Friday, January 20, 2006

Wah-moh? 

Or that is how I’d guess Wham-o would be pronounced in Chinese, now that a Chinese company has purchased the company famous for creating the Hula Hoop, Frisbee, and the ever-popular Slip ‘n Slide (which raised some hackles a few years ago when featured in the forgettable movie Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star – Wham-o actually filed suit against Paramount for copyright infringement).

There is a kind of irony in a Chinese company taking over a quintessentially American toy company. So many American toy companies owe their biggest successes to ideas that originated in other countries. Then they turn around and have their products manufactured in China.

But Wham-o, founded in post-war Southern California, seemed so American. They started with a classic and universal toy – a slingshot. Arthur “Spud” Melin and Richard Knerr named their company after the sound that was produced by a sling shot projectile hitting a target. Then they proceeded to develop some of the most classic and original toys this country has seen.

The appeal of Wham-o products, to my mind, has always been in the potential for using them in creative ways not recommended by the manufacturer. People have been using Frisbees to create new games (Frisbee golf?) and there is even a story of a Hampshire College student who in the 80s, earned a degree in “Flying Disc Entertainment and Education” At another college, a Slip ‘n Slide was used to demonstrate the concept of friction. There was usually a cream pie delivered to the hapless student/guinea pig at the end of the demonstration. There is an entire site devoted to the uses of Hula Hoops and the people who love them. (I ran across an article that said that the Chinese saw Hula Hoops as a health hazard, but I can't find the back-up material to support this statement)

Two Wham-o products that I haven’t seen for a long time are the Water Wiggle (1962) and the Air Blaster (1965). If you search on the internet for “Water Wiggle” you will find a lot of entries for a squishy hot dog sized toy that is just a latex tube filled with a viscous liquid augmented with glitter or small objects. The copyright on the Wham-o product name must have run out back in the late 70s when the toy was recalled for apparently causing the death of two toddlers. I never had the experience of playing with a real Water Wiggle. For some reason every summer I would come down with tonsillitis after playing in the sprinkler, so eventually outdoor water play was banned for me. I envied those kids in the commercials being chased around by the crazy buck-toothed Wiggle.

My brother had an Air Blaster. I vaguely remember the gorilla target, but I don’t remember my brother using it very often. His targets were usually his three sisters – preferably around the ears. Since this was a potential hazard to our delicate eardrums, it was grounds for suspension of play. I think my brother must have started making paper effigies of us to line up and shoot down.

One other Wham-o product that I remember was the original Superball. The invention of the Superball coincided with the Disney movie, “The Absent-Minded Professor”. I remember thinking that Superballs must have been pretty close to “Flubber” (the flying rubber invented by the main character). My uncle had the first Superball I ever saw. Even adults were intrigued by its qualities.

Until I checked out the Wham-o web site, I didn’t realize that one of the last great toys to be released by Wham-o, before they were sold in 1982, was Silly String (1972). I didn’t have any personal experience of Silly String until my daughter was about 5 or 6. Her cousin brought over a couple of cans and started a tradition of Silly String attacks with my husband. By this time I was a fretting parent who couldn’t see the fun value in the messy and possible chemically hazardous toy. And speaking of unforeseen uses, there is a story (most likely apocryphal) floating around the internet that says that soldiers in Iraq use Silly String to detect trip wires for booby traps.

But the point of this blog entry is to lament the loss of Wham-o as an American icon. Will the new Chinese owners understand American Wacky? Or was that actually lost when Wham-o ceased to be an independent toy company in 1982? We have a copy of a LIFE Magazine article (somewhere in the archives) about the founders of Wham-o. The founders and workers look like what now passes as retro-hipster – thick, black, plastic-framed glasses, crazy flat-top haircuts, no tie, short sleeve shirts. Each photo shows people (old people) having a lot of fun. Does “zany” translate into Chinese or will they just trade on the few tried and true Wham-o classics?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Toys from Trash and Pooping Santas 

Miss me? It has been a long time since I’ve blogged. I feel as if I was caught in the scene from “Ragtime” (the musical) where they depict the abuse of the assembly line workers (Speed up the belt!) I try not to inject politics into LATDA (since you endanger your non-profit status when you do – ask that church in Pasadena) but these are not times that are friendly to non-profits or cultural institutions. Funding is shrinking like never before. People around the world have suffered major catastrophes. Government money is going either out of the country or into homeland security. People are depressed and trying to get along with activities of daily living. Who has the time, energy or money to support the arts and cultural institutions that could educate people about other cultures so they won’t feel threatened by them?

