Thomas C. Reyes, 83, traveling yo-yo wizard

October 05, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Thomas C. Reyes, one of the last of the yo-yo demonstrators who traveled the country popularizing the novelty toy in the early 1930s, died Friday of pancreatic cancer at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore. He was 83.

His wizardry with a yo-yo made him the Duncan Toy Co.'s World Yo-Yo Champion of 1932.

Time had not diminished his skills. He could still perform the classic yo-yo repertoire -- the loop-the-loop, walk the doggie, rock the cradle, shoot the moon and skin the cat -- and inventions of his own, such as the doggie bite, which featured the yo-yo running down the string then back up and grabbing the pants pocket.

Or he would attach a piece of sandpaper to the side of a yo-yo, do the loop-the-loop and fire it at a hand-held wooden match, succeeding in lighting it. He could handle two yo-yos at once, performing a different stunt with each.

"Dad never used to miss. He could do 1,000 loop-the-loops without stopping," said a son, Robert Reyes, in a 1991 interview in The Sun.

Born in Iloilo, the Philippines, Mr. Reyes left school in the 10th grade and became a merchant seaman. During World War II, he participated in the invasion of Anzio, Italy. He retired as chief steward in 1970.

In 1931, Chicago entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan Sr., who owned a yo-yo factory in the Philippines, hired Mr. Reyes and 40 of his compatriots to travel the United States demonstrating the yo-yo to stimulate sales. The toy became a national craze.

"He would travel all over the country by car, giving demonstrations in dime stores, mom and pop stores and in theaters, and holding contests," Robert Reyes said. "The champion would win a brand new Schwinn bicycle."

Stuart F. Crump Jr., editor of The Yo-Yo Times in Herndon, Va., said, "There was always excitement when the sign went up that said, 'Duncan yo-yo man will be here.' Without those yo-yo men, it would never have become popular."

Donald F. Duncan Jr., the entrepreneur's son and president of the Pro-Yo Yo-Yo Co., said, "There are only a handful of these demonstrators left, and their job was to market the product. They were real pioneers."

In 1950, when yo-yos cost 15 cents and a quarter, Mr. Reyes and his team of eight demonstrators sold $100,000 worth during a three-month stay in Boston. By the 1960s, the yo-yo craze was ending and Duncan lost its exclusive rights to the word "yo-yo" when courts declared it a generic word.

Mr. Reyes' skills won him some celebrity. In 1991, he performed his tricks when the Duncan family's yo-yo collection was shown at Marley Station mall. In 1993, he met the Smothers Brothers, who were performing at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The "Yo-Yo Man" was a feature of their act, and they had asked to meet him.

In 1953, Mr. Reyes married the former Virdie Gordon, and the couple moved to Lansdowne. She died earlier this year.

Services were scheduled for 11:45 a.m. today at the Ambrose Funeral Home, Third Avenue at Hammonds Ferry Road, Lansdowne.

In addition to his son Robert, Mr. Reyes is survived by three other sons, Thomas C. Reyes of Cockeysville, Joseph L. Reyes of Ferndale and Philip M. Reyes of Pasadena; a daughter, Elizabeth A. Reyes of Lansdowne; a niece, Rosie Lamanosa of Scottsdale, Ariz.; and six grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 43025, Baltimore 21236-0025.

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