The crowd in New
Hampshire's Keene State College gymnasium is tugging off heavy winter coats in
the overfilled stands; the room is heating up, wafting the indelicate aroma of
old wrestling mats up to the damp flag hanging from the open beams. As even
more spectators squeeze through the doors, a young man in a gold-and-silver
dinner jacket is running around keeping 20 or so Melmac dinner plates spinning
on long poles. He is not getting much encouragement, for most of the crowd is
busy pretending he is not there, having come to see the Harlem Globetrotters,
not The Ed Sullivan Show.
plate balancer picks up his dinnerware to scattered applause, and the strains
of post-modern jazz come through the faltering P.A. system, which has all the
audio quality of Radio Hamburg circa 1942. The crowd is impatient enough to
start whistling Sweet Georgia Brown. But during this 48th tour of the
Globetrotters, there is one more brand-new act to precede Curly and Meadowlark
Lemon and the rest. It is not the jugglers, nor another plate balancer nor the
ever-popular Ping-Pong players, however. It is, well, it is...
. And here
Within a minute
collective displeasure has turned into the standard reaction the Frisbee act
has drawn from crowds: one great big oooh from 3,000 people. Out on the floor
are two young men looking like college kids who have suited up for a basketball
scrimmage only to find the gym is being used. In their scruffy intramural
outfits of basketball socks, dirty sneakers, shorts obviously copped from
another locker room and T shirts bearing the legend WORLD FRISBEE
CHAMPIONSHIP—ROSE BOWL, PASADENA, 1974, they begin by simply tossing the
Frisbee back and forth. World Championship Frisbee? All things are possible in
the electronic age, but the crowd can hardly believe this. On the whole a
well-kept, shoeshined, double-knitted assemblage, with a sprinkling of VFW
overseas caps, they sit transfixed, watching one tall, blond ponytailed youth
throw a 9�" plastic disk to another young man who has shoulder-length black
hair and resembles a Godfather extra.
28, and Victor Malafronte, 28, are currently the world's best Frisbee players.
Malafronte is world-class champion, having won that distinction in the Rose
Bowl, as his T shirt proclaims, last August, where more than 100 contestants
flipped and lofted Frisbees in four main events for the title. Frisbee meets
include displays of accuracy, variety and throwing for distance. (Kirkland had
won the distance event at Pasadena and in July had set a world record with a
toss of 112 yards.)
Now as they
cavort on the court they have conferred another first on the Frisbee. The game
of backyards and picnics, of fraternity lawns and seashore boredom has turned
pro. In Keene, N.H., an ail-American city, an all-American pastime is getting a
paycheck. The Frisbee is doing impossible things. Malafronte throws it so that
it floats over Kirkland's face. Kirkland blows on it, bounces it in the air
with his fingers, leaps, does handsprings, catches it behind his back, whirls
and throws it back—all in one fluid, almost Oriental motion. Frisbees walk on
edge across the polished floor in elaborate question mark patterns, arriving
exactly at the shoe tips of the other player, to be booted into the air and
caught between the legs. Several Frisbees, thrown together like nested clay
pigeons, go spraying out; huge arcing Frisbees whip over the seats, sail
between the beams, dance by the huge exhaust fans in the ceiling.
operates in a smiling, glazed trance and Kirkland looks as if he is pondering
the summation of a Ph.D. thesis. As they twist and twirl, making spectacular
throws and even more spectacular catches, one wonders what in the name of Abner
Doubleday is happening in sport. And this is obviously a sport; athletic
ability is involved; physical sophistication is at the heart of it. There is
perhaps a deeper social import than at first appears likely in the tossing
around of a Day-Glo orange disk. And sure enough, the history of Frisbee is as
moonstruck as the sport itself.
folklorists swear, although not under oath, that the saga begins in 1827, when
a Yale undergraduate named Elihu Frisbee scaled a silver collection plate 200
feet in protest against compulsory chapel. Back in the 1870s drivers of The
Frisbie Pie Co. in Bridgeport, Conn. whiled away the noontime by flinging tin
pie plates back and forth. (A Frisbie Pie Co. was in existence in Bridgeport
well after World War II.) In any case, Yale picked up the pastime, and
Harvard—never far behind in crazes—soon was afflicted. Pie-plate throwing
spread to Purdue and Notre Dame, and there is an unsupported rumor that when
tin gave way to unsatisfactory cardboard as pie-plate material, collection
plates were once again pressed into service.
Surely crews on
Hollywood back lots tossed film can lids, and at least one Californian did well
financially by inventing and hawking a plastic disk. "Fred Morrison became
the world's richest building inspector in 1956," recalls Ed Headrick, who
is executive vice-president of Wham-O Mfg. Co., the largest maker of flying
disks, and holder of the copyright on the name Frisbee. "We bought out his
patent on the disk and the injection-molding machine he made them on. It was a
$1 million deal.
"Fred used to
make them and sell them at the beach on weekends up at Pomona. He was so
accurate that he pretended the Frisbees were attached to an 'invisible wire'
held by his wife. He sold as many 'invisible wires' as platters," says
Headrick. Later, when his bank balance was revealed, Morrison was brought into
an L.A. court investigating corruption in public office. "We had to take in
our books and bail him out," says Headrick.
out to be one of those names that stick to a product, like Kleenex or Xerox.
Although some 30 companies have manufactured plastic flying disks, none has
rivaled the grand proportions of Wham-O's 60 million Frisbees in the past 18