A Brief History of Nerf (or Nothin')

iStock / popovaphoto
iStock / popovaphoto

The Nerf brand has been bringing kids foamy fun for over four decades now, but the company’s history might not be as familiar to you as the perfect technique for a crushing Nerfoop dunk. Let’s take a look at the Nerf nitty gritty.

It Was Supposed to Be a Volleyball Game

Although Nerf has become the leading name in spongy backyard warfare, its roots were decidedly less violent.

Inventor Reyn Guyer had enjoyed early success by creating the game Twister, and in 1968 he started Winsor Concepts to dream up new toy and game ideas. While working on a caveman-themed game, one of Guyer’s team members began bouncing one of the game’s foam “rocks” over a net. The designers realized that they were onto something and began developing a whole line of games based on foam balls.

Guyer initially took the game ideas to Milton Bradley, the company that had found a hit with his Twister invention. The game giant passed on Guyer’s creation, though. Undeterred, Guyer then pitched the foam games to Parker Brothers.


Mike Mozart, Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Parker Brothers wasn’t crazy about the actual games, but they loved the idea of a foam ball that kids could safely play with indoors. The company decided to market just the ball as its own toy. In 1969 Nerf made its debut in the form of the four-inch polyurethane foam Nerf Ball, which Parker Brothers dubbed “the world’s first indoor ball.” After the plain old Nerf ball became a runaway hit, Parker Brothers contracted with Guyer to make the wider array of foam games that he had originally envisioned.

The most memorable of these line extensions was surely the Nerf football, which bounced onto the scene in 1972. The Nerf football actually represented a bit of a technical change for the product line. Parker Brothers made the original Nerf balls by spinning foam on a lathe and cutting it with a piece of hot wire. Making the football, on the other hand, entailed pouring liquid foam into a mold. The resulting ball had a thick outer covering that helped it behave like an ordinary football.

Some of the other Nerf spinoffs failed to achieve the notoriety of the Nerf football. By the time the 80s rolled around, Parker Brothers had started making things like Nerf Pool, Nerf Ping Pong, and, of course, Nerf Table Hockey. The company even started a line of Nerful action figures that looked like anthropomorphic Nerf balls.

The Nerf brand has changed hands several times over the years. In 1987 Tonka purchased Kenner Parker Toys, the then-owner of the Parker Brothers brand, and in 1991 the brand moved again when Hasbro acquired Tonka. Hasbro has held onto the brand and helped it flourish; a 2010 Business Week report pegs the Nerf division’s annual revenues at $150 million.

“It’s Nerf or Nothin’!”

Nerf’s major coup for a whole generation of kids, though, was its introduction of foam weaponry. Sure, tossing a Nerf football around was fun, but shooting your buddies with soft foam balls? That’s real entertainment!


Jack Taylor / Getty Images

In 1989 Nerf debuted the Blast A Ball, small pinkish cannons that fired golfball-sized foam projectiles, but the 1991 introduction of the Nerf Bow and Arrow cemented the brand’s reputation as the armorer of kids everywhere. The 90s saw Nerf further expand its array of blasters into guns that fired missiles, balls, and suction-cup darts.

The blaster line is still buoying the brand’s sales; in 2009 Nerf even reintroduced the familiar old ad slogan “It’s Nerf or Nothin’!” The weapons are more technologically advanced now, though. The Raider Rapid Fire CS 35 has a capacity of 35 suction darts; the newer Nerf Stampede ECS is a fully automatic blaster that cranks out three darts per second. These toys sound a bit more sophisticated than the old Blast A Ball. (Although my brother and I can attest that the Blast A Ball was great for whacking each other even once its ammunition had been lost.)

All of this extra firepower has come at a price, though. In 2008 Nerf had to recall its N-Strike Recon Blaster after at least 46 reports of kids sustaining injuries while firing the gun. The blaster’s plunger firing mechanism had a nasty tendency of catching users’ skin as it flew forward, which let to welts and bruises on kids’ faces, necks, and chests. [Taylor Lautner image credit: © RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters/Corbis]

What does "Nerf" mean?

Some sources claim that “NERF” is an acronym for “Non-Expanding Recreational Foam,” but that story seems too good to be true. Reyn Guyer’s personal website explains that Parker Brothers named the balls after the foam that off-road drivers use to wrap their rollbars.

And while we’re asking questions, what happened to the original prototype Nerf ball? Tim Walsh had the answer in his terrific book, Timeless Toys: Reyn Guyer held onto it. Each year his family uses it as an ornament on their Christmas tree.

8 Bizarre Fan Theories About Your Favorite Holiday Movies

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

We all love a heartwarming holiday movie. On a cold winter’s day, few things are more comforting than curling up on the couch and getting into the Christmas spirit with a holiday movie marathon—no matter how many times you've seen the films in the lineup before.

While the plot lines rarely yield any surprises, multiple viewings of a movie can allow you to start to notice some things going on under the surface. With the rise of Reddit and other social media networks, fan theories have become a popular pastime for many pop culture fiends—and these alternate interpretations can sometimes go to some pretty dark places.