Two things happened last weekend that reminded me of how long we’ve been working on making LATDA a reality. One was a photographic spread in the Los Angeles Times Magazine by Don Barteletti called "Toy Story". His six photo spread showed children in poverty-stricken parts of the world playing with toys that they created from the flotsam and jetsam of their spare existence.

The article reminded me of two early T(toy) – files that we started. The first was a COLORS magazine article on toys from around the world. I tried to order it from the web site but could never get their shopping cart to work or even a response from their email contact. There is a tantalizing preview of the stories on their web site, but maddeningly, no mention of dates or other details. There is a section on handmade toys from war-torn countries that is pretty interesting if you have the patience to deal with the flash components of the site.

Right after seeing the COLORS magazine, I attended an exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance (2001) called "Not Sold In Stores" Like the toys seen in the LA Times story, this exhibition consisted of toys made by children from cast-off trash. Ingenuity and creativity combine with the primal urge to play and results in some pretty fun toys. The version of the exhibition that appeared at the Museum of Tolerance was small and installed in an awkward, off-to-the-side location in such a way that it was impossible to walk around a display to read or view all of the artifacts. I kept wishing that LATDA could give the exhibit its due and devote a larger space for the exhibition as well as add some educational programming.

The best objects were soccer balls made out of wadded up plastic grocery bags and various types of netting to hold them together. One of the few statements that appeared in the display said that there was a preponderance of helicopter toys wherever they went. There was one made out of a gourd, one of wire and one made of wood scraps. There were some very interesting dolls. Two from Africa were made with what appeared to be real hair. What was strange is that it was thick, straight, black hair. Couldn’t tell if it was from an animal or a human.

One comment by one of the children was that he hoped to grow up and make “real” toys. I would like to have met that child.


Pooping Santas

This Christmas I bought a couple of toy candy dispensers (of questionable taste) for gifts. They were a pooping snowman and a pooping reindeer. The toy loads from the head and a gentle push of the head ejects a round candy from an appropriately placed hole in the base of the toy. The snowman poops white snowballs (although it was suggested that it should poop ‘coal’) and the reindeer poops red and green candies.

The corresponding T-file for LATDA was brought to my forebrain today when I found a Pooping Santa among the post-Christmas toys at Y-Que in Los Feliz. It reminded me of the Toy Museum of Catalonia in Spain.

When LATDA was in its conceptual stage we did a lot of research of toy museums of the world via the internet. One Google turned up a page of the Toy Museum of Catalonia. At the time none of the site appeared in English. It consisted of photographs of several small clay figures called ‘caganers’ which translated to ‘crappers’. There were crapping priests, nuns, sea captains, wise men, mothers, couples and even a Santa. They were very graphic representations that left nothing to the imagination as to what they were doing. The puzzling thing was what connection they had to a toy museum!

I saved the link for some time, but it disappeared one day to be replaced by a multilingual web site for the Toy Museum of Catalonia. (Spend some time on this site…it is truly delightful!) Over the years the web site has changed, but there was never any reappearance of the caganers.

With this recent discovery of the crapping Santa candy dispenser I was inspired to search for the meaning of the caganers again. And what a difference three years makes! Not only did I find references to the caganers; it seems that there was an exhibition of the collection from the Toy Museum of Catalonia at
Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts up in Napa in 2002! (Although how it fit into their mission statement is something I’d like to hear more about. There is even a web store in Spain that offers a great selection of caganers including one of George Bush.

An article by API writer, Sarah Andrews, explains that the 18th century tradition of the caganer is connected to the nativity displays in Spain. Caganers are hidden in the elaborate nativity scenes and the game is to find them all. They supposedly symbolize the re-fertilization of the earth.

Needless to say the Pooping Santa did much to re-fertilize my brain.

Happy New Year and thanks to all you LATDA supporters who renewed your memberships! Your dollars and faith in us are keeping us going!

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