Saturday, July 7, 2007

Memories of Gus Somera and the Old-School Yo-Yo

I still have the Yo-Yo Champion patch awarded to me by the legendary Gus Somera.

I won it in competition when I was a kid, (6th grade, perhaps?) one hot afternoon in the parking lot of the local 7-11 store.

Perhaps you recall when the ads would suddenly appear on TV, promoting Duncan Yo-Yos and all the amazing tricks you could do.

Apparently it meant 'Yo-Yo Season' was fast approaching, and Duncan's team of 'Professional Yo-Yo Stars' were on tour, coming soon to YOUR town!

I'd remembered Gus Somera's name from the same crop of ads from previous seasons. Maybe there were other familiar names, but to my mind Gus was clearly 'the man'. And lo and behold, there he was that one afternoon.

I think by 6th grade I was just beginning to think I was too old to get excited by such events, or that it was perhaps uncool to actually participate. (As I recall, in junior high it was uncool to participate in most anything) But Gus was too cool, and I was thrilled to join in.

There's Gus, ⬇ below in a photo I found at Mr. Yo-Yo.Com. Looks like it was taken several years earlier than when I saw him in the mid-1970's. He's demonstrating Duncan tops, which I can't imagine ever sold as well as their yo-yos.

I recall he was very jolly, and really good with all the younger kids. A professional. He wore a yellow blazer that made him look like a real estate agent, and he had dozens of replacement yo-yo strings draped around his neck.

He informed all us kids that we were going to have a contest and there'd be prizes, but first he'd teach us some tricks.

Before he got to that, he stressed the importance of knowing how to take proper care of your strings. You're not going to do any tricks with a messed-up string. He showed us how to replace it, how to loosen it or tighten it, and kept stressing the value of proper yo-yo hygiene. It was sage advice, and I've never forgotten it.

After replacing all our strings, he ran through basic tricks; sleeping, around the world, walk the dog, rock the baby, etc.

One thing he seemed to delight in was a trick I *believe* he may have called the shot-gun.

He'd be doing a trick that involved 'sleeping' the yo-yo, and while we watched, the yo-yo would quickly hop onto a length of string now draped along his forearm, pause a moment, and then suddenly shoot along his arm towards our faces. At the last moment, it would smack loudly into his palm, scant inches from our noses. As we jumped back startled, Mr. Somera would cackle with glee. His laugh sounded like Pat Morita as Arnold at the drive-in on 'Happy Days'.

I didn't know it then, but Gus Somera was just about as big a yo-yo celebrity as you could find in those days.

He was one of the original Filipino
yo-yo demonstrators, going back to the early 1930's when the Duncan company was beginning to promote its new product.

Donald Duncan had purchased the
yo-yo company and the name from Pedro Flores, a Filipino American who'd had better success at popularizing the toy in the U.S. than others who'd gone before.

Flores had grown up with similar toys in the Phillipines, and early marketing of the yo-yo touted it as having originated as a primitive weapon in the Phillipine jungles.

Duncan hired and trained Filipinos to act as product spokesmen and travel the country
demonstrating it.

An interesting career.

Gus' obituary clipping above was swiped from an article appearing at Ausgang.⬆ Lest you think the life of a Yo-Yo Man is all peaches and cream, here's a link to their interview with another who's lived the life.

-And here's a link to further facts about yo-yo history.

That day in the parking lot, when it came time for all the kids to have their yo-yo competition,
Gus Somera was of course the judge. I'll have to say he was very forgiving. I'm sure there were several kids whose skills were better than mine, but I think most everybody received at least a 'champion' patch or a sticker or something.

I can't imagine I could have succesfully accomplished any tricks more advanced than 'walk the dog' or 'rock the baby'. Still, a victory is a victory, right?

-Here's a link to a glossary of modern yo-yo tricks.

Predictably, the world of the yo-yo has changed much since back in my days of competition. (Okay, one day) It's gone 'extreme', like everything else.

It occurs to me that what I remember playing with is akin to the old surfers with the enormous, long and heavy wooden boards. Or the old skateboards with metal wheels. I haven't a clue what differences recent history's innovations in yo-yo technology have made. Clutches? Pre-set sleep mechanisms? Whaaa? These kids today...

But the results are amazing, even to a codger like me.

Check out this completely radical video clip of Grindslave in action, from the Yo-Yo Freaks website.

And here, ⬇ complete with a cheering crowd moved to their feet, is Paul Han at a 2006 chamionship. Yow!!!

Somewhere, I'd like to think that Gus Somera is cackling proudly.

ADDENDUM, 1.13.09: Hey! There's Gus now, below ▼ in a video clip of a Duncan Yo-Yo TV ad from 1976!


Anonymous said...

Oh wow. I won a patch just like that in the late '60. The contest was held in the parking lot of the local "Kress's" 5-10 store.
Sadly, that was the highlight of 5th grade for me,an otherwise invisible child. DL Summit, NJ

Anonymous said...

I had very much the same experience as you.
I'm the guy who was interviewed on Ausgang. I could have said hours more about Gus than I said about myself. Much like you, I learned so much about the importance of maintaining a good clean, well tied and well wrapped string from Gus. He was my hero, and when I grew to fill his shoes . . . well, like you said, it wasn't all peaches and cream, but I wouldn't trade it for a billion dollars.
If you'd like to contact me, stay in touch, see my youtube channel, username: yoyopro

Anonymous said...

Gus lived just down the block from me when I lived in Chicago Il,,,He taught me a lot also ,,we had contests and he gave us patches,,Great memory's

Anonymous said...

He would come to our play ground in elementary school in Des Moines. He would tell us of a contest outside the local pharmacy. He'd show us some tricks and if we had our YoYo with us he'd carve a design in it. A bird and some leaves. Best I ever did was a second place patch, I was proud of that.

Anonymous said...

He was at the pharmacy by our grade school in Pittsburgh one day. Must have been 1974 or 1975. We were on our way to get Swedish Fish and Topps Football cards as I recall and one of my friends recognized him from across the street. All of a sudden about 10 of us were running all out to greet him. He laughed at the site and was soooooo nice to all of us. He wore his yellow blazer of course! We were in awe and all of us had our yo-yo with us. That is a memory that comes back to me every so often and remains a grade school highlight.

Jim Lewis said...

Gus Somera lived across the street from me on 43rd Keating in Chicago Ill. We had neighborhood competitions. He would pass out patches to the winners. He was the best when it came to showing what could be done with a Duncan Yoyo.

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