From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to Home Alone, here are some bizarre fan theories about the holiday movies you only thought you knew.

1. The Santa Clause proves that the North Pole is full of cannibals.

On the surface, The Santa Clause series is the heartwarming tale of Tim Allen taking on the duties of a fallen Santa in need. But Twitter user Hannah Priest thinks it’s about something else entirely: The North Pole is inhabited by cannibals. Her evidence? The elves’ casual attitude toward death and a “new” Santa just taking over, the hundreds of elves (and Mrs. Clauses) who apparently go missing over the course of the series, and the size of the oven in the kitchen. “The elves are clearly baking women (& possibly children) in their oven, then using the bodies to make ceremonial cocoa, which they then feed to future Santas,” Priest tweeted. But this is one theory that’s best read in full (which you can do here).

2. Santa in The Santa Clause is actually an exiled wizard from Harry Potter.

Another theory about The Santa Clause would have you believe that Santa is an alumnus of Hogwarts. We all know Santa is magical, but the evidence does stack up. How does Santa get up and down chimneys? Floo powder, of course. And why can’t we see him? And how does he get to every house in one night? These jobs are made a little easier with an invisibility cloak and a time turner, of course.

3. Home Alone's Kevin McCallister grew up to be Saw’s Jigsaw.


20th Century Fox

In 2014, Grantland’s Jason Concepcion proposed a brilliant, if dastardly, theory that suggested a connection between holiday classic Home Alone and the terrifying Saw horror franchise. In a nutshell, he believes that Kevin McCallister and Jigsaw are the same person—and he made some pretty solid points.

For one, even at the tender age of eight, Kevin shows a talent for setting up some pretty elaborate traps, and he also has a clear obsession with recorded video. He’s also almost too interested in the rumor about Old Man Marley, his neighbor, who is rumored to be a serial killer. Some of the torture from the Saw movies also end up being eerily similar to the “pranks” Kevin pulls on the Wet Bandits. Concepcion goes even deeper, and you should read all of it here.

4. John Candy’s Home Alone character is the devil.

Kevin McCallister isn’t the only Home Alone character with a purported dark side. There’s a lot of suspicion surrounding John Candy’s character, Gus Polinski (a.k.a. the “Polka King of the Midwest”) as well. One Reddit theory goes like this: at one point in Home Alone, Kevin’s mom says that she would “sell [her] soul to the devil” if could just get back to Chicago to be with her son. The next time we see her, Gus Polinski appears and offers her a ride back to the Windy City. Coincidence? Not everyone thinks so—and this theory goes even deeper. Gus plays the clarinet, which is a woodwind instrument, and woodwinds are considered the instrument of Satan.

5. No, wait: Mia from Love Actually is the devil.

Not to be outdone, yet another popular holiday movie fan theory states that Mia (Heike Makatsch)—Alan Rickman’s wannabe-home wrecker of an assistant from Love Actually—is actually the devil. This one is actually a two-part theory, which posits that Rowan Atkinson is an angel while Mia is the devil. Adding credence to the latter part of this is the fact that the film’s writer/director Richard Curtis actually confirmed the former part.

Atkinson’s character was meant to have a larger role and serve as a sort of guardian angel to several of the film’s characters, but the filmmaker eventually decided it would be too much. But Mia’s devilish behavior is on full display: in addition to her repeated attempts to lure Harry (Rickman) away from Karen (Emma Thompson), she shows up at a company holiday party wearing devil horns.

6. Buddy the Elf is a creep.


Warner Bros.

Buddy, Will Ferrell’s maple syrup-loving character in Elf, is beloved for his childlike demeanor and over-the-top Christmas spirit. But some people believe this supposed naiveté may all be a ruse. And if that is in fact the case, then Buddy’s behavior is … questionable at best. Buddy, under this theory, would be a sociopath who forces his way into a random home through coercion and befriends a young child, all while stalking a random woman (Zooey Deschanel) he met through a job for which he was never actually hired.

7. Rudolph is Donner’s bastard son.

As compelling as it is absurd, one Redditor believes that Rudolph isn’t being told the truth about his parentage. We know, of course, that Rudolph doesn’t look like either his mother or his father. And that the other reindeer “used to laugh and call him names.” And that the father of Rudolph’s love interest, Clarice, seems incensed at the idea of his daughter being seen with a red-nosed reindeer. “The only explanation is that the red-nose is like a scarlet letter A,” the theory goes. “Rudolph is an illegitimate child, a bastard, an unclean birth.” (You can read the full docket of evidence here.)

8. Arnold Schwarzenegger is psychotic in Jingle All the Way, and Sinbad is a figment of his fractured mind.


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In Jingle All the Way, Arnold Schwarzenegger definitely seems stressed out about trying to acquire a Turbo-Man—the hot toy of the holiday season—for his son. But has all that stress led to a psychotic break with reality? One Redditor believes that might be the case, as Howard Langston (Schwarzenegger) suspiciously only seems to see Myron (played by Sinbad) in his most stressful moments. It could be a coincidence, but as Arnold’s hijinks escalate, there’s Sinbad egging him on every time.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

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