(Editor’s Note: Our friend Arron Sparks at the very excellent yoyo blog Down-Up YoYo has kindly given us permission to reprint his incredible interview with YoYoFactory owner and founder Hans Van Dan Elzen about his origins as a yoyo demonstrator and his time with Playmaxx. Enjoy! – Steve)
Considering how influential Yo-Hans has been in the Yo-Yo community there is surprisingly little information about the man online. I reached out to Hans and he generously replied with far more detail than I could have hoped for. It makes for an entertaining read…
The Playmaxx years… It was a war. It was a job. It was a challenge. “The Yo-Yo with a Brain” sold themselves so me and my team had to sell every single ProYo every single day to combat it’s supremacy. We won in the UK, smashed them in Singapore, met them head to head in Japan but ultimately defeated in the USA. The six weeks in the Philippines with Ben at the end was the rare time I actually simply had fun. Both our paycheques bounced but I came home with a wife and I reset my attitude and vision for the future.
The first time I became interested in Yo-Yo was after seeing Yo-Hans on Saturday morning TV, he was pushing the limits of what could be done with a Yo-Yo and the BBC product placement guidelines. Pushing his brand of Yo-Yo’s, the pinnacle of which was the Turbo Bumble Bee.
Hans’ excitement, salesmanship and skill with a Yo-Yo grabbed my attention. Instantly I wanted to lean to work a Yo-Yo and I was far from alone in this new desire. Within days Hans helped build a Yo-Yo craze across the UK which is yet to be matched.
When the 1998 craze faded away Hans moved on with his life eventually coming back to Yo-Yo’s. In 2003 Hans founded the hugely successful company, YoYoFactory. In an odd turn of events I ended up judging Hans and Craig Squires on their world record attempt for the most Yo-Yo tricks in a minute on Blue Peter.
These days Hans is rarely in the public eye promoting and selling Yo-Yo’s, he’s found in the office and workshop, experimenting with new product. More puppeteer than puppet but still passionate about the Yo-Yo. He’s is widely respected in the Yo-Yo community by it’s leaders, champions and those in the know.
There is much more to be explored in Hans’ history and I hope to one day interview him in person. But for now, enjoy Hans’ answers.
How did your dad come to run playmaxx?
When I was 14 or 15 years old I contacted Playmaxx to buy a ProYo. I had only been playing for about six months and was chasing down a better playing yoyo. (BTW I had never touched a Yo-Yo prior to the first yoyo I played with when I was 14.
The first Yo-Yo I ever touched was borrowed from a friends desk drawer on rainy weekday afternoon. It was a baseball shaped yoyo. Some weird cosmic alignment occurred that day. I made the slipknot correctly, put it on my finger correctly, flicked it down the string correctly, flipped my wrist, gave it a tug and it returned to my hand. Totally self taught.
I had played with everything available at the time and was disappointed by everything offered. The Yo-Yo’s fell apart, wooden axles broke, no string was available. Then my mom found an article in a AAA magazine about Playmaxx and the founder Don Duncan Jr.
There was no internet at the time and the journalist failed to mention any contact details about the company in the article. So I called Tucson “information” and got the phone number for Playmaxx. When I rang a nice lady named Lucy answered the phone and I placed my order with her for three ProYos. Then I asked, “was it true that Don Duncan worked there?” She replied, “He sure does, hold on and I’ll put him on the phone.” Seconds later I was in shock as I heard the voice of Don Duncan greet me I said, “Wow is this really Don Duncan?” and he replied “It sure is!”.
I talked with Don for an hour and asked as much as I could about the history of Yo-Yo’s from his experience. I quickly developed a sense of despair that I had missed the golden era of Yo-Yo play. There would be no street corner contests for me, no patches or trophies. When the three Yo-Yo’s arrived at the house a week or two later I couldn’t believe how well developed the ProYo was.
