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Hula Girl
by Karen Pecota

The energetic and healthy, 94-year-old, Australian born, Joan Anderson has been an unknown in the American toy annals for over sixty years until now. The famed film producer/director married couple, Amy Hill and Chris Riess shed new light on the buried true-history of the Hula Hoop in their new documentary short Hula Girl. The story tells how Anderson brought the original Hula Hoop to the U.S.

Joan was raised outside of Sydney, Australia and a well-known teen swimsuit and sweater model. In 1945, Joan was sunbathing at a near-by beach, when a U.S. Army Air Corps P-38 pilot Wayne Deforest Anderson was enjoying the sun at the same beach, while on leave from his post in Guadalcanal. The two exchange pleasantries and off into the cold ocean water Joan goes to get rid of the soldier boy. Annoyed that Mr. Anderson was waiting for her on the beach after an hour-long swim where she nearly froze to death waiting for him to leave the beach, she relented to see him again. Four months later they were married and moved to Pasadena in 1946. 

Ten years later Joan was spending the Christmas holidays back home with her family and old friends. While at a party she found her friends having so much fun laughing and giggling over watching one-another swiveling their hips in the middle of bamboo exercise rings.

A few months later, she asked her mom to send her one of those rings for her four kids and ... herself. The Andersons would bring out the ring at dinner parties because it really was 'fun for the whole family.' One of their friends mentioned that the hip-swinging motion reminded him of the Hawaiian hula dance and Joan immediately named it the Hula-Hoop.

Wayne, former fighter pilot turned business man in the toy-world, introduced the hoop to Wham-O, co-founders Arthur "Spud" Melin and Richard Knerr. Wayne was in the woodworking machine business and often would sell machines and offer manufacturing advice to the two toy merchandisers, Melin and Kneer.  Wayne trusted Melin since they had done business together for years.

In 1958, the Andersons decided to market their Hula-Hoop as a toy product; they took it to Melin to get his advice. He agreed to borrow their hoop and study its possibilities as a product. They signed no official agreement but made a gentleman's hand-shake. Joan said, "Melin said leave it to me. If it makes money for us, it will make money for you." Over the next few months the two worked long hours to perfect the product, then Melin stopped returning Wayne's phone calls.

The summer of 1958, Wham-O introduced the Hula-Hoop at the Los Angeles county fair and it was the most sought after toy of its generation. Author Richard A. Johnson, in his book "American Fads" says, "No sensation has ever swept the country like the Hula-Hoop." It made $100 million for the toy manufacturer, Wham-O, in the first year alone.

The Anderson's constantly asked Wham-O for royalties they deserved but the company only squeezed out a few hundred dollars here and there more like a stipend. Joan kept detailed records of every conversation and consultation, receipts for the items Melin purchased to make the hoops and the check stubs, all which helped prove Anderson's case but in the end they only received a total of $6,000 that included payments prior when requested royalties.

Saddened to be taken advantage of and treated so disgracefully, Joan says, "Why be angry with something you can't change? The world isn't fair but life goes on." She adds, "I had a great life. My husband lived to be 87 and we had 63 wonderful years together. Happiness is the best revenge."