The games that Americans play these days often involve ultra-realistic, high-tech video sports and combat simulations. We still dabble with archaic games like solitaire and chess, but more often alone on our personal, hand-held, electronic devices than facing flesh-and-bone competitors at a table.
But 50 years ago, when life was much slower (at least as we nostalgically remember it) families actually sat down for hours and played meandering board games like Monopoly and Parcheesi. Kids swung on playground swings, climbed on metal monkey bars, played baseball and basketball and pretended they were big-league stars.
Into this age of innocence came Richard Knerr, a California inventor. He was 32 in 1958 when he and a buddy developed a — what would you call it, a device? — that would become a national sensation like no other before or perhaps since.
It was a startlingly simple wide ring made of plastic called the Hula Hoop. Knerr said he got the idea from Australian bamboo exercise rings. Inside were little rollers that helped stabilize the hoops and produced a steady rattling sound. Somehow you'd get this lightweight ring rotating, using only your hips. The idea was to keep the Hula Hoop twirling as long as possible. You looked like a Hawaiian hula dancer, all right, but mostly just hilariously foolish. We loved every minute of it.
Within four months, Knerr and his friend's company, called Wham-O, had sold 25 million Hula Hoops. Wham-O also scored with other winning products like the crazy-bouncing Superball and the Frisbie, a plastic disc that people (and their dogs) still chase around parks and beaches.
Wham-O had losers, too, like a kit to make plastic great white sharks.
Richard Knerr died a couple of weeks ago. One obituary called his life's triumph, the Hula Hoop, the granddaddy of American fads.