The Men Who Invented Fun: A History of Wham-O

Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Getty Images

After selling more than 100 million Hula Hoops in 16 months, Arthur “Spud” Melin and Rich Knerr took a look at their books.

They were flat broke.

The Hula had been nothing less than an international sensation, hypnotizing adults and children into rhythmically twisting just to keep a plastic ring from falling to the floor. It was inexplicable. (It was also 1958, before the advent of more sophisticated distractions.) Kids, with their resistant vertebrae, had an easier go of it than some adults, who suffered hernias and slipped discs. Even in the face of abdominal injury, no one could resist the Hoop.  

But as quickly as it started, it was over. Wham-O, Melin and Knerr’s California-based amusements company, had set up so many factories and rolled out so many Hulas that the surplus of inventory robbed them of profits. Millions of rings sat in piles like gargantuan wrist bracelets. The company ended 1958 with losses of $10,000.

Melin and Knerr shrugged. There would be other fads, trends, and ideas. Wham-O took a fair share of wild swings in the marketplace. And when the novelty products missed—like the "Mr. Hootie" egg rake, meant to help users pluck out bits of egg shell from a cracked egg—at least Melin and Knerr managed to amuse themselves. But when the products hit, it made up for the lean years.

In an era dominated by toymakers who had been around for decades, Wham-O innovated or acquired revolutionary ideas: the Frisbee, Slip ‘N Slide, Super Ball, Silly String, and dozens of novelty items, all bearing their unique brand aesthetic. Melin and Knerr were boyhood friends, mugging for cameras and dreaming up ideas—like a mink button that could cover a woman’s navel—too ridiculous for larger companies to ever consider. Anyone, anywhere, could submit an idea to them and potentially get a royalty deal.

Litigation, changing tastes, and corporate shrinkage would eventually undo Wham-O. But not before Melin and Knerr wound up radically reinventing the concept of having fun.

Melin and Knerr showed entrepreneurial spirit early on. Both born in 1925, Knerr made rubber band guns out of apple crates and peddled them at the age of 9; Melin caught and sold halibut door to door. When the two became interested in falconry in their early 20s, they crafted a slingshot to shoot food into the air to train their birds. A local barber suggested they sell the contraption. After buying a hand saw at Sears, they started churning out the weapons and selling them via magazine ads in 1948. 

As business partners, Melin and Knerr had an easy camaraderie. “Spud was the quiet, kind of brainy idea man and more introverted,” says Lori Knerr, Rich’s daughter. “Dad was the extrovert, a more sociable people person, so he was the one who did most interviews and the PR in the later years. They balanced and complemented each other.”

Wham-O was the comic book sound effect they assigned to their ball bearings hitting a target, and a good name for a company that specialized in launching projectiles: blowguns, throwing knives, and tomahawks followed. The adolescent appetite for dangerous weapons and sporting goods was so large that the two were soon grossing $100,000 in annual revenue.

But Melin and Knerr didn’t seem wired for conventional products. Their bowling set consisted of a ball and pins that were sold empty and filled with water to add weight (the innovation also helped reduce shipping costs to retailers); a Wham-O game of catch involved a Pluto Platter, the disc-shaped saucer later re-named Frisbee that some people thought ran along strings; a cap gun that shot peas and beans at pretend cowboys. “Greatest toy invention in years!” ad copy blared. Rare was the tag line that didn't abuse exclamation marks.

Unlike their contemporaries at Mattel or Hasbro, Melin and Knerr didn’t have to navigate a corporate obstacle course. If they liked an idea, it could be implemented immediately. Their research and development team consisted of their kids. Commercials were shot in their own backyards. More importantly, they were actually having as much fun as people thought they were. Knerr once had a baby elephant delivered to Melin’s wife, Suzy, after Melin went on an African safari without him. Before the elephant arrived, he sent a telegram posing as his partner: “Am sending live animal home, please feed it and take care of it until I get home. Love, Spud.”

“An hour later, she sees Dad and another man from work walking up her driveway,” Knerr says. “Then this fake delivery truck arrives, Suzy couldn't see what it was. They had her sign for it first. The elephant was unloaded and the delivery truck left. She didn't know what she was going to do with it.”

