Sol Kramer, who turned a Depression-era 15-cent balsa toy airplane business into a leading wholesale hobby empire, died of pneumonia April 24 at Hospice by the Sea in Pompano Beach, Fla. The former Pikesville resident was 96.
Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Lithuanian immigrants. His father, Morris, was a Saratoga Street tailor. His mother, Dora, was a homemaker. Mr. Kramer was a graduate of the old Robert E. Lee School and received his diploma from City College at age 14.
"He and his brother, Lou, belonged to the Junior Birdmen of America, a model airplane club promoted by the Hearst newspapers," said his son, Dr. Karl Kramer of Coral Gables, Fla. "His brother was really the airplane builder. Lou was the dreamer, the enthusiast, the creator. Sol had to figure out how to pay the bills. Or, as he put it, 'Lou was the spender and I was the saver.' "
The two teens became obsessed with the model airplane craze of the 1930s. They bought a tissue paper-and-wood kit for $2.95 in 1932.
"It was an enormous sum for the family in those difficult times. He gathered a group of friends to eat, drink, build and talk model airplanes," said Dr. Kramer, a retired dermatologist. "Lou and Sol began to sell both the materials and the instructions to make the planes. They scavenged wood from old banana crates. Their big break came when Hutzler's allowed Lou to both demonstrate the planes and to sell his kits."
Their mother gave them $40 in capital. The formed the Burd Model Airplane Manufacturing Co. on Oliver Street in the 1930s. They advertised in pulp magazines aimed at the youth market.
"Eventually, Burd produced 200 different airplane kits, some of which had gasoline engines," Dr. Kramer said. "There were balsa wood planes with rubber-band power that were a very big thing at the time. A lot of what they did was luck and timing."
During World War II, the brothers found they could no longer get raw materials.
Mr. Kramer joined the Marines and taught aeronautics at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
After the war, Mr. Kramer and his brother shifted their focus from manufacturing to hobby product distribution.
"In this wholesale business, they would buy model kits and parts from many manufacturers and resell them," Dr. Kramer said.
By the 1950s, Kramer Brothers Hobbies was a large distributor with warehouses in Baltimore, Newark, N.J., Philadelphia and Long Island.
The brothers added fishing tackle and archery items, and in 1951, Mr. Kramer visited the New York Toy Fair and spotted a West Coast firm that sold toy cars and plastic building kits.
"My father saw an important distinction between toys and hobbies," Dr. Kramer son said. "Toys were then sold in toy stores and hobbies were sold in hobby shops. Sol wanted to get these toy kits sold in the hobby stores of our customers. He placed a large order with Revell, then a small plastics company."
Mr. Kramer and Revell's owner, Lew Glaser, found that hobby kits sold year round. Toys sold primarily at Christmas.
"My father saw the hobby business as his road to success," Dr. Kramer said. He entered into a business agreement with Revell and acquired a piece of the company but kept that confidential for decades.
Sol and Lou Kramer then rented two floors of the Belvedere Hotel for an annual trade show where they showcased the introduction in 1953 of a plastic kit model of the USS Missouri, the battleship on which the Japanese surrender was signed at the end of World War II.
"It was a success from the very beginning and launched the model empire known as Revell," Dr. Kramer said.
In addition to their partial ownership of Revell, they sold the glassware used in A.C. Gilbert chemistry sets. They also bought Varney, a toy electric train model maker.
In Baltimore, they founded a firm, Life Like Products, and used former Hampden textile mills to make and store their inventory. They used dyed green sawdust glued to paper mats to line train garden layouts. They also made and sold miniature trees and boxes of finely crushed stone for roads.
"The trees were produced from lichen, a kind of dried fungus, imported from Norway," said Dr. Kramer. "Over time, they expanded to producing plastic scenic parts for model railroading such as crossing signs, street lamps, buildings and other products to make train layouts more authentic."
Mr. Kramer went to Japan in 1955 to develop manufacturing ties. He expanded his contacts to plants in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.
"He explained that he was struck by the privation that remained in Japan just a decade after World War II," his son said. "His skill was dealing with the people there. He did the legwork and rarely talked about it. For all his travels in Asia, he never took a camera."
After using plastic foam to make miniature mountains for train layouts, the Kramer firm started making ice chests.
"By the time the business was sold in 2000, we made 90 percent of the foam ice chests in the country," Dr. Kramer said.
Services were held April 28 in Miami.
In addition to his son, survivors include his companion of 12 years, Florence Cohen; three grandchildren; and three great-granddaughters. His wife of 53 years, the former Doris Goldman, died in 2001. His brother, Lou Kramer, died in 2003.