'I remember going to the drugstore on Ingraham Street in Crown Point. They used to have yo-yos displayed in boxes. You'd go up to the shelf and pick up a yo-yo. They let you try it out. I remember selecting one with a stripe on it. That was the one I liked."
Bob Malowney, 57, is recalling a childhood yo-yo memory. He was born and raised in Pacific Beach, is a graduate, in Fine Arts, of United States International University, now a Scripps Ranch stakeholder known as Alliant International University.
I should say, before we go much further, that Malowney is director of the National Yo-Yo Museum and puts on, annually, a National Yo-Yo Contest. Hie thyself to nationalyoyo.org/videos/ and you will be invited to click upon moving pictures of humans doing yo-yo tricks. Prepare yourself for wonderment.
All this is happening in faraway Chico. Malowney moved there in 1971 seeking a smaller community and a cheaper place to buy land. We talked by telephone on the eve of this year's tournament. First question, "So, you moved to Chico and then what happened?"
Malowney says, "We started a screen-printing company. Ran that for 25 years before I sold it to one of my employees. We opened Bird in Hand [toy, gift, and clothing store] ten years after we started the printing business. For 15 years we had a foot in two different boats going at different speeds in different directions," Malowney laughs. "My wife and I said, 'Which one do we want to have later on?'"
"Do you recall the first time you thought, 'I'm gonna sell yo-yos.'?"
"Yeah. At my desk," Malowney says. "I pulled out a yo-yo I had from childhood. It had a ratty string on it. I would walk the dog and walk the baby and occasionally pull it out and do a couple tricks. I thought, 'Wow, I have a toy store...why don't I sell yo-yos?' That was '86, '87. I tried to find yo-yos to sell. They were nonexistent. So, we started making yo-yos with a woodworker.
"When we showed people the yo-yos they said, 'I haven't thought of a yo-yo in a long time.' Everybody only knows three tricks. Add 'round the world' and you've got everybody's full repertoire. But, every day, for two weeks, somebody came into my store and showed me a trick I'd never seen. Then, Tommy Smothers shows up on TV in '88 [with yo-yo], the year we had our first contest, and all these middle-aged people saw him, said, 'Wow, this is great.' We started having yo-yo contests and people came. And Chico is fun, reminds me of Pacific Beach in the '50s.
"Something else happened. When all the middle-aged people came back to yo-yos, they brought their technical expertise. So, engineering of the yo-yo went through the roof. It spins faster and spins longer now. The tricks that a group of kids started in '96, '97, and '98 have mushroomed. The body of information and styles of play and manufacturers all mushroomed in the late '90s."
This year Malowney's event expects to draw 1500 yo-yo believers to Chico. Anyone can compete in the Sports Division; just show up. At least 200 contestants will compete in the Championship Division, be required to perform 25 impossible String Trick Ladder tricks and 25 really impossible Looping Trick Ladder tricks. Some of the two-handed, two-yo-yo tricks are an affront to nature.
Malowney interrupts my thoughts, says, "I was talking to a few people who arrived yesterday. One's saying, 'This is my 14th straight year.' The other one says, 'This is only my 9th straight year.' It's kind of a pilgrimage."
I say, "I had a yo-yo when I was a kid. Don't remember what happened to it. Haven't thought about yo-yos until yesterday. Was there an interval when yo-yos were abandoned, like hula hoops?"
"The sleeping period," Malowney laughs. "A couple elements contributed to it: greed and television. In 1959, one of the yo-yo companies started advertising on television and made tremendous sales. Prior to television there was the traveling demonstrator going to the five-and-dime, standing out there on a Saturday, showing kids how to play, and then selling them a yo-yo. Now, television sold yo-yos. Everybody started infighting, and the companies sued each other into bankruptcy.
"You couldn't get an improved yo-yo because no one was making any. People were using yo-yos that were already made, or hand-me-downs from an older brother. Also, finding tricks was hard. You had to find somebody who was hot in the '50s and hope he would show the tricks.
"Yo-yo playing stopped when kids turned 16 or 17. Wags said kids were lost to the fumes. Car fumes and perfumes. Well, it's not that way now. Kids today don't see it as a childhood activity but as a sport."