Fifty years of spinning in circles

In Ethan and Joel Coen’s 1994 cinematic elegy, The Hudsucker Proxy, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) has a “revolutionary” idea. He explains his brainstorm by drawing a circle onto a sheet of notebook paper. Pointing to the lifeless circle he exclaims: “You know, for kids…”

What Norville Barnes had invented in film, Arthur “Spud” Melin, co-founder of the Wham-O toy, invented in real life: the Hula Hoop. On Feb. 27, 1963, Melin was issued a patent for the Hula Hoop — something he had actually invented in 1958.

The Wham-O corporation — a better named toy company has never existed — was formed in 1948 when Melin and co-founder, Richard Kerr joined up to sell a slingshot that they had developed. This first product had a rather odd purpose: to shoot balls of meat up to falcons as part of their falconry hobby. The company takes its name from the sound the slingshot supposedly made.

The adaptation of curious or mundane objects into desirable toys has been the hallmark of Wham-O. The Hula Hoop is no different. As the story goes, Melin and Kerr got the idea for the bright plastic rings by watching Austrian children swivel bamboo hoops during an exercise class.

Dubbing their plastic variation the Hula Hoop was a savvy marketing nod to the recently added 50th state and the burgeoning tiki bar craze. This nexus of adaptation and salesmanship launched Wham-O into the toy colossus that it is today. Wham-O is an empire built on fad and absurdity.

Along with Hula Hoops and slingshots, their first products included boomerangs and another curious flying object: the Frisbee. Again, Melin and Kerr knew how to capitalize on the public’s fixation of the moment. In 1955, Melin and Kerr bought the Frisbee prototype from its creator, a building inspector named Fred Morrison. Capitalizing on the country’s obsession with UFOs, Melin and Kerr rechristened the disk as the Pluto Platter. In 1958, they yet again renamed it Frisbee. Thus, an icon was born.

Wham-O has never shrunk from acquiring good ideas from zany inventors. Just as the company bought the Frisbee from Morrison, they got another enormously popular product from an inventor named Norman Stingley.

According to the Wham-O corporate website, in the 1960s, Stingley, a chemical engineer, accidentally created a plastic product that bounced uncontrollably. Melin and Kerr jumped at the Stingley’s offer to sell his bouncy material and the Superball was born. Follow up products included the Super Gold Ball, Super Baseball and Super Dice.

Of course this kind of genius is bound to take the occasional ugly turn. As the Wham-O website describes: “In one celebrated incident, a giant superball, produced as a promotional item, was accidentally dropped out of a 23rd floor hotel window in Australia. It shot back up 15 floors, then down again into a parked convertible car. The car was totaled but the ball survived the ‘test’ in perfect condition.”

Whether it be a limbo kit to follow that dance craze, plastic sharks teeth to go along with the movie Jaws or even a home bomb shelter kit during the era of duck-and-cover, Wham-O has ridden the absurdist wave into iconic status. Their products are so ubiquitous that they have become generic terms (much like using ‘Kleenex’ to mean any tissue)… Boogie Board, Hacky Sack, Slip ‘n’ Slide… all these and many more have fostered fun and laughter for almost 65 years. Wham-O is inexorably woven into the fabric of American childhood. As Norville said: “You know, for kids.”