The Grand Martial of the 2000 World Yo-Yo Contest

This year we are honoring Harvey Lowe, a major player in the history of American Yo-Yoing. Harvey won the first World Yo-Yo Contest in 1934. He was a demonstrator for the Cheerio Yo-Yo Company. The Attached interview with Harvey will tell you some more about him.

The First World Champion

How did you start yo-yoing?

I was going to school, just as any 12 year old kid in 1931. I bought a Duncan 77 for 35. I practiced a little bit and I got a feeling for it from the first day I played with it. Many people had a hard time making it go up and down. I seemed to be able to make it go after a very short trial period. They had corner store competitions in those days. I won some Duncan badges to begin with. They used to give away transistor radios, but they didn't have any, so I got a badge. I got a lot of Cheerio badges too.

The yo-yo was a big thing then, bigger than the hula hoop ever was. I would say everyone between 12 and 18 had a yo-yo in their pocket. But when the boys began to go out with girls, they no longer played yo-yo. 10, 11,12, you can get them. But the companies would say that you couldn't get 14 year olds to play.

So Cheerio hired me on. Because I was under 16 years of age they had to hire a "teacher" to go along with me. He never taught me anything, but he had fun showing me the sights. After a while I had traveled all over Canada for Cheerio. That was my education from age 11 to 12. To begin with, I won every contest conceivable in Victoria. They had maybe only about 10 large department stores then. Then I went to Vancouver, won all the contests at a place that later on became Woolworth's; it was that many years ago.

Finally, they offered me a trip to Europe. We were going for the World Championship in London. Each of the yo-yo companies, Duncan and Cheerio and all, had their own demonstrator to vie for the World Championship. They spent a lot of money giving us the lessons and everything because they were making money, lots of money, selling yo-yos. We stayed in Toronto for three months, training on the roof of the Ford Hotel on Bay and Dundast Street. I think that hotel's gone now.

They had about 12 representatives in all at that London show. I won that one because it just happened that I looped and my string didn't break. That's all. The runner-up, Joe Young, lost it like that. He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He represented Canada and I represented China. After all, you couldn't have two representatives for one country.

What came after the Championship?

After the training in Toronto I had become pretty good at two-handed, but I wasn't suppose to tell anyone that I played two-handed. Then after the World Championship, I began to loop them, two handed crossed. Blindfolded, too. It's just like what you are doing now, you know. You spend quite a few hours a day doing it and in a couple years you're a genius. I was working, demonstrating, and in demonstrating you are practicing. Usually, though, you don't think about new tricks because people ask you about the fundamental tricks. You just teach them Walk the Dog and they're happy. Rock the Baby, and they go crazy. They go home telling their parents all about it.

From 1932 to 1935 I was in Europe. I even taught the Prince of Wales how to play the yo-yo, but the Royal Appointment Authority would not allow us to publicize that. Cheerio said they made so much money that I got to go all the way back home for Christmas to Vancouver, from London, from Paris. They treated me like a king. Our hands were insured for $150,000... and in the old days that was a lot of money.

That's a lot of money now.

They used it to publicize: "Harvey Lowe's hands are insured for 150,000 ..." I think it was pounds. It was so far back I can't remember.

That's still a lot. You said that after your yo-yo days, you went back to school in Shangai.

My mother said, "Well, you look Chinese, you better learn some Chinese." I didn't even know how to write my own name in Chinese. I had made enough money, so I went through the university in Shanghai.

After I graduated, my brother and I owned a radio station. I became a radio broadcaster because I was the only one who could speak decent English. Well, I wouldn't say broadcaster . . . "announcer", more or less. I didn't have to make up my own shows, I just read the news ticker tape. The English-speaking public was around 200,000 in the Shanghai International Settlement at that time in the 1930's. We lost the station during the Sino-Japanese conflict. The Japanese took it over when they came in and took over Shanghai.

I didn't leave China until 1949, though, when the Communists came in. I went back to yo-yoing right away. Nothing else to do, I couldn't get a proper job, so I went on a club circuit travelling around the north, like in Portland and all. Played yo-yo all around the circuit and had a lot of fun, too. Not much money in it, though. I didn't work for any particular company, they just billed me as the "World Champion Yo-yo Player" at the time.

What where those gigs like?

They were pretty good, a lot of fun. They had these vaudeville shows in these nightclubs. They were 'bottle clubs', you know. You come in there and people got a key to their own tiny locker, these baby lockers, and they'd lock the bottle in there so when the cops come around they'd say, 'No, I don't know whose that is, man.'

Was there any time before this when changes in yo-yo technology had a big impact on the yo-yo industry?

No big changes during my time. You see, I'm an old pro on the wooden thing and I stay by wood because when I do a double loop and cross them, I still like the feel of a pair of wooden yo-yos. The plastic ones, they can do a lot of other things, but they can't beat the old wood for straight demonstrating. "The Old Reliable", we called 'em.

I've talked to a lot of people that are touting the transaxle as a giant change in yo-yos. Do you think things are going to change much with this?

Oh yeah, sure. At first I didn't want to admit that transaxles were something good. I didn't want to look at them. But the tricks that you do now, that's impossible with wood. It's high tech now. I mean, you're the high tech man, and I wish you a lot of luck, too, because you're in the new age now. So I'm not a young man anymore but I feel very young talking to you. You're 24, I get along with you well and I'm 80. (laughs) I almost have to have a cane to walk on, but I look up to you guys for those very fancy tricks.

Special thanks to the National Yo-Yo Museum for the loan of the photo of Mr. Lowe

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