In his younger years, Bill Zamboni demonstrated the family penchant for invention by designing a pressurized wineskin. He developed a prototype with a hose to squirt the wine into his mouth, then abandoned the idea after concluding "the market would be a little too small."
Perhaps he gave up too easily, for more recently he has cultivated a market for an invention that at first blush seems even more obscure: a hat leash.
It's a 10-inch-long strip of nylon cord with a badge clip attached to one end and a loop at the other. Bill has taken out a patent on it. Last year, he and his younger brother Don sold more than 10,000 of them. It will keep your baseball cap attached to your collar, if not your head.
With such an unlikely product, the Zamboni brothers are following in the creative footsteps of their grandfather, Frank J. Zamboni, who invented the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine that has become a fixture at intermissions of hockey games, as well as a standing gag in the "Peanuts" cartoon strip.
Just as Frank Zamboni designed the resurfacing machine because he wanted a quicker way to groom the ice in his Paramount skating rink in the 1940s, Bill Zamboni dreamed up his hat leash because he tired of losing his favorite baseball caps to the ski slopes.
"I just needed it myself," said Bill, 30, who lives in Long Beach. "I used to work at a ski resort. I love to ski with a baseball hat, I always have." But when he whizzed down the ski slope, the hat would whiz off his head.
Finally, in 1985, he took action: he got a piece of string and a couple of alligator clips, attaching the back of his cap to the back of his collar. From such humble tinkering came what is now officially known as the Kap Keeper.
His friends asked him to make some for them. Then a buyer from Mammoth Mountain, a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada, inquired about them. He and his brother started assembling them in his brother's Bellflower garage. They were in business.
At a suggested retail price of $3, the Kap Keeper is perhaps the cheapest thing to be found on a skier. But it's not just an inexpensive gadget, Bill stresses, "It's a functional product" that can save untold heartache along with your cap. He recounts the tale of the man who lost his cap this winter while on the slopes. "He went to get it and skied into a tree and broke his leg."
If only he'd had a Kap Keeper.
Both brothers work part-time on their hat leash enterprise, while holding jobs elsewhere: Bill with a liquor distribution firm in Hollywood, and Don with a company that manufactures machines that wash airplanes. They also have a part-time employee who handles marketing, and they pay someone in Bellflower to make the hat leashes on a piecework basis.
They have dreams of getting bigger, of going beyond the skier market to rein in the other wandering caps of this world. They are introducing the leash to boaters and fishermen, and they have approached professional baseball players, but there seems to be some concern that a $3 hat leash may get in the way of a multimillion-dollar home run swing.
But there's always the Little League.