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WHAM-O: An Early History

Whamo The name Wham-O comes from the sound that a slingshot missile makes when it hits the target.

That’s what it sounded like to the founders of that company, anyway.

This brief history of Wham-O is straight from The Boomer Book of Christmas Memories, which will hopefully be on sale by June, 2013.

Rich Knerr and Spuds Melin (real name Arthur), the guys who started Wham-O and invented the hula hoop, were destined for entrepreneurial success . . . or juvenile hall. Even as children, they both showed signs of marketing ability: Knerr used to make rubber-band guns out of fruit-crate wood and clothespins, then sell them to neighborhood kids; Melin once rigged a clothesline with 50 hooks, attached the line to a rowboat and went fishing. He then iced and sold his catch—fresh halibut and bass—up and down the street, from a wagon.

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As teens during World War II they met and formed a quick bond; they once got arrested for throwing rotten oranges at each other in Pasadena, home of the Rose Parade. Both went to USC (no small feat) then decided to go into business together. They tried importing goods, reselling cars (still a rare commodity in those first years after the war), and finally, raising, training, and selling falcons.

How do you train falcons? Well, Spud Melin actually had some experience at that.

During a two-year stint in the Air Force, he’d raised hawks and used a slingshot to knock down blackbirds to feed to them. Now, the two entrepreneurs used slingshots to shoot meatballs up like rockets, and hoped the falcons would dive at them. People offered them good money for the slingshots, not the birds, so Knerr and Melin shifted gears.

“We purchased a Sears band saw for seven dollars down and seven dollars a month and started our business in my parents’ garage in Pasadena,” said Knerr.[1]  Seriously. Did you think computer nerds were the first to set up a workshop in such circumstances?

Rich Knerr cut the slingshots and Spud Melin sanded them. Both men went door to door, but sales were low until they paid an old college friend to draw up an ad. The payment was three beers, the ad ran in Popular Mechanics, and it brought in orders.

whamo3

For the ad, Melin and Knerr had to think of a name for their venture. Thus, Wham-O was born in 1948.  (This ad photo is from the Slingshots.net website)

When the boys of Wham-O set up their garage assembly line, they paid their old college buddies in beer to help them sand and paint.

Advertising in more magazines (like Field & Stream), Wham-O, the sporting goods manufacturer, did quite well. Sales of $100,000 a year allowed Wham-O to move from the garage to an abandoned grocery store, and then to its own building in San Gabriel, California.

Slingshots had started 75 cents each but the price quickly doubled, and the company also sold hunting knives, tomahawks, boomerangs, and crossbows—mostly by mail order.

lens4410782_1241705439Wham-O_FrisbeeWham-O had been in business for a few years when Knerr and Melin saw a guy playing with a Pluto Platter on the Santa Monica beach and asked about it. The Pluto Platter had been bought at the Los Angeles County Fair, which was still going on. Knerr and Melin headed over to the fair to find and meet Fred Morrison.

While Wham-O tinkered with what eventually became the Frisbee, they found another toy that took off: Hula Hoops. The world-wide Hula Hoop fad left the Wham-O folks reeling. They actually didn’t make much money on it, but they sure learned a lot, and they put that marketing know-how into practice to grow their company.

Melin-Knerr1965NYTThe Wham-O building grew into a 171,000 square foot complex with a rail spur so that brought trains right up to the loading docks. The place became known as the Fun House, for good reason. Frisbees, Hula Hoops, Slip ‘n’ Slides, Hacky Sacks, Silly String, Super Balls,  SuperElasticBubblePlastic, and all the other toys, the practical jokes, and the stories contributed to an atmosphere where anything could happen. Employees loved working there, and brought their own kids in to help test the toys.

WHAM-O SUPERELASTIC AD 1970Even now, the San Gabriel place is remembered fondly, but the owners retired in the 1980s. Knerr died about five years ago and the 1965 picture of him (above, on the right) and Melin is from his obituary in the New York Times.

Wham-O went through several different owners, and currently (as far as I know) operates out of Emeryville, CA as part of The Aguilar Group  .


[1] Quote in the 1963 book A Toy is Born by Marvin Kaye

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