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Yo-yos do what comes naturally

It's a truism in the toy world that what goes up must come down. Cabbage Patch Kids? Gone to seed. The pet rock? Sunk. Beanie Babies? Soft. The Hula-Hoop? Doesn't get around much anymore.

The yo-yo, though, defies all the logic about toy fads. In seven decades the humble toy has been up and down more than an Imperial in the hands of a 10-year-old on a full-blown sugar rush.

Today, the yo-yo's yo-yo effect is at work again. The fad has come around. That burst of color in schoolyards and back yards is not autumn leaves but yo-yos on the end of strings.

"They've seemed to run in a 10-year cycle," said Mike Caffrey, director of sales and marketing for Duncan in Middlefield, Ohio, which sells about three of every five yo-yos in America. "We're about ready to hit the peak again." For the past six months, Duncan's factory in Indiana has produced the toys 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Toy stores and hobby shops are reporting stronger-than-ever sales. "I can't keep them on the shelves," said Scott Boren, who owns Happy Hippo stores.

A spokeswoman for Zany Brainy said sales had risen 35 percent a year for two years, but were up an additional 35 percent in the past six months.

Neither Duncan nor the retailers would disclose sales figures, but analysts estimate that yo-yos are an $80-million-a-year business. This is one fad that America actually sends overseas.

The hottest segment of the market is not the $3 garden-variety yo-yo, though it still is a solid seller. The fastest growth is in the designer models, with features that allow the yo-yo to "sleep" for 30 seconds or more. They sell for $10 and up.

One model, the SB-2 by What's Next Manufacturing , is due on local shelves in November. This baby has been clocked at 14,300 rpm (about 100 mph around the rim) and can spin for a full 90 seconds, long enough for any kid to do a complicated trick. The SB-2 is made of aircraft aluminum, contains a ball-bearing axle and adjustable string-gap feature, and comes with a 40-page manual, a spare bearing, a carrying pouch and five extra strings. It retails for $100.

This is not your father's yo-yo.

In the playground at St. Matthew Elementary in Philadelphia, where dozens of eighth-graders were enjoying their yo-yos at recent recess, Matt Boyce whipped out his new $10 Yomega. The Yomega has a clutch system for guaranteed "sleep."

Classmate Kevin Walker, whose yo-yo had no clutch, sniffed at the Yomega like a wine lover eyeballing a bottle of Thunderbird. "That's for cheaters," he said.

Adults consider them a pleasant throwback. "They're doing everything I did as a girl: 'round the world,' "walk the dog,'

" said Sister Barbara Anne Barnes, St. Matthew's vice principal.

The yo-yo was first noted in primitive times in the Philippines. Legend has it that hunters in trees threw rocks attached to vines to stun prey. Some scientists dispute the notion, contending that a yo-yo on a string or rope quickly loses its force as it falls. Yo-yos still were a plaything in 19th century Philippines, and the word "yo-yo" means "to return" in the native Tagalog.

The modern yo-yo is credited to Donald Duncan, who also invented the parking meter. In the late 1920s, Duncan saw a Filipino emigre playing with a small stone yo-yo in San Francisco. Duncan fashioned one out of glass and string, set up a company and recruited Filipinos to tour U.S. schools as yo-yo experts.

Generations of Americans can recall the demonstrations, at which the experts would carve patterns and children's initials into wooden yo-yos. Duncan noticed strong sales after each show.

The yo-yo's high point was in 1963, in the midst of a $1-million television advertising blitz. Duncan could not maintain the TV advertising budget for such a low-priced item, and the yo-yo market eventually crashed in the late 1960s. Duncan, with a million unsold yo-yos in his warehouse, filed for bankruptcy. One of the manufacturers, Flambeau Products Corp. of Middlefield, Ohio, took over Duncan's company and kept it going.

Sales were mainly flat until Duncan started advertising on child-oriented cable TV shows about 1990. That helped.

Then Caffrey came back to Duncan. Caffrey was a Duncan demonstrator straight out of high school in the mid-1970s. On his own, he invented the Yomega "yo-yo with a brain" and left Duncan's company in 1984. In 1993, Duncan asked him to come back as director of marketing and sales.

Caffrey knew he had to create demand and launch a fad. His idea was to revive the demonstrations of old, with a twist.

He hired James Watson, a professor of astronomy and physics at Ball State University, and his wife, Nancy, a middle school science teacher in Muncie, Ind., to create a lesson plan to teach the physics of a spinning yo-yo. Grade school teachers could buy kits of yo-yos, which usually retail for about $3, for $1 apiece.

Bingo. Since last year, about 80,000 kits have gone out to schools all over the country. "The kids would go out in the schoolyard with their yo-yos," Caffrey said. "Other kids in other classes would see them" and later head to the stores.

Daniel Battisti, who teaches fifth- and sixth-graders at National Park School in National Park, Pa., said he was sold on the lesson at the end of the last school year. "It tied very neatly into physics," he said. "It made the kids happy and it made me happy."

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