When I brought it to school a couple of friends wanted to try it. They were hooked and asked how to get one. I called Don up immediately and asked to buy a couple more. He stated, “Hey, if you order them in quantity I will give you a discount.” I said, “How many do I need to order?” He said, “24 pieces”.
Well… within two months I had sold somewhere between 300-400 yo-yos at my school. Students, Teachers, Janitors. Everybody was playing with ProYos. It all ended abruptly when I was called down to the front office. The Vice Principal sat me down and said, “Look Hans I’m not upset with you but this has to stop. I have contacted your friend in Tucson and he has arranged for one of his salesman to come up and teach you how to work with kids. He will meet you at a local elementary school next week each day and teach you how to work with kids and sell Yo-Yo’s”. The guy I worked with was Ken Filary. He helped me learn basic tricks like ‘Braintwister’.
From there I spent the next three years working with kids at after school programs, scout groups, hospitals. I met a talent agent at a funeral and she helped arrange more local shows. Somewhere in there I gave my dad a yoyo and he used it to quit smoking. I spent time teaching him tricks. Then he would order advertising yo-yos from Playmaxx with his company logo on them. When I was sixteen Bob Malowney rolled into town with the travelling “Return of the YoYo” exhibit. A friend called me and told me that I needed to get there asap as it was the last weekend it was in town. I met Bob late Friday night at the display and asked him what this was all about. He said that he had a dream of bringing back yo-yos the way it used to be. He had arranged to borrow Don Duncan Jr’s yoyo collection and take it from city to city across the USA. He asked me if I knew any tricks. I showed him rock the baby and a braintwister. He looked bemused at best. He asked, “Do you know anything else?” Well yes actually I did.
See in 1989-1990 there was no internet, no experts living nearby (I learned Split-the-Atom over the phone from a guy that lived in Iowa), maybe you had an uncle that remembered a trick from his childhood. All I had was the basic skills. So I forced myself to learn how to handle a Yo-Yo in each hand. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my second yoyo and demonstrated some of the “crispest” two handed loops, stuff I practiced daily. Bob stepped back in shock and said, “Wow! How did you learn that? Only professionals ever learn and master two hands.” He explained that this was the last weekend of the show, I had missed Barney Akers, Ryan Carver, Harvey Lowe and a whole plethora of other famous players the previous weekend. But there was still one more contest the next day.
I showed up, took first place and finally became a champion. That despair that I felt when I first learned I had missed the golden era of Yo-Yos, that I would never be a champion, was finally lifted. Bob pulled me aside and described his plan to hold a National Contest someday. I told him even if I had to crawl I would be there.
Three years later my dad came home from work frustrated and said, “When is that Yo-Yo contest in California you keep talking about?” . He was referring to the US Nationals. Dad cashed in his frequent flyer miles and got us to the first ‘US National Yo-Yo Contest’ in 1993. There he met Don Duncan Jr for the first time face-to-face. In that encounter Don mentioned that he was looking for an investor. My dad was intrigued but very deeply invested in his own business and turned him down… but left the door open. I took second place in the 12-20 Advanced Division that year, returned in 1994 and took first place in the 12-20 Advanced Division. Now I was a National Level Champion.
A month before I turned 21 I jumped in my rusty but trusty Triumph Spitfire and left Detroit for Arizona. I signed up for Arizona State University in Phoenix. Every weekend I would drive 100 miles to Tucson on Saturday morning and hang out at Playmaxx. Don had a small museum and retail store he called the “Yoseum”.
On Saturday mornings local kids were encouraged to come and hang out and learn tricks. Don would pay me with wooden axles and string for my ProYos. At the time he worked with Dale Oliver and Scott Edwards (Scott Edwards was neighbours and early influence with a future famous yoyo demonstrator, John Huber. John Huber was both World Team Proyo and later the graphic designer for YoYoFactory®).
