Ups and Downs of The Yo-Yo Pro
Interview with Charlie Windstorm in his backyard.

 

Melinda: How did you start yo-yoing?
Charlie: Yo-yo's have always had a way of going in and out of popularity. When I was about ten years old it was one of those times when all the kids were playing with yo-yos. .. All the other kids at school were better than me. Right near the grammar school I was going to there was a little dime store and the Duncan yo-yo company did these promotions where they sent out a yo-yo player to just about every town in America. They would go out and travel around. They would go to places like the drug store/dime store near a grammar school, wherever they were selling yo-yos near a school and they would hold a yo-yo contest. And the yo-yo guy was an absolute hero to us all. He was just the ultimate adult. He had the best job you could possibly imagine. We thought these guys were millionaires. The guy who came to my neighborhood, his name was Gus Somera, he's actually a legendary yo-yo man. At the time, as a kid I knew he was a well known yo-yo man, later on as I got older and looked back on things and found out more about Gus and the history of yo-yo's and things - he's a really big deal.

Gus was an immigrant from the Philippines and at that time and for most of the history of the Duncan yo-yo company their demonstrators were mostly guys from the Philippines. Gus was very fond of coming to New Orleans which is where this was because there's a huge Philippines community in New Orleans and apparently he had relatives there. He came by one year, and he would do about three appearances, space 'em like a couple of days apart in a couple of different places and then he'd move on to the next town.

Like I was saying, I was no good. I'd go to the contests and I'd try but I'd get skunked every time. And then, I remember, one week I saw his poster up at a store near the school saying there was going to be a yo-yo contest but it was going to be on a Saturday which was really unusual...I thought to myself, not many people are going to show up at this one. And then when I was at school later that day I didn't tell anyone I saw this poster. Saturday came around and it was just me and two other kids that came to see Gus. He started the contest but the last trick in it is 'the man on the flying trapeze', and I had never been able to do that trick. Never ever. Here I'll show you what it looks like.

(He demonstrates)

Melinda: Oh that one, yeah ok.

Charlie: And it came my turn to do it and I just kind of closed my eyes and I got it. I was like, whoa I got it. I couldn't believe I got it. Gus was keeping score and I really wasn't paying attention to the score I just figured I was gonna lose, you know. And then he's got this brief case with him which was another big deal about these yo-yo guys is they'd have a brief case... The first prize is this big eagle patch. It was like gold you know. And he takes out the eagle patch and he's walking towards me with it and he's kind of chuckling and I cannot believe that I won this patch. So I go home and sewed it on my jacket right away and I get to school Monday all the kids are like where'd you steal that from Charlie , you didn't win that.

... The interest died off and I guess in high school I didn't play with it at all, I was into things more like music and girls and pot. But then for some reason when I came up here to go to college I brought it with me and just started playing with it again. I wasn't really trying to be the best or anything, I was just workin' on my stuff or actually more like just wasting time when I had it to waste. ...new types of yo-yo's were being invented in the early 90's which sort of revived interest in it. Contests started happening again.

I was at the world yo-yo contest in Las Vegas and it was a pretty amazing thing. .. unexpectedly to anybody involved. There was a huge contingent of kids from Japan and Hong Kong and Hawaii - it was a really exciting contest. I was the oldest person in it. The winner that year was a 17 year old girl from Vermont. She totally whipped my ass. That was really a big deal too - for this young girl to win this world championship contest. I didn't do too well in the contest but I always make it a point to look really good when I'm on stage. There were some people there from Yomega and they saw me there and they were looking for people to be on their yo-yo demonstration team.

At the time they were doing a whole lot of work in Detroit so they just immediately sent me to Detroit. From there on I began working as a full time demonstrator going to grammar schools. Amongst ourselves, between myself and the tour manager and the people at Yomega , to ourselves - what we're doing was very crass. We're going into these schools and saying look at these cool yo-yos come and buy them. That's pretty heavy duty. When Duncan was doing these promotions up until the seventies, they would only go near the school not right inside the school and tell the kids to buy yo-yo's. Not among ourselves - we were doing is a public service to the schools, where we show you how to achieve your goals in life. Sort of a motivational speech. And they especially wanted me to emphasize stay away from drugs, because that was a really popular message, easy to get away with - and play with yo-yos.

But the truth is I would like huff two joints before I went into the school because I couldn't stand being around them.
(laughing)
(various talk about Nike basketball and Playstation now both in schools near you)

At that time the yo-yo market in the US for domestic retail sales at major toy vendors was over 50 million dollars and most of that market share belonged to Yomega. I was amazed at the amount of money the marketing people had. By 2000 it was down to 4 million.