An hour later, Knerr had the elephant returned to the circus. In a testament to his marketing aptitude, the stunt was picked up by local press.

Wham-O was also enjoying the creative freedom that came from the plastic injection molding process, a relatively recent innovation in the wooden toy business. The technology allowed them to dream up all sorts of packaged nonsense.

“It was like a new medium,” says Tim Walsh, a Wham-O historian and author of The Wham-O Super Book. “You’d never see a company making both toys and weapons now. But they wanted to see what they could do with it.”

In 1957, Toltoys of Australia brought the concept of the Hula Hoop to Knerr and Melin. Retailers in the United States were skeptical, but the two sensed a hit. They began demonstrating the toy in parks and on television, and the fad quickly went viral. Tens of millions of hoops were snapped up, with Wham-O racing to meet demand.

But knock-off artists had smelled opportunity. With plastic molding so inexpensive, hoop hobbyists didn’t necessarily have any brand loyalty—particularly if the generic was cheaper. By Melin’s estimate, the fad started in January 1958 and ended that October.

Instead of counting a fortune, Wham-O was sitting on inventory they wouldn’t clear for years. Were it not for a chemist and a former World War II spy, things might have stopped being fun.

Ed Headrick looked over the leftover plastic from the Hula implosion and had an idea. Wham-O’s Pluto Platter, meant to capitalize on the 1950s obsession with space and flying saucers, had a wobbly motion to it. If Headrick firmed it up and added ridges to make it more aerodynamic, they might have something.

The Frisbee was reintroduced in the late 1950s, this time as an athletic endeavor. Headrick—a veteran who spied on Nazi movements during World War II—paid college kids to toss the disc on campuses. He was a good player in his own right, earning the nickname “Steady Ed” for his even throws. Frisbee grew so popular that associations and canine variations became commonplace; the Navy experimented on them to see if they could keep flares in the air longer. (They couldn’t.) Real devotees were dubbed “Frisbyterians.”

But Headrick wasn't the only mad scientist on staff. Wham-O had a second secret weapon in Norm Stingley, a chemist who brought them a highly volatile compound his company had been working on. The kinetic energy in the material was substantial: it could bounce over a two-story home.

Stingley and the company spent two years trying to create a manufacturing process that would result in a stable ball (prototypes were prone to exploding). Once perfected, the berserk Super Ball sold six million units in 1965 alone. Five dozen were ordered by the White House. The ball became so popular that football's biggest game, the Super Bowl, was a pun on it. 

Wham-O would never have seen that success if not for their open-door policy: Anyone could telegram, mail, or show up in person with a toy idea. If it was good, the company would license it and pay out a royalty. (Stingley got a penny per ball.) The Slip ‘N Slide, Hacky Sack, and several others were also third-party ideas.

See more: 12 Wacky Products from Wham-O You Have to See to Believe. 

That wouldn’t fly in today’s toy world. “Every toy company has a submission policy,” says Walsh, who also designs games. “Most won’t even look at an idea unless it comes through an agency. Everyone is just too litigious. But Spud and Rich knew good ideas were out there and were willing to listen.”

Headrick was in charge of sifting through ideas, of which one in a thousand might be viable enough to pursue. It was a little like excavating for toy gold, but the results were worthwhile: Slip ‘N Slide, invented by an upholsterer, became one of the company’s biggest perennial sellers. Left strictly to their own sensibilities, items like the Bowmatic bow-making machine and the Super Foam Machine probably wouldn't have kept the lights on. 

Wham-O also benefited from the relative economic sense of advertising nationally. With only network channels to choose from, the odds kids would see ads for the Super Ball were substantial. “They knew if they spent the money, they’d see a return on their investment,” Walsh says. “You’re never going to see a toy that costs a dollar on television again.” The success of the Super Ball and Frisbee largely made up for Wham-O’s misadventures with the Hula Hoop—which, contrary to belief, wound up being a steady seller over time.

(L to R) Rich Knerr, Fred Morrison, and Arthur Melin. Photo courtesy of Phil Kennedy.

