriotic merchandise on the shelf. She said the season is brief, with lots of products vying for retailers’ attention.

Levy has not missed a marketing opportunity. He has a Web site that shows the flag in action ( www.thewaveflag.com). He put a flag trivia quiz on the toy’s box. And he touts his attention to detail – such as the decision to make the toy in China but to have the flag made by Valley Forge Flag Co. in Pennsylvania.

“We would never put a foreign-made flag on the thing, for goodness’ sake,” he said.

Levy is a self-described patriotism nut and counts this as his third patriotic toy. His first was a snap-together puzzle of the statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Then, after Sept. 11, 2001, he created a board game called “Spirit of America.”

Levy recognizes that the technology behind the Wave flag has other applications beyond the patriotic. He is working on a version that displays NASCAR banners and another using college flags and fight songs. Another idea Levy wants to pursue is baby gifts for hospital shops that say “It’s a Boy” or “It’s a Girl” on a waving flag that plays a lullaby.

“We’re in a fashion industry – never get caught with your trends down,” Levy said. “The retailers want something new every year.”

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