Sunday, June 8, 2008

Let us pause for a minute to praise the plastic stalwarts of childhood.

Let’s remember the memories made when you dared your brother to fire the Super Ball off the rec room paneling and it whooshed and ka-thwacked its way into a frenzy, making the dog practically hyperventilate. How about the afternoons spent idling on the college green, killing time tossing a Frisbee and listening to Bob Marley waft from the window of that dude who had the corner room? Remember the time you watched Becky from next door keep the Hula Hoops - two at a time - going until dark, long after the other neighborhood kids went home?

Good times, all brought to you by Wham-O. The venerable California toy company celebrates its 60th birthday this year, making it roughly the same age as the baby boomers with whom it has grown up.

The company’s beginnings are reflective of what was going on in post-war America. Take two dreamers and a burgeoning middle class with more leisure time and disposable income. Add to that the growing popularity of plastic products, television marketing and the move to the suburbs, and, well, wham-o, you get an empire of games meant to be played in the driveways of those new subdivisions.

The story starts, as many trends do, in California, where new college grads Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin created a slingshot in Mr. Knerr’s garage. When whatever they were firing made a “whamo” sound when it hit its target, the company name was formed, says Chris Gurlinger, Wham-O’s vice president of marketing and licensing.

The founders of Wham-O were looking for playthings that were simple yet extraordinary, physics-defying but inexpensive. Soon after they were taking meetings with all kinds of inventors, as well as scouring the world for quirky pastimes that could be adapted to the domestic market.

Among the big hits: the 1955 visit from building inspector Walter “Fred” Morrison, who refined a flying plastic disc that Wham-O at first named the “Pluto Platter,” to capture the interest of a public captivated by all things Sputnik and space related. By 1958, Wham-O renamed it the Frisbee (after a Connecticut pie bakery).

“When you think of Wham-O, Frisbee is the first thing that comes to mind,” says Jim Silver, editor in chief of “Toys and Family Entertainment,” a monthly publication. “What makes a great toy is one that is easy, but [offers] lots of ways to play. Frisbees are fun if you are 10 or you are 30. You can play at school, on the beach or in an organized sport like Ultimate Frisbee.”

Wham-O has sold more than 300 million Frisbees, putting it in a league with Hot Wheels and Barbie as great American toys, says Tim Walsh, toy historian and author of the”The Wham-O Superbook,” which will be published this summer.

“What other toy has another species as its biggest fans?” Mr. Walsh says. “Frisbee is huge among dogs. To me, that is the toy that should be in the time capsule.”

Also heading for the theoretical time capsule is the Hula Hoop, which Mr. Knerr and Mr. Melin brought back from Australia in the late 1950s. The men modified it from bamboo to plastic, and took it around to playgrounds in Southern California. Twenty-five million hoops were sold in four months following the product’s debut in January 1958. After they were advertised on TV, 40 million were sold by the end of the year.

The market for the fad was fickle, however. “Rich Knerr said Hula Hoops were dead as a doornail” by October 1958, Mr. Walsh says of his interview with the Wham-O co-founder prior to Mr. Knerr’s death in January. (Mr. Melin died in 2002).

“So they took it off the market, but brought the Hula Hoop back in the 1960s,” Mr. Walsh says. “It’s been back ever since.”

Also still with us is Wham-O creation Slip ‘n Slide, the backyard water game originally created from a stretch of boat upholstery and a garden hose; the Super Ball; Hackey Sack; and Silly String.

Gone, though, is Super Elastic Bubble Plastic, in which children put a wad of polyvinyl acetate dissolved in acetone on a straw and blew a giant, if noxious, bubble. Never mind the mess it would make if the goo got on the couch - do you know what that bubble, in all its chemical-y goodness, may have done to your respiratory system?

Wham-O had some other also-rans, too, says Mr. Walsh. The build-your-own bomb shelter kit was a bust. So was the instant fish idea Mr. Melin brought back from Africa, in which fish were supposed to lay eggs in a mud tank.

“A lot of toys bombed,” Mr. Walsh says. “They also had a lot of products that were not toys, but also bombed.”

The weirdest was “Mr. Hootie-rake,” a little plastic fork to help you skim off the little white part on an egg yolk.

“Apparently, there weren’t very many people concerned about that,” says Mr. Gurlinger.

Despite selling tens of millions of Hula Hoops and Slip ‘n Slides, Mr. Melin and Mr. Knerr didn’t live all that large. They were risk-takers, putting most of their money back into the company and losing way more than they made some years, Mr. Walsh says. They sold Wham-O to Kransco Group Cos. for $12 million in 1982.

Wham-O is now owned by a Chinese company, and although Mr. Melin and Mr. Knerr are not household names, their products certainly are.

“You don’t walk in a toy store and say ‘Where are the water slides?’”

Mr. Gurlinger says. “You say ‘Where are the Slip ‘n Slides?’”

Similarly, you don’t ask your friend to go to the park and play flying disc. It’s Frisbee.

“There are a lot of plastic discs out there,” Mr. Walsh says. “Wham-O has worked hard to keep the trademark on. It has been a constant battle.”

Still, Wham-O’s target audience has changed with the times. Flipping through the channels the other day, an Advil commercial shows a middle-age man tending to his back pain having fun with his children (or maybe grandchildren?) on a Slip ‘n Slide.

Nintendo’s new Wii Fit has Hula Hoop as one of its activities to get players off the couch and moving around, circling their hips to keep a virtual hoop aloft in one of those physics-defying ways the inventors envisioned.

Hula Hooping with a cartoon avatar and no hoop? Now that’s really space age.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide