The tale of Mary Poppins has hula-hoop king in a spin

At the end of last month, via dancelines, I had a message from Mat Plendl, who, at the age of 13 was the National Hula Hoop Champion of the United States.

That got my attention – but even more remarkably, it turned out that Mat was a major fan of Mary Poppins and has been collecting everything associated with Poppins and her creator, P L Travers, for decades.

We made contact and I wrote an article about him for The Sydney Morning Herald (incorporated into this post).

Mat is 51 and has been hooping since he was a child. So how, I wondered, did he stay in the best physical condition?

It seems that for serious hula hooping you need a very flexible spine so Mat’s routine includes yoga, especially the cobra pose, cat stretches, shoulder rolls and hip circles. He incudes Pilates, push ups and sit ups but these days seldom goes to dance class.

Recently, he’s had to cut back on some tricks such as walking on his hands but he’s still excelled in his hula-hoop act every night for a month at Zircus, an international circus show at Jupiters Casino on the Gold Coast. (The season ends on 2 February.)

He’s also making a guest appearance in El Circo at Slide, in Sydney, on February 8 but it looks as though the show is sold out.

The following is a slightly amended version of the Herald article.

Known as the world champion of loose hips, Mat Plendl has spun hula-hoops for fun and fame for most of his life.

But Plendl has another more private obsession.

At his Los Angeles home, he keeps what must be one of the oddest collections in the world.

In one large room, and a walk-in wardrobe, Plendl has amassed thousands of Mary Poppins collectibles that he has assembled since high school days.

Propped up on shelves, stacked into drawers, or perched on pedestals, the Poppinsabilia just grows bigger.

From flea markets to antique shops to eBay, he has cornered the Poppins market including the merchandising that accompanied the Walt Disney musical of 1964, dolls, colouring in kits, carpet bags, games, ceramic figurines, rare first editions of Mary Poppins and translations in many languages including Latin and Hebrew.

Now on tour in Australia, performing his hula hoop act in Zircus, at Jupiters Casino on the Gold Coast, Plendl will soon visit the former Queensland and New South Wales homes of the author of Mary Poppins, P L Travers, on which the Disney film of 1964 was based.

He treasures a blue aerogram from Travers who sharply rejected his request to produce a stage production of Poppins and more recently he watched the filming of Saving Mr Banks in Hollywood.

His collection is an aspect of his professional life because in the theatre or circus tent, “my whole job is about connecting with my inner child”.

His hula-hoop life began in 1972, when, aged 10, he discovered the craze that had begun in the mid-1950s when the American company, Wham-O, first marketed the toy.

His inspiration was a school friend called Mary whose sister was a hula-hoop champion in 1969.

“I wasn’t an athletic child, but I had a real affinity for it and within three months I was placed third in the far west region”.

Plendl won the National Hula Hoop Championship of 1975 an event televised by the Dinah Shore Show but he gravitated to acting in his high school years before “surrendering to the hoop” and making his name in vaudeville shows and on TV variety programs, in particular a Johnny Carson Show “that brought me a lot of work afterwards”.

He brought athleticism into hula hooping, now a global phenomenon, but back in 1980s was dominated by women in heels who wriggled their hoops in Las Vegas shows.

Plendl doesn’t do glamour. These days, he wears shorts, a top, boots and socks with suspenders.

He does, however, do perseverance: “I have a way of sticking with things”, he says.

And as for Poppins, she will never fly away.

“When my mother was ill with heart disease in 1992 I thought of Mary Poppins” who has been, through life, “his fortress”.

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