Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

Discoveries: Chico's all over the yo-yo

02/12/2012 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 10:33 AM

CHICO – Some time ago, when Alex Trebek's people telephoned the gregarious Bob Malowney, he might have considered saying he'd have his "people" call them back. Just to, you know, mess with those haughty TV types.

But "Jeopardy!" researchers sincerely needed information on yo-yo history, and Malowney takes his yo-yoing seriously, so who was he not to oblige?

Though too modest to admit to it, Malowney is a veritable font of yo-yo lore, a scholar of the spinning art, the go-to guy for a pastime that has had its ups and downs but always provided generations of kids-at-heart like him with endless delight.

If you're passing through Chico, or staying the weekend in this lovely college town, be sure to drop in on Malowney, 63, a docent deluxe who likely will spin the "Jeopardy!" yarn for you.

"They asked me about whether the yo-yo was once used as a Filipino weapon," he recalled. "You go to (the book) 'Ripley's Believe It or Not' in 1953, and it shows this guy sitting up in a tree with a water buffalo down there and he's going to bonk the buffalo on the head with the yo-yo."

A total urban (jungle?) myth, Malowney told them.

"Physicists tell us that the string, unwinding as it goes down, actually slows the yo-yo, so it wouldn't be a good weapon," he explained. "Are you gonna use it as a tethered cannonball? OK, if you threw something that would kill a water buffalo and if you missed, it's coming back to you "

Malowney paused, as if to let the mental picture of the hunter getting plunked on the skull by his own weapon sink in.

"But ("Jeopardy!") used the question anyway, I came to find out," he adds as a kicker. "Maybe the category was 'Urban Myths.' "

Malowney's National Yo-Yo Museum, housed in the back of his downtown Chico eclectic toy store and boutique, Bird in Hand, is certainly no myth – though some of the yo-yo aces honored therein certainly border on the mythic.

All the oldtimer greats are represented: Pedro Flores, the Filipino American from L.A. who coined the name yo-yo and marketed the first orbs; impresario Don Duncan, a veritable Donald Trump of yo-yoing; Barney Akers, Mickey Parkinson and other unforgettable oldtimers; and, it goes without saying (but we'll say it anyway), Tom Kuhn, the San Francisco visionary who brought yo-yoing into the 21st century with the first use of ball bearings.

If you haven't heard of any of these guys, well, shame on you and your cultural myopia. To rectify it, a trip to Malowney's museum is in order. Malowney says his shrine to wood and twine is one of Chico's three top tourist attractions, behind the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and ahead of the Bidwell Mansion.

Once there, you'll find that yo-yoing is hardly some fringe activity or a passing fad like the Hula Hoop or Slip 'N Slide. To many who go gaga over yo-yo, it's a cultural touchstone, a heaping helping of Americana.

Don't believe me? Check out one wall of the museum, where there hangs a poster of yo-yo-toting President Richard Nixon, "walking the dog" (and we don't mean Checkers) at the Grand Ole Opry in the early 1970s. Not 15 feet away is another poster of Yippie radical Abbie Hoffman doing a yo-yo trick at the 1968 Democratic convention (presumably before his arrest).

Ah, the yo-yo: bridging the generation gap.

Other celebrity yo-yoers are feted, too: Comedian Tommy Smothers, whom Malowney says was responsible for the pastime's resurgence in the 1980s; and country music star Roy Acuff, who could "rock the baby" as well as rock the fiddle.

And, yes, Malowney himself deserves a place in the yo-yo pantheon.

In the 1980s yo-yo resurgence, Malowney was one of the first retailers to sell the toy (it was strictly mail- order for two decades after the bottom fell out of the yo-yo market in the late 1960s). He and his wife, Barbara, served as yo-yo ambassadors in a traveling exhibit that stopped in shopping malls from Seattle to Miami. In the 1990s, he launched the National Yo-Yo Championships at Chico's town square, which draws thousands each October. And, of course, he's the curator of that hallowed space, the museum.

Spend an hour with Malowney and you'll get served so much yo-yo arcana that your head will go loopy like the object of interest itself.

Did you know, for instance, that until the late 1950s, the Duncan company owned the copyright on the term "yo-yo" and that competitors had to name theirs things like "Flying Twist," "Filipino Twirler," "Dipsy Dipper" and "Streamline"? (After a lawsuit, yo-yo is now a generic term.) And did you know that today's yo-yos are made of the finest quality aluminum and that experts often go "offstring" with tricks?

The biggest attraction, literally, is the 256-pound wooden (California sugar pine, Baltic birch and maple, if you must know) yo-yo built by San Francisco's Kuhn on a lark in 1982. It sits smack in the middle of the museum floor. There is, of course, a story behind it.

"The TV Show 'You Asked for It' wanted to shoot the yo-yo in action, so they went down to Pier 39 (in San Francisco) for a demonstration, put the crane over the water and the crane dropped the giant yo-yo down," Malowney said. "But the string broke. It went into the water. But it floated."

That's no urban myth, folks. It really happened. Malowney has the photo in a glass case to prove it.

About This Blog

Sam McManis has covered travel and recreation at The Sacramento Bee since 2011, criss-crossing California to report on interesting, humorous, unexpected and sometimes truly strange stories. When he's not driving all over the state for work, Sam likes to run on the many mountain trails California boasts. Reach him at or 916-321-1145. Twitter: @SamMcManis

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