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post #1 of 6 Old Jan 27th, 2008, 11:09 am Thread Starter
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Richard Knerr

BY MITCH ALBOM
January 28, 2008

Last week, at age 82, Richard Knerr died. You probably don’t recognize his name. You probably can’t pronounce it. He wasn’t an actor or a war hero. He cured no diseases. Made no scientific breakthroughs.

In fact, you could say Richard Knerr was about one thing and one thing only: fun. But if you measure a man by what the world would be like without him, here a few things that, minus Knerr, you would never know:

The Hula Hoop.

The Frisbee.

The SuperBall.

Those alone took up a third of my childhood.

Knerr was the co-founder of Wham-O, the company that made those items and more, including the Water Wiggly, the Slip ‘N Slide and Silly String. If there was a philosophy to Wham-O’s products, it was this: Keep it simple, keep it cheap, keep it something kids like to do, over and over.

You’ll notice what is left out.

Violence. Noise. Weapons. Video.

Just for the fun of it

Believe it or not, there was a time when “free time” in America meant doing things like trying to shake a Hula Hoop without it falling down your legs. Or lining up a perfectly flat Frisbee throw, so that it glided on air like a flying saucer.

I know, I know. Anyone under 30 is groaning just reading this. But we make no apologies. This was what we did for fun. We threw Frisbees back and forth. We shook Hula-Hoops around our waists. We flicked a SuperBall against the pavement so hard it would bounce onto someone’s roof.

And then Mom called us for dinner.

Knerr and his partner, Arthur Melin, were from this more innocent era. A couple of California kids, they went to college together in the 1940s and reportedly both turned down offers to work in their father’s offices. Instead, they tried to make, well, fun things. Their first effort was a slingshot. Next they moved to boomerangs and tomahawks.

Then, in 1957, they introduced the Frisbee. The following year, they came out with a plastic ring you shook around your waist or neck. And before today’s kids laugh too loudly, know that by 1960, two years after its introduction, the Hula Hoop had sold 100 million units.

The Xbox 360, invented nearly three years ago, hasn’t sold 18 million units yet.

Take that, Halo.

The adult side of toys

I didn’t know Richard Knerr. But I recently saw an old photo of him in a shirt and tie, goofing it up, Hula Hoops swinging from his shoulders. And I was saddened by his death, because it reminded me of how a certain philosophy has died with him.

Today, kids’ fun has to be at someone’s expense. Blowing up your opponent is fun. Clobbering your friend in Madden football is fun. Insulting people on MySpace or laughing at a geek on YouTube is fun. You don’t see kid “crazes” anymore — the way SuperBalls or yo-yos were crazes. Today a kid craze is cell phones or PlayStations. Today the idea of bouncing a ball as high as you can seems so incredibly lame, you’d wonder if the kid doing it had problems.

But that’s the thing. We didn’t have problems. Not like they have today. We didn’t dream of torching the school, having sex with our teachers or getting back at enemies by destroying their reputation in cyberspace.

We bounced our balls, threw our Frisbees, shook that silly plastic ring until our hips hurt. And it was fun. It was fun because we weren’t proving ourselves. Our toys didn’t define us, rank us or socialize us. They were meant to be played with. What else could a product from a company named Wham-O be?

By the way, it doesn’t surprise me that Wham-O was sold to a conglomerate in 1982, then later sold to Mattel, then later to a bunch of investors. Guys like Knerr and Melin, who started in their parents’ garages, are often bought out, left with memories, photos and a big check.

Just the same, I was sad to see Knerr’s obituary, because it reminded me of so many youthful things that have waved good-bye. I know when something drops out of style, they say “it went the way of the Hula Hoop,” but they shouldn’t mean childhood.

Dave Hoogerland

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post #2 of 6 Old Jan 27th, 2008, 11:33 am
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Thanks for sharing and the story.

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post #3 of 6 Old Jan 27th, 2008, 12:51 pm
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hoog62
We didn’t dream of torching the school, having sex with our teachers or getting back at enemies by destroying their reputation in cyberspace.
I dunno. I fantasized about more than one of my teacher's whilst growing up.



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post #4 of 6 Old Jan 27th, 2008, 2:26 pm
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thanks for that "breath of fresh air"

and that's a really cool story,
but I'll have to go wit Griff on this one, cause I had a really hot english teacher.


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post #5 of 6 Old Jan 27th, 2008, 3:17 pm
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Well said! Thanks for sharing that with us, Dave.

God bless.


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post #6 of 6 Old Jan 27th, 2008, 10:35 pm
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What a crock. I don't know what country Mitch Albom grew up, but it doesn't sound like any American town I knew. "No violence, noise, weapons"? Please. Kids who grew up in the 50's and 60's were playing cowboys and indians. We had metal six-shooter style guns with caps. Remember caps? Little paper bubbles loaded with gunpowder that would explode and had that great burned gun powder smell? We'd buck-up and the loser got to be the indians, LOL! When we got bored of that, we take a whole roll of caps, put it on a rock, and drop another rock on top. I got yer WHAMMO right here, mister. Of course, those realistic looking guns and caps are all outlawed now. Don't want to be too realistic, doncha know. Wouldn't be good for the kids. The other thing we'd play is pirates. The ship would be a tree house, and the pirates would carry big swords. "Aye Matey's, off with their heads!" No wonder today's kids are playing video games. You can't get the good stuff any more.

Hey, don't get me wrong. The Frisbee and Hoola Hoops were great. But don't try and tell me that's all we were playing with in the 50's and 60's. Boys have been staging wars, mock fights and blowing things up, and oh yes, getting the pretty girl since the beginning of time. It's in our blood, and no bit of revisionist history disguised as a eulogy is going to change that.

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-joel
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