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?