FOR ABOUT 20 YEARS, people have been calling him "the yo-yo man." But that's a generic term that really applies to anyone who plays with the yo-yo. Two years ago, Salt Lake's Dale Myrberg went backstage at Las Vegas' Golden Nugget to see his friend, Tommy Smothers, the comedian, who has the term "Yo-Yo Man" registered in his name.

Smothers was entertaining some kids by doing yo-yo tricks. When he saw Myrberg, he stopped in his tracks and asked him to take over. "Then," says Myrberg, "I heard this voice saying, `Oh, look, there's the REAL Yo-Yo Man.' " It was Smothers' wife, Marci."That meant a lot to Myrberg, which is why he will sometimes sign an autograph as "the REAL Yo-Yo Man." But he has no intention of challenging the "Yo-Yo Man" title taken by Tom Smothers, because Smothers is his benefactor. Myrberg became nationally known in 1988 and 1989 when he appeared as a guest on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" on CBS Television.

When asked how good Smothers is with the Yo-Yo, Myrberg smiles and says confidently, "On a 10 scale, Tom is 5 and I'm an 18." Myrberg considers Smothers "a class comedian," but says he doesn't do "the fancy two-handed stuff."

You can bet your life Myrberg does.

He loves performing, and earlier this year he became the 1994 yo-yo freestyle champion at the annual contest in Chico, Calif. Over the years, Myrberg has developed more than 150 different tricks. He does two-handed yo-yo tricks and a variety of string tricks. He does some of the more common ones, such as loop the hoop, the atomic bomb and the H-bomb. He does some tricks with simultaneous action, such as rocking the baby while juggling, and working the yo-yo with one hand and the paddle ball with the other.

In freestyle competition, a yo-yo player must do three minutes without the yo-yo coming back in his hand. The competitor keeps it wound up by a process known in the trade as "regeneration."

Myrberg is also remarkably adept at slyly knocking a quarter off someone's ear. He has knocked a quarter off the ears of Govs. Matheson, Bangerter and Leavitt - and has "a goal to knock a quarter off the ear of every governor of Utah until I die."

After showing me a series of his tricks, he asked permission to knock a quarter off my ear, and inexplicably I agreed. He said, "In all the years I've been doing it, I've only put two people in the hospital - and only one of them died."

With that he picked the quarter off smoothly, lightly grazing my right ear with his yo-yo, then he said, "Now pick up the quarter." As I picked it up, he said, "Anyone dumb enough to let me do that to him deserves at least a quarter for his trouble."

According to Myrberg, the yo-yo first came to the United States from the Philippines in 1926 through a man named Pedro Florez, who started manufacturing yo-yos, and selling them out of the back seat of his car. Donald Duncan saw him at a toy show in San Francisco and said it looked "like a potato on a string."

Duncan bought the rights from Florez, then hired him and others to demonstrate yo-yos around the country, "and the yo-yo caught on like wildfire." It became probably the most popular toy in the country through the 1970s.

Myrberg, who will be 53 in December, was 5 the first time he picked up a yo-yo and discovered if he stood on a chair he could make it go up or down without the yo-yo hitting the floor. When he was 10, the Duncan Yo-Yo man came to town and hooked Myrberg.

He won some neighborhood contests and - when he was 14 - the Duncan company hired him to work for one dollar an hour, appearing on the old Uncle Roscoe and Engineer Ron local TV shows and demonstrating the yo-yo at dime stores. "I guess it was a pretty good deal to have a kid to do all this stuff."

Because he was employed by the company, Duncan wouldn't let him enter their yo-yo contests, but young Myrberg was persistent and finally persuaded them to allow him to enter one - just to see if he could win. That was 1956. He came in first place, then abdicated so that the No. 2 entry could be declared official state champion.

But Myrberg knew who really won.

When he reached South High School, he decided yo-yoing was no longer "cool," so he did other things until he went to work for Utah Power & Light Co. While on assignment in Panguich, he inadvertently made a comeback. He told his fellow workers that he was a champion yo-yo player, but they didn't believe him.

At a drugstore they found two wooden Duncan yo-yos, and Myrberg performed for them. Not only were they convinced he was speaking the truth, but Myrberg realized how much he'd missed during the intervening 12 years.

"I've been performing professionally ever since."

He started doing birthday parties, mall promotions, nursing homes, nursing schools "and everything in between." Since then, he has done night clubs, family reunions, school assemblies, PTA parties - "You name it, I've probably done it. The last 10 years have been the best of all."

In 1987, he began performing on a national level, making major appearances at the toy fair in New York City. His proudest times were his two appearances on the Smothers Brothers' TV show, but he has also performed with Tommy Smothers at the Desert Inn and has logged seven seasons at Oktoberfest at Snowbird, six years at the Utah State Fair, stints at the Shriner's Hospital and many other places.

He says he couldn't do any of it without the dedicated support of his wife, Sue, his energetic assistant, who provides music for his act, selects his costume and cheers him on. "She's a cutie pie, and she's had to put up with a lot - I'm a total yo-yo nut. I teach, compete, perform and collect - up to 1,000 yo-yos so far."

Donald Duncan Jr., president of Playmaxx in Tucson and son of America's best-known yo-yo promoter, says Myrberg is not only a great yo-yo player but "an entertainer as well. He sets a very fine example for any kid wanting to get into yo-yoing. You won't find a better yo-yo player in the world."

Dale Oliver of Seatte, chairman of the board of the American Yo-Yo Association and himself the 1992 international yo-yo champion, says, "Dale is just an excellent performer and a tremendous competitor. In the freestyle competition this year, he put on the best freestyle performance I've seen to date. He's also one of the nicest guys I know - a great ambassador to the sport of Yo."

During the day, Myrberg works as a designer of power lines for Utah Power, where he has been employed for almost 29 years. His employer has been consistently supportive of his competitions and his performances, for which he is grateful.

"I'd like to retire before I'm real old. I'd like to live to be 80 or 90, like George Burns," says Myrberg, "and still be able to do some more of this. I've been fortunate to have a good job without having a college degree. But my real love is the yo-yo."

Last month he did 30 scheduled shows - and "can't wait to get to the next one. That's how much fun it is. Each audience is different. With so much adversity in the world, not many people have the opportunity to look out on an audience and see people who are happy."

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Additional Information

Yo-yo workshop

On Saturday, Nov. 19, from noon until 4 p.m., Dale Myrberg will direct a free yo-yo workshop at Trolley Square for yo-yo enthusiasts of all ages. Myrberg will do a show before the workshop, then help prepare entrants for the State Yo-Yo Championship, to be held at Trolley Square on Dec. 17. Myerberg will even furnish yo-yos for the use of those who can't find one around the house.