A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.
Vancouver was in the grip of a serious yo-yo craze in the early 1930s. On 6 May 1933, young practitioners had a chance to participate in “the greatest, most spectacular Yo-Yo performance ever staged in Canada,” in the words of the Vancouver Sun, one of the event sponsors. The paper hired Regina’s Joe Young, the reigning world yo-yo champion, to help promote the event. Young (pictured) gave demonstrations through a “travelling yo-yo school” that toured city schools. He also wrote a series of instructional articles for the Sun. Even though the Orpheum contest was strictly a local affair and Young wasn’t competing, the Sun promoted it as a chance for Vancouver kids to take the world title from the fourteen year-old champ.
The price of admission was ten cents for spectators and participants alike. Competitors were required to use Cheerio 99 yo-yos, made by the corporate sponsor of the contest. The first prize of $50 went to Jimmy Wigglesworth and “clever girl yo-yoer” Connie Boyd took home a bicycle worth $35 in a special category for girls.
Joe Young became the world champ in a contest in Manchester where he defeated Victoria’s Harvey Lowe, who had previously taken the title from Young in an international competition in London, England in October 1932. Lowe is the most important person in Vancouver’s yo-yo history, though he doesn’t figure at all in the Orpheum competition. He was too busy travelling around the world promoting the sport and living large off of corporate sponsorships and prize money. In England, he gave the Prince of Wales yo-yo lessons. While staying at the Savoy Hotel, Lowe befriended Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who were in the room across the hall. Lowe told his family that the famous comedy duo were just as funny offstage as on: “It isn’t just a shtick,” he said, “one would be holding a glass of water, the other would ask what time it was, and he’d turn his hand over, dumping the entire thing on the carpet!”
Harvey Lowe moved to Vancouver in 1949 where he became a well known Chinatown personality. He worked in restaurants and was the stage manager and emcee at the Marco Polo Club. A Chinese gambling den hired him as the doorman to make sure white people didn’t get in because it would attract police attention. Lowe also helped open the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret and became Canada’s first Chinese broadcaster with “The Call of China,” an English language radio show he hosted for twelve years on CJOR. When Robert Altman filmed McCabe & Mrs Miller in West Vancouver, Lowe was hired to wrangle Chinese extras and ended up showing Julie Christie how to smoke an opium pipe correctly for her role. The Smothers Brothers created a recurring character, “Yo Lama,” just for him on their variety TV show in the 1980s.
Harvey Lowe lived in Vancouver and performed with his yo-yo until his death at the age of ninety in 2009.
Source: City of Vancouver Archives #371-1922