They were the school program demonstrators. I was staying at Don’s house the night Dale unveiled his new yoyo he called the “Technic” that he wanted to replace the fragile Proyo with. I have to say that Don wasn’t impressed with the design. Don explained that they had tried designs similar to that in the past and they simply didn’t perform well enough, the axle was troublesome. Dale replied “Don at this point I don’t really care what you do with the Proyo, I’m starting my own brand and by this time next year I will put Playmaxx out of business!” The odd part of that moment was that Dale was staying at Don’s house. He simply retired to his bedroom, closed the door and went to bed, he didn’t leave for a hotel or anything. Adding even more insult to the situation the next day I bought two of the prototypes from Dale in Don’s kitchen during breakfast! Anyway if anyone ever wondered why Dale called his brand “Terminator”… well now you know…he wanted to put Playmaxx in the past. If Don had stayed in control he would have achieved his mission. Neither of them planned for Tom. There’s more to the Dale story but I’ll just tie a bow on it right here.
With Don I was enamoured by the story and history. He was charming and had a great ability to tell a story. But one day it struck me that the stories weren’t his, they were his dad’s. He had a habit of passing himself off as THE Don Duncan and not disclosing that it was his dad that was the real maker and shaker. It broke my euphoria of knowing him. He played like he was a simple man mentally and often allowed himself to be taken advantage of by those close to him but he also played that “Simple man card” and took advantage of others when he saw the opportunity and traded on the value of his Family name rather than the strength of his personal achievement.
My dad is a smart guy. Genius level, like should have worked at NASA but somehow chose an incongruous career of risk and adventure helping solve random engineering problems at a multitude of manufacturing operations that took him around the country and around the world. His academic background is in electrical engineering but he has spent his life solving mechanical problems. His final business in Detroit was in the aerospace field. He built equipment that served the repair and service of jet aircraft engines. Companies that purchased his equipment such as GE, Pratt and Whitney, Rolls Royce and SNECMA. Part of his duties were to travel to far off lands and install the equipment, start it up and test run the cycles. Well he started to become famous with the business men and engineers that he dealt with as he would always carry a Yo-Yo in his pocket.
During the testing cycles of the equipment dad would pull out the Yo-Yo and practice his loops. His mission was perfect loops that could be performed between two chair-backs set six inches apart. Well, the engineers at SNECMA, a French company, would shake their heads and laugh at him for his childish pastime. But over the course of several return visits they would start to ask him if they could try his Yo-Yo. He learned he would need to start bringing spare yo-yos because they were all starting to get quite addicted. One day he got a fax in his Detroit office before departing for the next visit to SNECMA. The fax simply said “BRING STRING”. It was a breakthrough moment for my dad and his understanding of the effect of the Yo-Yo.
Somewhere in the timeline I called my dad from my apartment in Arizona and said, “Dad, I’ve got a problem I need to discuss with you.” Worried on the other end of the line he replied “Oh, ok, what’s up?” Staring out my window at the bright, sunny, and perfectly warm February morning I said, “Well I’m not sure today whether to take the convertible to work… or my motorcycle”. He looked out the window in his Detroit office at two feet of snow on the ground, grey overcast, and he’ll tell you to this day THAT was the moment when he no longer cared about the risk, he was going to take Don up on his offer to partner up at Playmaxx.
Dad called me a few weeks later and bounced the idea off me of becoming partners with Don. I told him very straight, “I wouldn’t do it. I don’t know how you will ever sell enough Yo-Yo’s and I don’t really trust Don”. Little did I know how wrong I would be about the number of Yo-Yo’s he could sell and how right my intuition was of Don.
How did you get on TV in the 90s?
We worked with major and minor distributors around the world. I had travelled to 26 countries by the time I was 26 years old. TV interviews were critical to spreading the word and sharing the skills. Internet was in its infancy so the morning news and kids TV shows were still the critical way to convey the message. My favourite moment was Johnny Vaughan on the Big Breakfast. It was early in the morning and I was not prepared for that guy. His first question to me about Yo-Yo’s, “So why are Americans so fat?”. HAHA I was lost for words. He’s a brilliant guy, that was a brilliant moment, and I was at a total loss for words.
