At 94, JOAN ANDERSON, the subject of the new documentary short Hula Girl, is finally getting her due for helping kick off the country’s hoop mania six decades ago. She spoke with us from California.
When did you first spot the hoop?
It was 1957. I was visiting my family in Sydney, Australia, and while I was at my sister’s house, I heard people in the back room laughing and carrying on. I said, “What’s this all about?” and my sister said, “It’s a new kind of toy called the hoop.” People all over were doing it. It looked like fun, but it was really hard. I couldn’t do it at first.
Did you bring one home to Los Angeles?
It wasn’t possible to bring one on the plane, but I told my husband about it. He had dabbled in the toy business and thought it might be something he’d be interested in producing, so I wrote to my mother and asked her to send me one. The man who delivered it to the door said, “Who would have something like this delivered all the way from Australia?” I’ve often wondered if he put it together that it was the first hula hoop.
What did your American friends think of this wacky Australian fad?
We had the hoop at our house for months. The kids played with it and we showed it to our friends. One night one of them said, “You know, you look like you’re doing the hula.” I said, “There’s the name: hula hoop!”
You showed the hoop to the founders of the Wham-O toy company.
Spud Melin interviewed us in the parking lot of the Wham-O plant in San Gabriel Valley, and I showed him how to use it. He said, “Is there anything else you can do with it?” He took it and kind of rolled it to see if it would come back to him. “It’s got possibilities,” he said. The next thing we knew, Spud called from a show at the Pan-Pacific in Los Angeles: “It’s crazy around the booth. Everyone is trying it. It’s really gone wild!”
Did you make a business deal?
It was a gentleman’s handshake. “If it makes money for us, it’ll make money for you,” Spud said. “We’ll take care of it.” Well, they didn’t do a very good job. We were involved in a lawsuit with Wham-O. In the end they said they lost money, because the sales died suddenly.
Today, no one knows about your part in creating the hula-hoop craze.
In the beginning, everyone knew. Then I think they began to wonder if that was true or not, because we didn’t get any recognition for it. Wham-O was the one that made the hula hoop big, but we brought it to the United States. I’m thrilled that the story—and the movie—is out there now.