Since this magazine was perhaps the first in the world to tell of the Hula-Hoop (SI, Aug. 4) and the Frisbee (SI, May 13, 1957), frivolous, polyethylene gizmos manufactured by the Wham-O Manufacturing Co. of San Gabriel, Calif. and elsewhere, we have what amounts to an avuncular interest in the concern. So, last week we dutifully looked in at Wham-O's new hoopery in Newark, N.J., where the Messrs. A. K. (Spud) Melin and Richard Knerr, Props., are getting things spinning.
Knerr, who is 33, quite large and exhilarated, greeted us like a long-lost nephew. "By George," he said straight off, "the Hula-Hoop is the biggest toy to ever hit the United States, but don't ask me how many we sold or how much money we've made. I know, but I won't tell you. But I will tell you that it's the first toy to ever hit both sexes with an equal amount of play value. And, by George, you can start playing with it when you're 3 until...why, we don't know where it ends. It has tremendous play value. Children are better with it, of course, because they're less inhibited and more flexible; grown-ups need two Martinis. The Hula-Hoop's got a long period of fun, too. And it's got great monkey-see, monkey-do value, too, by George. That's important."
Wham-O, of course, has had some notable flops, by George, in its 11 years of existence, too. "We had this fishing lure," Knerr said, wistfully. "It had a battery inside it and an electric bulb on the end of it. The fish could see it from all over hell in the late evening and in the deep water. By George, the fish went for it, too, but for some reason, not the fishermen. And we had our 'machine gun.' It was a single-shot .22 rifle mounted on a Thompson submachine-gun stock. The FBI told us to stop making it, but we couldn't turn it out for the price, anyhow. And we had a flashlight, a long-range flashlight, but it didn't work too well. Tomahawks. You throw them, by George, and they stick in boards. I think that one must have been too dangerous. We used to go in a lot for mayhem stuff like throwing knives and crossbows. Then we put out swing seats, but we couldn't promote them. The trouble was there was nothing to them. There was no imagination. They were too simple. But we put out a little toy ice-cream freezer so the kids could make their own ice cream, you know, and it was too complicated."
Wham-O had its genesis when Knerr and Melin graduated from the University of Southern California. "I had a B.S. in foreign trade," said Knerr, "and Spud had taken a general course. We were futsing around that summer raising falcons—you know, those little hawks—and we made some slingshots to shoot meat up to them. By George, we thought then, why not manufacture slingshots, they're a basic item. We sat around trying to get a name for them, something descriptive like Sling-O or Bing-O, and so we chose Wham-O. Later, we thought we might change the name. It sounded a little too cartoonish, but actually it's what the name represents, not what it sells.
"When we started with the Wham-Os we were broke, but we bought a band saw for $7.50 down and $7 a month and set it up in my folks' garage. I'd work the band saw and Spud would sand them and we'd dip them in a bucket of paint and take them out and sell them. Later we borrowed $64 for an ad in a magazine and then we got going. We moved out of the garage into a grocery store and had our first employee and payroll: a quart of beer for an hour's work.
"But let me show you our latest—the Whing-Ding." A Whing-Ding is two rubber balls attached to the ends of two lengths of cord which are attached to a wooden handle. The idea is to manipulate the handle so that the balls swing in opposite directions. Knerr did it, too, by George.
As Knerr was diligently swinging the Whing-Ding about his head while holding sales conferences with his apprehensive associates, Spud Melin, who is also 33, not so large, but equally as exhilarated, dropped by.
"You really should have two Martinis before you do it," Spud said critically. "Knerr thinks he's good at it, but he can't even get it into orbit." The balls bounced crazily off Knerr's head.
"You can see why they're made of rubber," Knerr said.
"Where do we get our ideas?" said Melin. "Why we got this large gorilla we keep in a closet...."