A TOY CREATOR DIES, BUT FUN ALREADY HAD

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, pronounced “nur,” was the cofounder 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.

A simpler time for fun

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 younger than 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.

Wham-O’s ultimate endgame

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 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 and 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.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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