This is the best line I've seen in an obituary for Richard Knerr: "He left behind a legacy of fun." That's from a report on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," and it seems to capture the essence of Knerr, co-founder of Wham-O Inc., the company that made a fortune selling Hula Hoops, Frisbees and other iconic plastic toys to a generation of baby boomers. Knerr died Jan. 14 at age 82.
Knerr and childhood buddy Arthur "Spud" Melin started a slingshot-selling business in 1948 in Pasadena and called their company Wham-O after what they said was the sound a slingshot made when it hit something. "They were like John Wayne and Ernest Hemingway all rolled into one. They were all about fun," recalls Richard's son, Chuck. Melin and Knerr had run a used-car store together in downtown Los Angeles before founding Wham-O. They started making slingshots, just for kicks, out of the ends of orange crates, Chuck recalls. "Then their barber recommended they put an ad in a magazine and try mail order," he says. At first business was slow — and the pair struggled to get by on just a couple dollars a day — but gradually the orders were pouring in.Some other Wham-O plastic classics include the Slip 'N Slide, Silly String, and Superball. The Hula Hoop has a beloved place in plastics history -- it was the first major application for Phillips Petroleum Co.'s Marlex-brand high density polyethylene.