By the end of the 1970s, Wham-O had settled into a strange sense of complacency. All the funny product names—Fling-a-Ring, Zip Zap, Water Weinie—had been exhausted. Increasingly, kids were turning less to outdoor play and more toward higher-priced electronic offerings, which meant bigger profit margins for companies. And for every Super Ball they successfully marketed, there were a dozen or more imitators shaving away at market share. Of their new releases, only Magic Window, which displayed psychedelic patterns in grains of sand, was a bonafide hit. 

“People were gravitating towards stuff like Simon and Pong,” Walsh says. “They were more of an old-school company. There was a sense they had passed their heyday.”

Melin and Knerr were also faced with an unfortunate consequence of people trying to have a little too much fun: the Slip 'N Slide, intended for children, proved catastrophic to adults and teens who were too large to use it properly. When lawsuits were brought over serious injuriesincluding one death and two broken necksthe company ceased production. 

The two never publicly commented on the injuries, but for a company that was built on levity, it had to be sobering. When Hasbro tried to buy Wham-O in 1982, Melin and Knerr were responsive. The deal fell apart: That same year, they wound up selling their fun factory for $12 million to Kransco, an outfit that would later market Big Wheels.

Knerr, Walsh says, had seller’s remorse right away. The two stayed on as consultants for several years, but it wasn’t the same. By 1994, when Mattel purchased Wham-O, the San Gabriel factory was down to a skeleton crew keeping up production of only a handful of products. There was no one like Melin or Knerr sitting over a drawing board and trying to come up with an outlandish product.

Today, Wham-O is owned by the Aguilar Group, a private investment company, and still markets their trademark products. Melin passed away in 2002; Knerr, in 2008.  

“It was difficult for dad to see his friend’s health decline,” Lori Knerr says. “They were buddies to the end.”

Knerr and Melin left behind a considerable legacy in the toy world. They had no corporate ego, willing and happy to allow inventors like Springley and Morrison to pose with their creations. With some of their biggest successes selling for under a dollar, no one was priced out of enjoying them. They thrived in a time kids functioned outside, with hits like the Frisbee prompting people to break a sweat.

Most of all, the two were able to get away with something rare in the cutthroat world of toys: they had fun.

“I once asked Rich Knerr about stuff like the Mr. Hootie egg rake,” Walsh says. “They just did it because they thought it was funny.”

Indeed, throughout their careers Melin and Knerr refused to become corporate suits, forever hunting for things that made them smile. One bowling ball-sized promotional Super Ball wreaked havoc in an Australian hotel, putting a hole in the wall before accidentally falling out a window, bouncing 15 stories, and then crashing into a sports car parked on the street below.

They showed little regret. After all, the ball was unharmed. 

Read more: 12 Wacky Products from Wham-O You Have to See to Believe.  

Additional Sources: The WHAM-O Super Book.

Do You Know These Tiny Harry Potter Details?

A Gory Toy Story: The Horrible History of the Evilstick

iStock.com/EKramar
iStock.com/EKramar

When Nicole Allen bought a gift for her 2-year-old daughter the week after Halloween at a dollar store in Dayton, Ohio in 2014, there was little indication Allen should have inspected it prior to letting her child play with it. The toy was a princess wand topped with flower petals, with a cardboard package that featured a smiling female heroine and a suggestion that it was suitable for ages 3 and up. The back of the package promised buyers that the toy “Can Send Out Wonderful Music.” It appeared to be little more than a cheap trinket—the kind customers passing through a discount store might glimpse and toss into their cart without much thought.

Allen didn’t notice that the toy’s playful graphics obscured a somewhat malevolent name. At the top, in a juvenile font, was the official name of the product: Evilstick.

It wasn't until Allen got home that she found out why.

Instead of playing “beautiful music,” pushing a button on the wand’s handle activated a maniacal laugh—one made all the more disturbing by the product’s cheap, tinny speaker. Pressing the button also made the toy’s flower top light up, illuminating a piece of foil that was made transparent to reveal a horrifying image of a woman with pupil-less eyes miming the act of slitting her wrists.