My face appeared in newspapers and on the sides of city buses. Television commercials and music videos. We were contacted by a music production company. They asked us to sing and Yo-Yo in a music video. They contacted the original writer of the Bangles hit song, “Walk like an Egyptian” who resided in Paris. He ok’d the use and we re-recorded the song in the men’s bathroom at Heathrow during a layover. We twisted the words to “Walk the Dog like an Egyptian” and the song made it to 48th on the UK pop charts for Christmas in 1998. The music video (we filmed it on a rooftop in London) is on YouTube. It’s awful, but it happened and it can never be undone.
What was it like being a minor celebrity in the UK?
Behind the scenes the promoter threw me the keys to his car and a map book and a schedule of appearances. I couldn’t drive a right hand drive car and I was in a foreign country. But after the initial shock of realising there wasn’t an alternative I figured it out and made every appearance.
Fighting cabs in downtown London to appear on the Disney Channel or driving to distant cities like Exeter to do demos for Richie Windsor or performances at grade schools in the midlands. So to answer your question though I didn’t realise my “celebrity” until one day when Craig Squires and I were gifted tickets to a live performance of Saturday Night Fever in London. In the dark of the performance I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned my head. Standing in the aisle with eager eyes were two children with a piece of paper and a pen hoping I would sign an autograph. The mum said that the kids recognised me from behind due to my flat cap. That cap make me famous or did I make the cap famous? It was an important moment for me as I realised no matter where I was I was still “on stage” even if I was off-shift. As a celebrity you never get time off. So behave. Speaking of which I really enjoyed my two or three visits to Blue Peter. Very proud of my badges.
What was the oddest gig you had?
I opened the show every night for Mr. President in Germany one summer. They wrote a summertime hit called “YoYo Action” and it popped to the top of the charts. Our distributor called their label and put us together. They did a tour and I rode the bus with them. Awesome group of performers, energetic music, amazing presentation every single night. YoYo Action was an odd song but honestly the rest of their stuff was terrific especially performed “live”. They really would have done well as a Vegas act.
On two occasions I met Justin Timberlake and the rest of N’Sync backstage as they were sent a few times to see the Mr. President show and get some inspiration for their own stage show. I actually met a bunch of pop bands during that tour. My favourite was Blumchen. She was shocked that I was asking her for an autograph backstage, other than 6 year old kids I evidently was her biggest yet oldest fan.
Why did you set up YoYoFactory after Playmaxx?
I had a bit of time off after Playmaxx ended. Then Ben and I fresh started YoYoFactory®. I had a small feeling of guilt honestly and it gnawed away at the back of my thoughts for years.
I created the Bumble Bee, it wasn’t invented so much as developed over time (two long years). When it was launched it was a sensation. It finally delivered a perfect out-of-the-box experience with repeatable performance in mass production. It gave wood axle responsiveness and smooth on-string performance… then a week later the pads would wear out and the user was forced to spend money to keep the fun going. So in my hiatus suddenly one day I had a Eureka! moment and realised that the pads wouldn’t wear out or melt (in the case of plastic starburst…I’m looking at you Renegade!) if they simply could flex out of the way when put under the extreme frictional forces of layered string. BAM! The FAST201 was invented.
I made a single prototype from a worn out BumbleBee and some cut up strips of aluminium from a Coke can. I drilled some holes, fashioned the strips into tiny metal springy starburst, plugged them into the holes and…It worked as I envisioned, perfectly. The next critical component was the price-point and the play pattern (The infamous FAST CHALLENGE developed by Ben McPhee). The Distributors loved it and the high level players hated it. It gave us the kickstart we needed to get to where we are today and it’s still a perennial best seller.
Who did the graphics for Playmaxx?
There were multiple influencers and a couple of Graphic Designers. Ben McPhee actually came up with the name for the ColdFusion for example and I sketched out the artwork.