Charlie: Some of the worst experiences I had were in the inner city area of Cleveland.
Melinda: I'm from Cleveland.
Charlie: Oh man. I think it was the worst place I'd ever been in my life. I had always sort of been ambivalent about any place I'd been before but man I just could not believe...well I was doing a yo-yo demonstration at one of these schools and I could tell it was a bad atmosphere. The teachers obviously had a hard time controlling the kids and were always shouting at the kids. And this was at the end of the day. I do this demonstration - I have a small table with me and I set all my stuff up. And I timed it so when I finished the school bell would go off. ..The bell goes off, all the kids stand up, the teachers - everybody else leaves and the kids rush the stage and start stealing my yo-yos.
(laughing)
Those little fucking bastards.
(laughing)
Melinda: Did you feel threatened? Did you just back off and let them take what they wanted? Or did you try and fight them off?
Charlie: I started shouting at them. And you know they ran off in every different direction after they snatched them.
Melinda: So they took your yo-yos.
Charlie: Yeah the ones I played with in the show. I made my way to the principle's office and explained to her what had happened and one of the teachers went out and found one kid who took one of my yo-yos. Afterwards, the way I felt I never ever felt so bad about what I do. I felt like I went in and showed them something I enjoy and love and I just made them jealous and made them want to steal from me. It made me feel horrible.

Melinda: So you were with Yomega for a year and then what did you do?
Charlie: When things started slowing down with Yomega I was in Cleveland and the headquarters for The Duncan Yo-Yo Co. (which is actually Flambeau products), is in a suburb of Cleveland. I started talking with them, I had friends there...what they were looking for at the time was not a demonstrator but someone to work back office stuff in their marketing department.

Working for them was a total nightmare. It was really, really, truly horrible. At the same time I was determined to tough it out just for the sake of working at Duncan Yo-yos. Which was not the Duncan that Gus Somera worked for. This was a completely different company owned by different people who had just bought the name. The Flambeau Company, they make plastic products...fishing tackle boxes duck decoys...Duncan is simply a very small part of a very large plastics manufacturing company.

...It was fun to go to the national contests and stuff to represent the company and it was fun to be a part of the history of the company...It put me in a place in the yo-yo community...at the time I felt like I was going somewhere...

Right from the time I arrived at the Flambeau corporation I saw some really bad behavior, corporate behavior. It had to be the most sexist, racist poisonous atmosphere I had ever worked at. I'd see people getting whacked after years of service with no reason. This was their shitty corporate way of dealing with laying off people. Rather than giving them severance or making them think they might be able to apply for unemployment, we'll just tell you you're a piece of shit, you're incompetent - you're fired. And that's the way they would lay people off. And that's the way they laid me off. And it came out of the blue just like it did to everybody else I saw who they did it to. It was even worse than that though cuz there was this guy, a demonstrator, who I hired a few months prior to my getting fired who I thought of as a friend. When they brought me into the meeting room to fire me one of the main things they kept bringing up was all this shit the guy was talking about me...well and you know who has my job now...Its sad. It was a big fat mean lesson in don't mix what you love with your career.

Melinda: Do you miss it?
Charlie: Yeah, I miss being able to use that skill in a way that's valuable. To me that was very rewarding. ..To be able to put on a show for a very large audience of kids that was very much the kind of thing that I remember from Somera.

Melinda: To me it's seems kind of an obsession, you must have spent hours practicing right? That just fascinates me - what about the yo-yoing is satisfying?
Charlie: I know how visually fascinating it is but that's not why I do it. I have a huge collection of toys. Even before I worked for Yomega I wanted to work at a toy company, I still do. ..I look back on my childhood and I never really enjoyed that much of it but one of the few things I did enjoy was the yo-yo. When I picked it back up again it probably had something to do with wanting to enjoy myself the way I did as a kid. And then there's a certain amount of skill that it takes that is impressive to me the and grace of the action of the wheel.

...Back when Duncan was a growing company, before they went bankrupt and were bought by Flambeau, they got to where they were by being real mean son of a bitches. They would do what Flambeau is still doing which is buy the smaller competitors, force them out of business and absorb their brands. If they couldn't do it easily they would do it with sabotage. They had some demonstrators who were not actually demonstrators at all. Duncan had a couple of competitors - Royal and Cheerio - and they would try and do demonstrations near a school. Duncan would send this guy named 'Punchy'. He would show up about an hour before the Royal guy was supposed to get there. When the Royal guy showed up he'd rough him up, intimidate him. punch him out if necessary. Then when he'd leave he'd take all the royal stuff down and have a Duncan contest.

Melinda: I didn't know yo-yos were such a cut-throat reality.
Charlie: Yeah.

(When Charlie was fired from Duncan he was not allowed to even re-enter his office and could not take anything from his desk. They found his clean urine sample that he kept handy for random drug screen tests and they have subsequently slightly modified their policies.)