Robert Nicholls and Adrian Stern were both young men in the 1960s. Both were Mods, short for 'Modernist' – the very first youth culture in Britain that sought its own ways instead of emulating their parents' youth as had so far always happened. This involved a personally-developed, forward-looking view of life, and was expressed in clothing, hairstyle and taste of music (1). At their age, interest naturally centred around going out and having fun, and chasing girls of course.
But both also worked at Century 21 Toys, Robert in sales from March 1966 to September 1967, and Adrian in accounts from November 1967 until around April 1968. They only first met through the Mod scene much later in life.
The following is based on an earlier exchange of e-mails between them and my friend Paul Woods, as well as details and memories they subsequently shared with myself. I've left it verbatim as much as possible (though changing it to third-person), except the description of the building which is condensed from various comments.
Robert recalls the company was simply referred to as JR Toys and later Century 21 Toys. He doesn't remember it being called JR21, which was in the logo marked on toy boxes.
The offices and showroom were in the back of the London Coliseum block (2). The front of the Coliseum is in St. Martin's Lane, London WC2, and initially this street was used as the company's address, in adverts and possibly letterheads. Later adverts give the address as Century 21 House, May's Court, St Martin's Lane, but Adrian says the Coliseum address was next referred to as Century 21 House, and that he isn't aware of another building of that name (3). Robert says there was no Century 21 House sign of any kind at the entrance, because Rosenthal Toys/Century 21 sold to wholesalers who were contacted by the sales reps on their travels and even though they had a showroom they really didn't get many visitors.
Various parts of the Century 21 Group occupied an entire building in the Coliseum block, at the end of May's Court which it overlooked. The entrance is at the very end of May's Court near the corner with Bedfordbury at the rear of the Coliseum block. Adrian says people today would be surprised that the front door was unattended and always open - no security whatsoever!
Robert believes the showroom and offices (including Jack Rosenthal's) were on the second level, reached by tiers of stairs. There were further offices above, reached by the same set of stairs, but he didn't visit them until after the reorganisation, when, for ex. Jim Watson (see below) occupied a little office on the third(?) floor. Adrian mentions the publishing/books branch sharing the building. Although the name of Keith Shackleton rings a bell with both Robert and Adrian, Robert's pretty certain the merchandising branch didn't share their building. (Although adverts by Century 21 Merchandising do use the address, so it may have been used as a correspondence address).
Around the showroom was a large open space, by far the nicest according to Adrian, where office parties were held. Excellent pie and mash was had at the Café behind the London Coliseum that used to serve the Covent Garden porters and others.
Jack Rosenthal was a stocky freckled man, with a daughter called Ruth who also worked there. Ruth was around Robert's age, a pleasant red-headed girl perhaps a year or so younger (possibly born 1946). Mr. Rosenthal had his office at one end of the complex with a secretary who was the point person. He didn't interact overmuch with the 'menials' but he was pleasant enough when he did. Robert doesn't remember him at the seasonal office parties.
As to Ruth Rosenthal's activities, Robert doesn't exactly know, but says she was Daddy's little helper (gopher), and probably did some (JR) letter opening, letter writing, making phone calls, filing, etc i.e. clerical stuff.
Senior staff were Eric Hofmeister and Mr. Gandy, while a younger Mr. Sampson was in charge of the typing pool. There was considerable interaction with Robert, who can't recall having had a job title, but supposes he was a junior sales manager. His job was mostly paperwork, reviewing orders, filing, that kind of thing. It was an okay job, not all-consuming but clean and quite interesting and in a nice area of town.
By the time Adrian joined the company, his immediate boss was Stanley Dick. Adrian says he may have seen an advert in the Evening Standard - as they had the best classifieds in those days. If put to it he'd say that it probably was a phone call, short interview with Stanley and bob's your uncle. Things were very simple in those days and no CVs etc - just a call, an interview and start on Monday. He became Stanley Dick's assistant.
Robert believes Howard Silver was a traveling salesman (as were Marcus Berg and Mr Stern – the latter no relation to Adrian), who would appear intermittently with a bunch of orders for processing. Silver would debrief with Rosenthal and senior staff, but would occasionally join in general conversations, again pleasant enough. He would normally have picked up a stock of jokes on the road.
