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Jewish World Review July 12, 2002 / 3 Menachem-Av, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

He's why Boomers
leap and twist | So, if somebody handed you a bamboo ring like the kind Australian kids twirl in gym class, would you order 20 million in candy-colored plastic?

If so, you'd be a genius. A millionaire. You'd be the man behind the Hula Hoop - and Frisbee and Super Ball.

And, alas, you'd be dead. On June 28, at age 77, Arthur (Spud) Melin, co-founder of Wham-O toys, sailed a Frisbee over the Pearly Gates and went to retrieve it. He left behind a Wham-O world.

Melin changed baby boomer culture forever when he and his best friend, Rich Knerr, started tinkering in Knerr's garage.

The young Californians had graduated college in 1948 and were trying to raise falcons but needed some way of launching meatballs for the birds to chase. Same way all empires get started, I know. But in this case, the boys invented a meatball slingshot so powerful it made a whooshing, "wham-o" sound. When people clamored to buy them, the boys had a business - and a name.

In 1955, they had a breakthrough. Building inspector Fred Morrison showed them his Rotary Fingernail Clipper, and they bought the rights to manufacture it. They also gave it a new name: Frisbee.

For most males, the story could end right here, for this went on to become the beloved boy toy of a generation. Yeah, sure, girls liked it, too - the way they like fishing and beer. But guys went gaga - maybe, says my friend Marla, "Because they could play it with their dogs."

It wasn't until 1958 that Wham-O had an equal impact on female fun. That's when a traveler presented Melin and Knerr with the bamboo hoop. But what was it supposed to do? Legend has it, one Wham-O exec fiddled with it for four days straight before he finally strode into the office and placed it around his hips.

Jaws dropped. The toy did not. In six months, Wham-O sold more than 20 million Hula Hoops.

In my house, this was not great news. I was hipless, hapless, hopeless. Somehow, I was not girl enough to get it up, even as my friends wriggled like Rita Moreno.

Between the Hula Hoop and the Frisbee, we now had a new measure of who was cool: girls who could swivel their hips, guys who could leap and catch (preferably bare-chested). We may have been at the dawn of the sexual revolution, but thanks to Wham-O, our roles were as rigid as Marlex plastic.

This may explain why so many of us have held onto these totemic toys even into middle age: They still define us. "I have one in my car right now," said my pal Greg - pushing 50 - when I asked whether he still remembered Frisbee.

"What's it for?"

"Just in case someone says, 'Hey, anyone have a Frisbee?'"

I.e., just in case someone says, "Hey, any real men around here?"

And me? Well, just last weekend, I got up the guts to hoist a Hula Hoop again. After all, it's been 35 years, two kids and a truckload of therapy since my last try.

To my astonishment, the thing stayed up for half a minute. Whoa! These hips were finally happenin'! Watch out, Rita!

Spud Melin may have gone to wherever it is all Super Balls end up, but his fads - and their cultural baggage - refuse to fade.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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