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Child's play: How three Clevelanders turned childhood hobbies into big business

Arthur Gugick, LEGO Artist. Photos | Bob Perkoski
Arthur Gugick, LEGO Artist. Photos | Bob Perkoski

Arthur Gugick has been playing with Legos for 43 years. George Vlosich's passion for the Etch a Sketch has not waned since he first discovered the toy at age 10. And Tom Donelan's penchant for playing board games with his family led to an award-winning addition to his company.

These three Cleveland-area professionals have taken child's play to a whole new level, one in which perseverance and attention to detail led to a profitable business or a well-paying hobby. They have received attention locally, nationally and internationally, yet, despite their successes, they retain a youthful passion for what they do.

Piecing Together Success

"A weird hobby" is how Gugick describes his carefully crafted building replicas made from thousands of colorful Lego pieces. "I'm a grown man playing with Legos," says Gugick, whose full-time gig is teaching math in Beachwood.

Indeed, he's a grown man whose dining room doubles as a storage area for a gazillion Legos, all organized according to color. A spare bedroom in the house he shares with his wife and two sons doubles as a showplace for some of his most elaborate projects.

There's nothing "weird," though, about the depth and detail of Gugick's reproductions. His Leaning Tower of Pisa really leans; his Angkor Wat bears much of the same austerity and complexity as the original Cambodian temple; his Salisbury Cathedral is outlined with dozens of handsome spires. Gugick even made a replica of his house, complete with official Lego furniture and kitchen appliances.

Gugick has spent so much time playing and building with Legos, he has figured out ways to create texture and shading. He frequents BrickLink, an eBay for Lego fanatics to buy and sell pieces and kits. He uses mathematical equations to determine how he will add columns, niches and rounded corners. "The more math you know, the better you'll be at Legos," he says.

Gugick's best customers tend to be corporations or institutions who may commission a Lego replica to display in their offices or to present as a gift to a patron. His work tends to be pricey because Legos are expensive and each replica requires hundreds of hours of labor.

Recently, he was contacted by an Australian filmmaker who commissioned Gugick to make a replica of the Taj Mahal. The film "Taj," which was released in Australia in May, features Gugick's Taj Mahal recreation in several scenes. The producers are trying to get the film to the States. "Even if it never gets beyond Australia," Gugick says, "this is exciting."

Gugick has been known to accept nontraditional forms of payment for his talents. "I wrote an article for Lego magazine, and they paid me in Legos," he says. "It was a ridiculous amount of Legos." Considering his works require upwards of 20,000 pieces, it was a favorable payment.

On the Cutting Etch

George Vlosich never tires of telling how he and the Etch a Sketch first found each other. He was on a family road trip to Washington, D.C., and his parents handed him the red plastic drawing tool to keep him occupied. His first drawing: The U.S. Capitol.

Vlosich had already shown promise as an artist, and the Etch a Sketch quickly became an unusual means for the young boy to express himself. Through the years, Vlosich turned the knobs, shook the palette clean and reworked his sketches until he felt satisfied with his drawings. He even devised a way to permanently place them on the Etch a Sketch.

Today, Vlosich's works of art on the Etch a Sketch include images of Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Prince William and Kate Middleton. He has also done a number of sketches of Cleveland Cavaliers players. "We're very pro-Cleveland, and we want to support the community," says Vlosich, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. He has been known to donate some of his earnings from Etch a Sketch sales to regional or international charitable causes. Vlosich has appeared on national television and has been written up in newspapers around the world, and he is always quick to mention Cleveland as his home base.

The studio Vlosich shares with his brother Greg is also known for paintings and color-pencil drawings as well as photography. It is the Etch a Sketch, though, that sets the studio apart. Vlosich is partial to sketches of sports figures, but he also stays on top of culture trends and creates sketches of events and people who appeal to a wide audience.

A Roll of the Die

Tom Donelan is not a betting man, but he did take a chance on the company Heartland Consumer Products, which he purchased three years ago. The business, which was based in Michigan at the time, was best known for its Vegas brand of playing cards.

"It was a good-looking company; it had great customers and great brands," Donelan says. "The top retailers in the country were already buying from Heartland."

Donelan had a hunch that Heartland could increase its profits by adding a board game to its list of products. After relocating the company to Cleveland in 2009, he networked with inventors who had copyrighted or patented games but had not yet brought them to market.

When Donelan discovered Square Shooters, he thought Lady Luck might just be on his side. Square Shooters combines dice and cards into a fast-playing adventure. A 52-card deck of playing cards plus two jokers is printed onto nine die, which are rolled to play games like Rummy, Poker, Blackjack and other card games.

Donelan says that Square Shooters is an ideal game for today's busy lifestyle. "It's easy to set up, and the play is dynamic, fast and loose." At the same time, Donelan says, "it's a social product. You can get together and have some fun. It's a vehicle for conversation."

Donelan has found board games to be a great way to connect with his children, one of whom has autism. The whole family has sat down together to play Square Shooters, he says, and they've all seen it as a positive way to connect and interact.

Retailers have also recognized Square Shooters' ability to draw people together for fast and fun play. The game recently shipped to Barnes & Noble for the bookseller's summer travel games section. Walmart starts selling the game this fall. The game received a Best Picks Award from leading toy and game authority, Dr. Toy.

We Have a Winner!

The keys to success for each of these entrepreneurs seem to be a combination of passion, tenacity and focus. Perfecting their talents and business skills and sticking with what they do best has helped Gugick, Vlosich and Donelan achieve many of their goals.

"Birthing a new product is like having a new child," Donelan says. "It needs a lot of nurturing."

This story originally appeared in sister publication Fresh Water Cleveland.


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