Robert particularly liked Hofmeister and Gandy as they were friendly, sociable people, of the older WWII generation. Hofmeister looked the part with a pencil-thin mustache and a military bearing. They were nice folk.
The morning routine in the office started with opening the mail at which time jokes were the order of the day (mostly obscene). This involved Hofmeister, Gandy, Sampson, and Robert, though not always all at once. Sometimes, during slack times Gandy would also send Robert out to "lean on and scold delinquent retailers"(!). Robert would also sometimes travel with Marcus Berg, visiting customers and taking orders, and to the Harrogate Toy Fair. The office atmosphere was good - Robert says it was cool and remembers the office parties were wild too (relating a few details that certainly sound convincing!)
Adrian too remembers everyone being easy to get along with - very friendly and jolly generally - and having a ball at the offices at the Coliseum. Everyone knew everyone (though the Andersons were never around) as they were not only a small company but the whole Century 21 group was but a tiny part of the Lew Grade (4) organisation. Loyalty was high as Adrian remembers: the publishing branch had very few (5?) employees, so everyone was asked to give them a hand at their warehouse (around Old Street) on Christmas Day 1967 to get the annuals out to the shops in time for the New Year. Clearly remembering working on that Christmas Day, he says almost everyone turned up.
Robert remembers going to a premiere of a Thunderbirds movie, in a West End cinema. ATV boss Lew Grade was there, it was a big event for Century 21 (this will have been "Thunderbirds Are Go" at the London Pavilion on 12 December 1966). Adrian recalls going to a similar event, where there were tickets for everyone including for some friends to bring along (unfortunately it's not clear what this may have been, since he left the company well before the premiere of the second film, "Thunderbird 6").
Robert recalls Century 21 Toys had a warehouse in the East End, a family affair run by Cockneys. The contacts there could obtain excellent suit materials, tweeds and so forth, very important to a fashion-conscious Mod. Adrian thinks this may well have been the warehouse he remembers too - "Old St, Curtain Rd, somewhere around there - cheap area then of course."
Robert joined the company when it was still called J Rosenthal (Toys) Ltd. Both he and Adrian were quite familiar with the toy range at the time (even though their main interests were more to do with activities outside of work), but after all this time individual items are vague.
There is one important exception however, in that Robert recognised and remembers the Quacky
Duck Car (see under Toys) when Paul Woods sent him a picture. This memory places that toy at
the company and proves Rosenthal did import this and similar such toys. Robert also recalls
the company handling tops, toy carousels, and so forth at the time, but can't remember the
brand names. As is also evidenced by a later advert still advertising Quercetti rockets,
these memories prove Rosenthal continued to distribute other toys instead of exclusively
dealing in Anderson-related toys.
Adrian adds there always was an extensive range as the company sold whatever it could. He remembers many toys not sold that came from the Milan fair because they were too dangerous. Guns that fired real bullets was one such item.
After J Rosenthal (Toys) became Century 21 Toys, Robert remembers the Thunderbirds took over big-time when the series became popular, and involved the majority of sales. The toys were designed in Britain and manufactured in the Far East, Hong Kong to the best of his memory. Cheap plastic stuff, pretty shoddy however - at one time he was responsible for letters of complaint from the general public and for replacing toys that got broken, which was quite often. Adrian says the toys were of the same standard as all Hong Kong manufactured items – not really made for posterity but should have been OK to play with. He doesn't recall many returns, but may have forgotten.
Toy design and packaging art wasn't done in-house but contracted out (to whom is sadly unknown). Toys came from the Far East, Hong Kong. There was somebody there who organised this, but again sadly no name.
Robert does remember a Scottish marketing & design fellow, tall, slender and bearded, whom he's pretty sure designed toys (though no idea which ones). From a photograph shown to him by Paul Woods, Robert is 99.9% certain this may have been Jim Watson, who'd been creative manager at Century 21 Merchandising. Robert remembers him showing a blueprint of something or other and lamenting he had been taken off the project. Watson was not a fixture of the early toy firm but was given an office following the reorganisation.