Then we handed the sketches to a designer in Tucson named “Sprout”. There was another Graphic designer named Tevus. I sketched the original BumbleBee with the jetpack and then we had outside pro’s tighten up the designs.
Don Jr actually made a bunch of the artwork along the way too, like the little boy that appeared on the side of the ProYo’s, that was direct from his pen. Odd fact, my mom named the BumbleBee when we first put an early prototype together. There were no pads and to her ears it buzzed like a bee so she said, “Ooh you should call it the BumbleBee”. I scrunched up my face in disgust at the notion then let her suggestion stew in my head for 30 seconds in the uncomfortable silence of the moment.
I said, “What about TURBO Bumble Bee?” BOOM! A Yo-Yo icon was born. The black and yellow colour scheme was a natural and transformed the marketing into an easy job despite the belief at that time that Yo-Yo’s needed to come in as many colours as possible to give the kids some choice, we proved that fact wrong. If I never said it before, I’ll say it now, Thanks Mom!
Who are your all time favourite Yo-Yo players?
There are *Players* and there are *Performers*. That’s a critical distinction. This list highlights a little from each category:
- Alex Garcia, He revolutionised freestyle play. Nobody except Shu Takada has usurped his musically choreographed stage presence to this very day.
- John Higby, performer for life. Life is performing.
- Steve Brown, he gets it. He has the innovation and the vision.
- Mark Hayward, driest presentation yet so effective. He’s just like, “F@$k energy, I’ll get the laughs my way.”
- Ben McPhee, Yo-Yo play is 50% tricks and 50% the man. Ben exemplifies this tradition when put in front of a crowd of kids, the truest Yo-Yo professional.
- Ann Connolly, she’s a magnet for attention when she starts throwing tricks
- Vasek Kroutil, FINALLY A REAL YO-YO PROFESSIONAL FROM THIS GENERATION!!! We need more like him.
- Pat Mitchell, My office is across from his. Every day I watch this World-Class 2A YoYo player answering phones and making sales. He builds relationships with large scale national retailers in the USA and they have no idea the secret talent this guy actually has. He brings authenticity to this game we’re playing.
- The current YoYoFactory® Team. They are on the team for a reason. They earned it.
- Craig Squires. He will influence the future of the sport and promotion in the UK in the coming years. Watch his actions carefully.
- Jonathan Koh from Singapore. The kid that simply, nowhere in time, there will never be a better player. Period. Ever. You think you’re good. You’re not. He’s fundamentally better. Just accept it. He’s number 11 on the list for a reason.
What else do you do/enjoy apart from Yo-Yo?
I collect yo-yos. I have yo-yos that date back to the 1800’s all the way up to the current state-of-the-art. I am infatuated with the history of this game, the influences and the influencers. The promotions. The technologies. All of it. And I restore old British Sports-cars. It helps me take my mind off the business when I need a break and keeps me sharp solving mechanical problems.
Can you recommend a book, film, podcast, show or piece of art?
- Book: The One and Only YoYo Book. Careful, you might learn something.
- Show: Mad Men: I binge watch it. Very addictive.
- Art: William Fairfax Sheffield, Sculptor. His work was my first encounter with overcoming the perceived impossible.
After getting the indepth reply from Hans which you’ve just made your way through I had a few e-mail exchanges, trying to help fill in some information with Hans Yo-Yo collection. I’d like to thank Hans for spending so much time revisiting the past and replying to my e-mail. And for inspiring me to pick up a Yo-yo.
Hans followed up his answers with this last e-mail, which I think is a perfect note to leave this piece on…
I contemplated it all yesterday. I forgot one element…the kids. The whole point, the driving force that made me jump out of bed every morning and do the job. I was driven to give the kids the opportunities that I missed and have a positive memory of their interaction with the demonstrators and the game. I cracked the whip every day on the demonstrators that worked with me and for me. I had very high expectations and demanded nothing less than excellence every day. I’m still proud of the work that everybody did during those 5 years.