Steve Chmelar hoists his homemade finger at an Ottumwa (Iowa) high school basketball game in the early 1970s.
(Photo: courtesy photo)
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Miley Cyrus' raunchy dance has helped an Iowa inventor finally get credit for what he calls "the finger."
Steve Chmelar, 59, of Ottumwa says he is the originator of an iconic tool of sports fandom, claiming to hold the prototype for what later became the "foam finger," those oversized hands with one finger held aloft seen at nearly every sporting event.
Cyrus caused controversy after she used a foam finger in a stimulating way on herself and singer Robin Thicke during a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 25.
Not long after, Chmelar's telephone rang. A Fox Sports reporter had dug up his name from a Wikipedia post on foam fingers. Chmelar told Fox he was "disappointed" in Cyrus' finger placements and said she "certainly misrepresented its intent to encourage team support." The story spread rapidly on celebrity TV, online's entertainment sites and mainstream media. He found himself being interviewed by cable network HLN on Tuesday as well as the BBC.
Chmelar, vice president of commercial sales for Carroll Construction Supply in Ottumwa, is an unlikely character for cultural commentary.
But his emergence as an Iowa inventor may be more interesting than Cyrus' gyrations.
Chmelar said he came up with the idea for the finger as a student in Ottumwa in 1971 when his high school's basketball team went to the state tournament.
"I remember we used to hold our arm erect with a finger signifying No. 1," he said. "I thought if I could make that much bigger, it would get more attention."
In his parents' garage, he made a giant hand out of galvanized wire and hardware cloth wrapped in papier-mache, the finger standing 20 inches high. Fans loved it when he held it aloft at the game and waved it out of the bus window on the way back from the championship game, which Ottumwa lost to Davenport West.
A photograph of Chmelar and the big hand appeared in The Des Moines Tribune on March 18, 1971, and in his school's annual. The team and coaches signed the hand before he stored it in his parents' attic. Much to his wife's chagrin, he dug it out when he got married and hung it in their home's basement. There it was largely forgotten.
But a year ago, the subject of the big hand arose with relatives, and Chmelar hunted down the original photo in the annual and even came to Des Moines to look up the photo in newspaper archives. With the help of his son-in-law, they added to a notation under "foam finger," in Wikipedia, a user-created online encyclopedia, claiming some credit as the creator of the first version of what later became the famous foam finger.
Legally, credit goes to Geral Fauss, a high school teacher from Texas who created the first finger that was made of foam in 1978. He created a business, Spirit Industries Inc., to sell it, and it spread to nearly every sporting venue in the nation. The company still sells them today.
Fauss said he'd never heard of Chmelar, or seen the photograph, but is used to being challenged about the finger. He's been through eight lawsuits and says "nobody could predate" his invention.
"I saw (Cyrus') dance, and I'd rather it had been with Hank Williams singing on 'Monday Night Football,' " said Fauss, who lives north of Houston. "But since then I've got 20,000 orders duplicating the design. I guess little girls are going to use it for Halloween, although I can't imagine that."
Chmelar never sought any monetary gain and insists that "technically, mine is not a foam finger, but it became that. I know enough about patents. I have one. I'm an idea guy and have created a lot of different things," he said, including auditorium seating for high schools and universities that became Riser Solutions.
Chmelar still has the original hand, although the newspaper used on the papier-mache has dried and become brittle.
He didn't watch the Video Music Awards - "it's not something I watch" - but did so online after he got the first reporter's call.
"I was disappointed to see it," he said. "It's almost like a national icon in sports venues and is very powerful to motivate teams. For it to be used as a prop for a raunchy dance routine wasn't very satisfying."
He was amazed how the story spread, and his simple analysis, using the word "disappointed," morphed into "alarmed" and "horrified" in some online media reports.
The good-humored Chmelar doesn't come across as alarmed. But he is exacting. He studied Cyrus' original dance and noticed something else:
"It was actually a left hand, and Miley wore it or on her right. So it was on backwards," he said.