The image would be alarming regardless of context. Stuck in a child’s toy and coupled with a light and sound show, it seemed like a cruel prank. Allen’s subsequent complaint made local news before going viral.

Four years later, the questions remain. Who made it? Was this macabre toy an accident of negligent bootleg manufacturing, or was it something more sinister? And why did an amateur sleuth close to uncovering its origins suddenly disappear from view?

 

For years, discount retailers have stocked inventory shelves with goods manufactured in China. The country’s notoriously economical labor costs can undercut most other wholesale suppliers, particularly when low prices are paramount.

But that tidal wave of product has a key and chaotic consequence: a lack of quality control. It’s virtually impossible for U.S. customs officials to inspect containers and single out counterfeit goods or items that infringe on a company’s intellectual property, leading to a significant problem with knockoff merchandise. Earlier this year, MGA, maker of the successful L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, filed suit against distributors of lookalike toys that were being sold for a lower price. It’s an uphill battle—with a Byzantine supply system, locating companies and pursuing legal remedies across countries and continents is a costly and frustrating process. While MGA has successfully held 81 dealers responsible for the fake dolls, dozens more continue to proliferate.

A photo of the Evilstick toy wand with the gruesome image visible

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 // Model photo courtesy of Butcher Ludwig

It’s this complex artery of distribution that presumably allowed Dayton Dollar Store owner Amar Moustafa to purchase a supply of princess wands dubbed Evilsticks in 2012. The “princess” appearing on the package was a character named Sakura Kinomoto, star of the late '90s animated series Cardcaptor Sakura and a popular manga protagonist in Japan. In a nod to Pokemon, fourth-grader Sakura has to retrieve a series of magical cards she accidentally unleashed on the world. While she didn’t wield a wand on the show, the package illustration had been altered so that she was holding one like it.

Speaking to news outlet WHIO in Dayton, Moustafa said he had been at a retailer’s convention when he made the deal for the inventory and that he didn’t recall who sold him the wands. They apparently remained in the store unnoticed until 2014, when Nicole Allen contacted WHIO to report her daughter had been troubled by the image hidden behind the foil wrap. For his part, Moustafa pointed out to WHIO that the “name on it was Evilstick,” and that should have been a tip-off. Allen argued the toy was placed on a rack adjacent to Barbie knockoffs and other kids' items.

Matt Clark, a freelance writer and Dayton resident, didn’t quite buy Moustafa's explanation either. Clark caught mention of the Evilstick via WHIO’s coverage and decided to see it for himself. “I knew where the Dollar Store was and basically made up my mind to go try to get one,” he tells Mental Floss.

Entering the store, Clark encountered Moustafa and asked where the toy was. “He seemed to know exactly what I was talking about and pointed to the back,” Clark says. There, Clark found a peg full of Evilsticks. Peeling away the foil that obscured the image of the suicidal woman to buyers, he found that not all of them featured the grisly photo. “There was one zombie-type character, but most of them were straight cut-out pictures from manga or anime, pretty cartoony and not scary at all.”

It was an intriguing discovery. The Evilsticks seemed to consist of an assortment of images, with the troubling photo placed at random. Whether or not you got one seemed as though it would be the luck of the draw.

Clark eventually found one bearing the notorious photo, bought it, then went home to make a brief 11-second YouTube video showing off the toy’s light-up feature and cackling laugh. “I actually just made it to show a buddy in Cincinnati,” he says. “I didn’t think it would be shared.”

But it was. The next morning, Clark’s snippet had 100,000 views. That led to a longer video review of the Evilstick that garnered 1.3 million visits. Clark had an otherwise unremarkable YouTube presence; the handful of other videos he made had garnered just a few thousand hits each. But with his introduction to the Evilstick, the internet had found a new obsession.

In the rapidly expanding comments section, Clark and his viewers began exchanging theories about the toy’s origins. They determined the image of the woman taking a knife to her wrists could be traced to a horror photographer named Butcher Ludwig, who posted the image on his website and on Facebook years prior. Taken in 2002, it was part of his “Macabre Muses” series, which depicted a vampire ready to feast on her own blood for sustenance.

