LOS ANGELES -- In the ups and downs of the toy business, who's to tell what contraption will catch the eye of a child?
Smurfs? Cabbage Patch Kids? Pogs? Who'd have thought it?Now for the latest craze. The toy of the moment is a toy of the past, a relic from the bygone days of jacks and marbles. Kids have rediscovered the yo-yo, a gadget that until recently lay dormant in junk drawers or collecting dust on dime-store shelves.
Signs of its resurgence are everywhere. Natural Wonders in the Northridge Fashion Center has a waiting list for yo-yo string. Yo-yo aficionados swap tips on the Internet. More than 40 kids gather every Saturday at Golden Apple comics in Northridge to learn new yo-yo tricks.
And in playgrounds and school yards around the country, children of the '90s are gathering to show off their latest yo-yo skills.
"When somebody has it, everybody wants it. It's addicting," said Sharon Bar-Noy, 13, of Canoga Park.
Who could have predicted in this age of Internet-savvy 7-year-olds, a little plastic disc with a string attached could regain its status as the gizmo most often seized by teachers?
"It's driving us nuts," said Ken Handler, assistant principal of Portola Middle School in Tarzana. "I've got a drawer full of them right now."
To be sure, technology has helped yo-yos come whirling out of oblivion.
Yo-yos were everywhere in the '50s and '60s. Contests and demonstrations were common. Then the yo-yo started its downward spiral. In 1965, Duncan, the yo-yo pioneer that started mass-producing yo-yos in 1929, went bankrupt, a victim of competition from Frisbees and Super Balls and a lost legal battle over its trademarked name.
Duncan was bought by another company, Flambeau Products, that continued to sell the discs, but the yo-yo was headed for a fall.
The 1970s brought the string that broke the yo-yo's back: video games. Kids discarded low-tech toys like yo-yos and Hula Hoops and started feeding their allowance money into video games like Pacman and Frogger.
Then in 1980, Michael Caffrey patented "the yo-yo with a brain" that causes an automatic return when the spin slows to a specific rate. While old yo-yos had a fixed, wooden axle, the new yo-yo has a clutch, weight and spring device that brings the yo-yo back up to the hand automatically, letting rookies learn advanced tricks.
Next came a trans-axle yo-yo with a metal axle and a ball-bearing, allowing for reduced friction and longer, faster spins. Cold Fusion, the Maserati of yo-yos that sells for about $150, is of this type.
It set the record for the longest "sleep" -- when the yo-yo remains spinning at its lowest point -- for seven minutes, eight seconds, unheard of with old style yo-yos.
It's this "sleep" phase that lets you do tricks.
Yo-yo makers were also determined to pull the little toy back up through more aggressive marketing.
Four years ago, Duncan Toy Co. started advertising on Nickelodeon and sponsoring major kid draws like World Wrestling Federation matches, said Mike Burke, marketing manager.
They sent a lesson plan to 80,000 science teachers, showing them how to use yo-yos to teach students about the scientific method, the pendulum and basic physics, then offered yo-yos for students at a discount.
As the popularity of yo-yos took an upswing, companies started coming out with novelty and limited-edition yo-yos -- gold-plated yo-yos and those made of aircraft aluminum and yo-yos with scorpions, killer bees and shark teeth imbedded in the face.
"I call them coffee-table yo-yos," said Bill Liebowitz, 57, owner of Golden Apple comics and a yo-yo champion in Brooklyn in the '50s. "They're for collectors. They just look so good."
As a boy, Liebowitz worked as a demonstrator for Duncan yo-yos, earning appearances on "Howdy Doody" and "The Steve Allen Show."
But as he passed into manhood, it got harder to find anyone interested in seeing his tricks.
"I would offer to do tricks and nobody would take me up on it," he said.
Things are changing.
Every Saturday afternoon, Liebowitz runs a yo-yo clinic in his Northridge store, where he carries a full line of yo-yos. About 40 kids show up to play.
Or, rather, to learn.
"We take this stuff seriously," Liebowitz said.
Back when he was winning contests, stunts like "walk the dog" and "baby in the cradle" were about as advanced as you could get.
With the new, technologically advanced yo-yos, "kids are doing them within a week," Liebowitz said.
Some of the kids at the Saturday gathering are first-timers. Others are true-blue enthusiasts whose goal is to join a yo-yo travel team and compete nationwide in competitions.
A yo-yo champion from Japan is coming to offer some hints at Liebowitz's yo-yo clinic Saturday. Yomega, a yo-yo company, fields its own team that travels the country doing demonstrations.
Best friends Robbie Uslan and Derek Wyatt, both 10, want to get on it. Their mothers are behind them -- they wore "Yo-Yo Mom" T-shirts during a recent yo-yo demonstration the boys and Liebowitz put on for the students at Castlemont Elementary School in Woodland Hills.
"We practice and practice until we can get the trick," Robbie said. "Before school, all day at school, at recess, after school. I try to practice as much yo-yo as I possibly can."
From Tamagotchis to Furbys, kids know what they like, and they'll make sure parents know, too.
"If I go to the mall and I have $20, I would probably go for a yo-yo first before a Beanie Baby," said Sharon, who was introduced to yo-yoing by her 9-year-old brother, Adir. "I don't know anybody who can stand watching someone using a yo-yo for a while and not want to try."
Tzipi Bar-Noy, mother of Sharon and Adir, has resorted to hiding the yo-yos just to get the kids to do their homework.
"It's amazing how kids are getting attached to it," said Bar-Noy, whose children have badgered her into buying several dozen yo-yos. "If they don't have it, it's like they're missing a meal or something."
For many yo-yo aficionados, the reasons for yo-yos' new-found popularity are obvious.
"It doesn't require batteries. It doesn't require set-up instructions. You can carry it anywhere you go. It's very affordable," said John Small, 48, who runs the Southern California Yo-Yo Club in Valencia from his store, Kite Ranch.
For yo-yo men like Liebowitz, the thrill of this second coming of the yo-yo is passing on the memories of their childhood to a new generation of yo-yo lovers.
"This is a talent I've had that I've only been able to whip out at company parties and family gatherings, and they thought I was a freak," Liebowitz said. "Now I'm the king of the 8-year-olds. My wife says she's never seen me happier."