WHAM-O -- NOTHIN' BUT FUN
Back before America’s kids glued themselves to small screens, boredom lurked in every bedroom. Every kid knew its menace and would spend any sum, try any toy to conquer ennui. But most toys were stupid.
There were trains that did nothing but roll. Cars that didn’t even honk. What could you do with a Slinky once you’d slunk it? There was only so much you could ask your 8 Ball, and you had to have an engineering degree to master an Erector Set. But one toy company, according to the New York Times, “virtually defined frivolity in postwar America.”
“It’s Wham-O,” chirped a parrot on each commercial. “It’s fun!”
Wham-O gave us Hula Hoops, Frisbees, Slip n’ Slides, Superballs, Trac balls, Silly String. . . Who were these guys and how did they know just what kids wanted?
It started with two grown men who never grew up. Richard Knerr and “Spuds” Melin met as teenagers in Pasadena, California. After graduating from USC, each was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps, Knerr in real estate, Melin in lumber. Do I hear a “borr-inng?” Instead they tried falcons.
One day in 1948, they began firing chunks of raw meat from a sling shot, watching their falcons swoop. Fun, eh? One falconer said he didn’t want a bird but he sure would like that slingshot. Soon Knerr and Melin were making wooden slingshots on a bandsaw they bought at Sears for a $7 down payment. They named their company for the sound a kid makes when a rock hits its target — Wham-O.
Until 1957, Wham-O sold sporting goods — slingshots, crossbows, boomerangs. Then the two big boys met a man selling flying discs out of his pickup. They bought the design and had an engineer add aerodynamics. They called it a Pluto Platter, then changed the name. The rest is pop culture history.
But the big breakthrough came a year later. Seems an Australian firm sent Wham-O a large bamboo hoop. Seems Aussies were exercising by gyrating hips to keep the hoop aloft. “Spud brought it home and showed it to me,'' Mrs. Melin recalled. ''He said it would be huge. But I said, 'You can't put that on television. They just banned Elvis Presley's hips from the Ed Sullivan Show.'”
Fun scorns all skeptics. So bamboo was traded for plastic. Pasadena first graders tested the prototypes and couldn’t stop. By 1960, Wham-O had sold 100 million hula hoops. But Wham-O’s founders were having too much fun to be businessmen. Thinking the fad would never end, Knerr and Melin had seven factories going. When the craze crashed, they were left with millions of hoops and a net loss. The only solution — more fun!
Throughout the 1960s, Wham-O owned American childhood. Unlike other toy moguls, Knerr and Melin listened to any inventor who walked in the door. When a local upholsterer showed up with a long sheet of plastic and a hose, Wham-O called it a Slip n’ Slide. And sold 30 million. A DIY fallout shelter flopped, as did Instant Fish. But then a local chemist fuel-injected some polymer, heated and cooled it, and out came the Super Ball.
We kids had been looking for a ball that would blow by us coming off the nearest wall and the Super Ball was it. Unfortunately, the ball also blew chunks as it blew by, shedding pieces and splitting in half by week’s end. So we bought another. And another. Twenty million in all. Meanwhile, the NFL needed a name for its new post-season championship. An owner whose daughter was obsessed with Super Balls chose... Super Bowl.
And on the fun went. Trac Balls curved like no ball before them. Limbo showed us how low we could go. Silly String was silly, but fun. Water Wiggly came alive. But then the times changed, bringing Wham-O’s worst nightmare — adulthood. By the 1970s, Boomers were in college and no one was having any fun at all.
Knerr and Melin sold Wham-O in 1982 for $12 million. The company was later bought by Mattel and is now owned by a Chinese conglomerate. Its fun-filled founders also aged, both passing away early in our current, angst-filled century.
Boredom still lurks in every bedroom but small screens are the go-to solution. Wham-O zipped into childhood like a slingshot and sailed out like a Frisbie. Its legacy was not just a few fads but toys that proved a timeless truth. “Energy,” wrote the poet William Blake, “is eternal delight.”
"If Spud and I had to say what we contributed,” Knerr said, “it was fun. But I think this country gave us more than we gave it. It gave us the opportunity to do it."