Adrian remembers that the company got into financial trouble because of the dock strike [in late 1967]. Christmas is a vital point in the toy year and there were enormous orders in Hong Kong that had to reach the UK in time for the Christmas selling period. The dock strike stopped them getting there on time and they were all off-loaded onto barges around Holland. Maybe 70% or more of turnover came from Christmas – all that stuff was worthless in January and he doesn't know if it all ever turned up though it all had to be paid for.
Robert believes Jack Rosenthal sold his share in Century 21 Toys to Lew Grade's ATV empire for a handsome sum. Everything seemed to be amicable and Rosenthal wasn't unhappy about it, though some of his staff were. During the transition period it got rather cutthroat, heads began to roll. Auditors were brought in - Robert remembers an Australian who got on everyone's nerves. He also remembers a bearded Scottish marketing & design fellow (Jim Watson, see above) who was reassigned - they gave him a new office but he had no real tasks. Robert got Stanley Dick as his new boss, who had short blond hair and an astronaut look about him. Dick was pleasant enough and was ready to retain Robert but wanted him to get a haircut (Robert: "it was 1967 for gods sake!"). Robert had other ideas however and left for art college instead.
Adrian remembers Stanley Dick as a really nice man and a definite rock fan. Robert says Dick was brought in as an additional manager (not a replacement) to oversee the transition/reshuffle.
And Robert adds that Jack Rosenthal, and Gandy, Hofmeister, and probably Sampson disappeared without a fanfare when the merger took hold, which was some weeks before he himself quit in September 1967. Adrian remembers (at least the names of) Howard Silver and Marcus Berg so these will have remained. Upon learning that Rosenthal was still listed as a director in January 1968 (See under Documents), Robert replied that If Rosenthal was still a director it was either in name only or he occupied offices elsewhere - he certainly was no longer in the building.
Robert Nicholls eventually got an art degree at the Central School of Art and Design in Holborn, London, followed by teaching certification and then headed off to Nigeria in 1973 for an eight year stint in education. He's now a tenured professor at the University of the Virgin Islands, College of Arts & Social Sciences, where he teaches Social Science and Geography. During college he became interested in African music, dance and festive folklore, which he pursued during his career and about which he's written numerous articles as well as a book on how this evolved in parts of the Caribbean. Robert's also been involved in the production of quite a few CDs of both African and Mod music.
Adrian Stern left for Paris to work at Barclay Disques (music records), where he got an introduction to the MD with a recommendation from possibly Lew Grade himself, he can't remember exactly. Trouble was he went in April 1968 and no-one can forget May 1968 in Paris. He had to return on the last flight to leave Orly before all the airports were shut down until the events were over. He never even got to the interview as they were too busy with other problems! Then in 1969 he got a job teaching in Milan - just walked into the school, asked to speak to the head, had a quick interview with him right then and started work the next morning!
Both have shared their memories of being Mods in the book "Sawdust Caesars" by Tony Beesley (currently out of print).
General note: all external links open in new windows. Just close them to get back here.
1: See Robert's reminiscences on the Mod Generation
with following parts linked in each text.
back to text
2: In its long and illustrious existence, this historic building was used for theatre (notably musicals after WW2) before becoming a cinema in the early to mid-1960s (which presumably allowed office space to become available for rent), owned by Lew Grade's ATV Group. It subsequently became the home of the English National Opera which owns it to this day.
back to text
3: Because of the May's Court address associated with the new Century 21 House designation, collectors including myself have speculated that (perhaps part of) the Century 21 Group might have moved to a new office building next to the Coliseum on the other side of May's Court (built in 1960 apparently, now the St. Martin's Lane Hotel). Based on Robert and Adrian's recollection, this turns out to be erroneous. back to text
4: The Wikipedia entry on Lew Grade contains links to his various endeavours. back to text
As a final note, by the summer of 1969, Century 21 Toys had left the May's Court address, and moved to their "new offices and warehouse complex on the Eley's Industrial Estate in Edmonton, North London" as reported lower right in Toys International magazine of July-August of that year.