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Hudsucker Industries Proves No Match for Wham-O

March 06, 1994|JUDY BRENNAN

Wham-O generally makes anyone planning to use its trademark toys run through countless legal hoops, but when it came to Joel and Ethan Coen's "The Hudsucker Proxy," getting the corporate vote was practically a snap.

The San Gabriel-based makers of the Hula-Hoop and its parent Kransco Group--known for its aggressive litigious behavior when it comes to protecting its trademarks--saw a potential windfall with the Coens' plans.

The 36-year-old hoop, which plays a pivotal role as the brainchild of star Tim Robbins in the film opening Friday, was the country's first fad toy, launched in 1958 after Wham-O's founders, Arthur Melin and Richard Knerr, saw Australian kids using a bamboo hoop in school exercise and decided to spin off a lighter, plastic version of their own. It far surpassed the sales of their flying disc, the Frisbee, which had been introduced a year earlier. The first year, 20 million Hula-Hoops were sold. By the close of 1959, the number twirled past 100 million.

The plot of "Hudsucker" spins on the real-life success of the toy. But the Coens' version has darker tones. A 1958 business-school graduate, Norville Barnes (Robbins), takes a job at Hudsucker Industries in New York, where the founder has just leaped from a 44-story window. Hudsucker's board plots to take over the profitable company by putting a simpleton--Barnes--at the top to ruin Hudsucker, driving down the stock so they can scoop it up and take control. But Barnes comes up with a toy, the Hula-Hoop, that's a wild success, derailing their scheme.

The plot was dark enough for the Kransco Group to demand this disclaimer at the end of the film's credits: "The foregoing was a fictional account of development of the Hula-Hoop and the characters bear no resemblance to any real person or business concern. The Hula-Hoop was actually developed by the founders of the toy company Wham-O a true American success story. Wham-O was subsequently responsible for the development of the Frisbee and numerous other toy products."

"They wanted to make sure the hoop would not be used to hurt or maim somebody," says Pat Murphy, the Coens' attorney, who negotiated with Kransco for use of the hoop. "We sent them a one-page synopsis outlining how we would use the toy, and they wanted to see the script. It was an amusement for us, since their requests really had nothing to do with the Hula-Hoop."

"We are very protective; if you aren't, you lose your mark--just look at aspirin and the escalator," says Stuart Schneck, vice president and general counsel for Kransco. "But Barbie, Disney and Nike are even worse than us."

But why the Hula-Hoop?

"Barnes had to surprise everybody with an idea that seemed idiotic," says producer Ethan Coen. "And what he came up with was this circle, the hoop, that became the quintessentially wild, fad toy. The Hula-Hoop just fit."

At the end of "Hudsucker," guess what toy pops up as the next brainstorm product of the dimwitted Barnes--and guess who planted the idea?

" I suggested the Frisbee at the end of the movie," says Schneck. "Pretty clever, don't you think?"

The prospect has Schneck smiling. While Wham-O did not ask for any money for the rights to use the Hula-Hoop, it also didn't have to fork any over for what is undoubtedly the product-placement coup of the season. The company, in fact, is planning major advertising tie-ins with the movie, and hopes to reinvigorate the hoop fad. As Schneck says: "No can lose."

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