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Metrpolis / Fixations

One-Man Swat Team

A Good Paddling Can Be Highly Entertaining

April 21, 2002|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Dan Volk of Monrovia never owned a paddleball as a child, but he's made up for lost time in a big way. For "Bouncin' Dan the Paddleball Man," getting a little rubber ball to bonk off of a wooden paddle is no transient puerile fancy. It's an identity.

Watching the Bouncin' Dan act, which Volk performs for parties, festivals, amusement parks, museums, corporate events and the occasional TV commercial, you're grateful there are no swords involved. Volk, 55, smacks the ball up, down and sideways. He bounces it off his head. He bounces the ball under his legs while dancing the cancan. He activates multiple paddles. He ricochets a ball into his shirt pocket. One caroms off of Volk's forehead, another rebounds into his mouth. "I'm just getting started here!"

Volk got his initiation into paddleball in 1976, at 29, when he landed a promotional gig for Coca-Cola that lasted 12 years and took him to 20 countries. "They did both paddleball and yo-yo promotions, and I had to perform both. It was a job skill," he says. After that, he briefly promoted yo-yos, paddleballs and tops for the Hummingbird Toy Co. in New York before creating the Bouncin' Dan persona.

The paddleball was created in the 1920s after the invention of soft rubber, Volk says, sparking a craze that peaked in 1937, when the toy was featured in Newsweek. The best-remembered paddleball may be the Fli-Back, "the one with the picture of a cowboy on a bucking bronco," says Volk, who recently acquired the abandoned trademark of the Hi-Li, a popular '30s name.

The nostalgic allure of paddleball is a good fit for a whimsical man who eschews contemporary fads in favor of vintage-style bowling shirts and retro black plastic glasses. Volk's collection of about 200 paddleballs dates to the '30s, and his binder of arcana includes photos of kids playing paddleball next to presidents Eisenhower and Truman.

"In a movie, if they want to show someone wasting time, it's the prime example of moronic activity to have someone playing with a paddleball," says Volk, who cites Marilyn Monroe's paddleball routine in "The Misfits" as the toy's prime cinematic appearance. While the Nintendo era would seem to have relegated the paddleball to the status of boomer nostalgia item, Volk says the toy still sells about 5 million per year in the U.S. For him, at least, the magic will never die. "I've been treated like everything from a great artist to a pathetic freak," he says. "I don't mind. I worked the Ohio State Fair last year and that was a lot of fun."

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