For six decades, the toy has had its ups and downs


September 20, 1991|By Lorraine Mirabella

Tommy Reyes pursed his lips and with a few flicks of his wrist the yo-yo looped, spun, darted and skittered in front of a crowd of gaping kids and parents.

It didn't matter that 20 years had passed since he'd last shot the moon, walked the dog or rocked the baby. The 80-year-old Filipino immigrant -- Duncan Toy Co.'s World Yo-Yo Champion of 1932 -- hadn't lost his touch.

K? He stood in front of the Duncan family's yo-yo collection,

on display at Marley Station through Sept. 28. Called "The Return of the Yo-Yo," the exhibit spans six decades of musical yo-yos, rhinestone-studded yo-yos, Batman yo-yos and trendy neon yo-yos.

For those who can't quite "yo," there's a yo-yo with a brain. For those who'd never believe it, there's a 265-pound yo-yo, the world's largest, which "yo-ed" successfully over San Francisco Bay.

Remember the days when every kid on the block had to have a Duncan Yo-Yo? The nostalgic toy that's spun in and out of vogue since the Depression has found a new generation of enthusiasts and last year, roughly 12 million were sold.

When he heard of the collection -- gathered from attics anclosets by the son of Donald F. Duncan, the man who popularized the Filipino toy -- even Mr. Reyes, retired and living in Lansdowne, dusted off his 1950 Duncan Imperial on Tuesday and headed to the mall.

The original Mr. Duncan's son, Donald F. Duncan Jr., was therfor a brief appearance as well -- and the two men reminisced about the heyday of the Duncan Yo-Yo.

Back then nobody could "Loop-the-Loop" or "Walk the Dog" like Tommy Reyes, a young merchant seaman from Manila who had learned from other Filipinos.

Now his "Shoot the Moon" zipped spinning disks toward onlittle girl, who shrank back slightly. Few in the crowd could spot mistakes as the yo-yo obediently landed in the master's gnarled palm. Only Mr. Reyes son, Robert, noticed a flaw, saying, "Dad never used to miss. He could do 1,000 Loop-the-Loop's without stopping."

The yo-yo man in the plaid jacket shrugged off the applause. He was rusty, out of practice, he said, a shadow of the former professional Duncan demonstrator who crisscrossed the country, teaching thousands of children to play.

"It reminds me of the old days, when I was competing," Mr. Reyes said.

And in the exhibit, among the old black-and-white photographs, Mr. Reyes found a surprise: his picture. In the faded photo, he's a bit thinner, with a bit more jet black hair but he's standing, smiling with the 41 other original Duncan demonstrators.

Mr. Duncan, the Chicago entrepreneur who named the toy th Tagalog word for "come come," never dreamed he would launched a national craze. Instead, he thought people might laugh at the silly-looking wooden disk. Before gathering the nerve to make his first door-to-door sale, he walked a city block three times.

His idea was to create demand by teaching kids how to play. Then to sponsor contests; but to enter Duncan contests at local stores, kids had to practice. To practice, they needed yo-yos.

Hence the young Filippinos were hired by the Duncan companto tour the United States, dazzling children with tricks like Flying Trapeze and Happy Landing.

As a demonstrator in the 1930s, Mr. Reyes drove from city tcity, staying for six to eight weeks.

"When we'd get to town, we'd flood the city with yo-yos," Mr. Reyes said. "We distributed them in drug stores, grocery stores, five-and-dime stores. It attracted a lot of attention. You'd sell the yo-yo like hot cakes."

Indeed, after three months in Boston in 1950, Mr. Reyes and hieight-man team sold $100,000 worth of yo-yos -- at 35 cents apiece.

By the mid 1960s, the yo-yo's popularity began to wane. Duncan lost its exclusive rights to the trademark name when the courts declared "yo-yo" generic. In fact, Duncans don't even make Duncan yo-yos any more. Mr. Duncan, who died in 1971, sold his company in 1968 to Flambeau Plastics, which makes Duncan Yo-Yos today. The junior Mr. Duncan makes his own yo-yo, called the Pro-Yo.

But a yo-yo by any other name is still a yo-yo -- and the toy's `` recent resurgence doesn't surprise Mr. Reyes. "Kids are always interested in the yo-yo," he said.

Anyone can use one, added Mr. Duncan. "It's a wholesome item. It appeals to boys and girls. You don't have to be tall or weigh 200 pounds."

Best of all, he added, "You can fit it in your pocket."

Or in your briefcase.

As one fortyish exhibit visitor confessed to Mr. Duncan, "I still carry a Duncan in my briefcase -- it's great in the office. My wife thinks I'm crazy."

Mr. Reyes knows about yo-yo crazy. And he has found that you're never too old.

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