“[The model] was about 20 at the time of the photo,” Ludwig tells Mental Floss. “I’m not even sure she knows she’s been so well-known.”

Ludwig did not give permission for his photo to appear on the toy. When he was notified of its existence, he says he was shocked someone had “massacred” his photo. Someone had taken his original image and given the model a pair of demonic eyes. Though it’s protected by copyright, it’s almost certain someone involved in the toy’s production saw his image online and downloaded it without his consent.

But who? Clark and his commenters tried searching to see if the barcode—the only real identifying mark on the Evilstick package—led anywhere. It did. “I tracked it down to a factory in China,” Clark says. “I contacted them through [online wholesaler] Alibaba and they said, yes, they made it. I wanted to see if I could talk to someone involved.”

Clark posted on his YouTube page that he appeared close to solving the mystery. People waited. He suddenly went quiet and never made another video again.

 

Quickly, speculation turned to the possibility of the Evilstick being a cursed object—one that had punished Clark for his curiosity. His last message, which mentioned he had things nearly figured out, resembled the words of someone who had flown too close to powers he couldn’t understand.

The reality was a little bit more mundane. “People were saying I had been killed by the curse of the Evilstick and that’s why I never made another video,” he says. “I found that hilarious, and it kind of made me not want to do anything more.”

The Chinese factory—Clark doesn’t recall the name—stopped responding to his emails asking for clarification, and the trail went cold. The alternative speculation was that it actually wasn’t a knockoff item at all but a deliberate act of product tampering. Like the poisoned Halloween candy legends of years past, it was conceivable that someone planted a gory image in a young child’s toy to be a nuisance or maybe to spin a new urban legend. After all, Allen and Clark were the only two documented people to have purchased the spookiest variant of the Evilstick.

A look at the image hidden in the Evilstick
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 // Model photo courtesy of Butcher Ludwig

But that doesn’t explain Justin Sevakis. The commercial home video producer had actually uncovered an Evilstick back in 2008, six years before the Dayton discovery. Sevakis was living in New York City at the time and came across the toy while shopping with a friend. Highly familiar with the anime industry—his company, MediaOCD, compiles Japanese-language series for U.S. releases—he recognized Cardcaptor Sakura on the packaging immediately.

“It’s actually a very well-known property,” Sevakis tells Mental Floss. “There was an American dub of the cartoon called Cardcaptors that aired on Fox Kids.” Taking the toy home, it sat in his living room, a perfect blend of Japanese anime iconography and a highly misguided sense of appropriateness. To Sevakis, there was nothing exceptionally sinister about the Evilstick. It was yet another consequence of bootleg manufacturing and a lack of attention to detail.

“Dollar stores are drenched in bootleg anime stuff,” he says. “Sailor Moon, Gundam.” While the gory photo was unusual, a cobbled-together knockoff was part and parcel of the counterfeit trade. “It even had a cheap feel,” Sevakis says. “Like you’d been handling fireworks.”

Sevakis’s earlier excavation of the Evilstick means aftermarket tampering is unlikely. The fact that so few people have come across the wand with Ludwig’s image means it probably appeared in just a small selection of the stock. Yet someone still went through the trouble of altering Ludwig’s photo to be even more upsetting. And while Moustafa was correct in that it was transparently named an “Evilstick,” nothing else about the toy or its material communicated it was a horror-themed novelty. It seemed calculated to disarm parents or children until it was taken home: In order for the sound and light to work, a tab protecting the battery had to be pulled first—a task most people wouldn’t bother with until after it was purchased.

Clark has since lost track of whom he was communicating with back in 2014. Ludwig, too, says he was able to locate the company via the barcode and exchanged emails with someone who said they could do nothing about his intellectual property rights complaint. Today, the barcode doesn’t appear to trigger any company of origin. The Evilstick seemed to swoop in, terrorize a small group of children, and then disappear without a trace.

Sevakis no longer has one. Clark rebuffed several offers to buy his before “renting” it out to an episode of the syndicated series The Doctors, which was eager to report on the morbid toy. He subsequently sold it to a buyer in Canada. “Obviously,” he says, “she’s been cursed, too.”

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