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Salt Lake City Weekly McCarthyism Revisited

"The Stringless Yo-Yo" shows how a Mormon helped end the "Red Scare."

By David Madison

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  "I've been dipped in shit more than anyone," says Harvey Job Matusow, reflecting on the battles he waged during the Communist witchhunts of the 1950s. "But I've come out of it without hate."

A high school dropout from the Bronx, Matusow wound up tossing a monkey wrench into Sen. Joe McCarthy's "Red Scare" machine. He pulled the job off like a con man, at first becoming a turncoat against Communists he once called friends, and then sabotaging the misguided crusade history remembers as McCarthyism.

"The media was making the anti-Communist informer a hero," recalls Matusow in his self-made documentary titled The Stringless Yo-Yo. Now a Mormon convert and resident of Glenwood, Utah, Matusow is credited with unraveling McCarthyism from the inside.

He grew up on the streets of New York City, became a "Communist flunky" with a group on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and then made history by playing the role of star witness in front of McCarthy's notorious committees. His perceived patriotism granted a highlife Matusow had never known, and he commanded a hero's welcome as the country grew more and more distracted by the hysteria of the "Red Scare." Matusow exploited that hysteria, literally toying with Congress and the country's salivating media.

Then, after discovering Mormonism through a relationship with Jack Anderson, a well-known Washington D.C. columnist, Matusow says he had a change of heart. He came forward and admitted telling a string of outrageous lies that McCarthy and others never questioned.

TV-free Utah: Matusow houses the state's only public access station in this bus.
photo: Fred Hayes

This damaged the senator's credibility, and years later, the Ford Foundation declared Matusow's hoax to be the major catalyst for defusing the "Red Scare." Writing a book called False Witness, Matusow went on to make fools of some of the most powerful politicians of the day.

The Stringless Yo-Yo scrapbooks this history, piecing together interviews and an impressive collection of newsreel footage. Like the raw documentary Atomic Cafe, which blends clips from Cold War propaganda and uses no narration, Matusow often lets The Stringless Yo-Yo speak for itself.

The video is named for an actual toy Matusow invented and then marketed in order to pay his attorneys during the '50s. And in some of the original footage, Matusow's own Stringless Yo Yo makes a hilarious appearance, just as angry senators are grilling him for lying to Congress. One senator glares at Matusow and demands the name of the manufacturer of The Stringless Yo-Yo. "Is he a member of the Communist Party?"

The newsreel shows Matusow and his attorney laughing at the senator's absurd suspicion. Matusow looks a little like a young Orson Wells, and his confidence before the intimidating senators is remarkable. Unfortunately, this solid defiance landed Matusow in federal prison. So, in 1957, when The Stringless Yo-Yo became one of the most-popular toys in the U.S., second only to the hula hoop, Matusow was locked up in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

He got out in 1960, but this documentary spends little time charting the past 38 years of Matusow's life. Now 71, he can rattle off a resume of unparalleled experience. It seems The Stringless Yo-Yo only manages to scratch the surface of this man's rich life.

Matusow has made a name for himself as an actor, a writer, an artist and an activist. He maintains an alter ego as Cockyboo the clown and started Utah's first public access television station in 1996. It's based out of Glenwood and housed in Matusow's old school bus.

Two hours a day, Cockyboo takes the stage in Glenwood during Magic Mouse Theatre, a children's show that Matusow hopes to bring to Salt Lake City's Channel 38.

At the end of The Stringless Yo-Yo, Cockyboo appears with a group of children singing a song. In the audience sits the Dalai Lama, who Matusow just happened to meet while working as an activist to free Tibet.

"That's the nature of my life," shrugs Matusow, whose odyssey has landed him roles in films like Young Guns II and an appearance on The Howdy Doody Show.

Matusow says he also used to hang out with different members of the press. That's how he managed to somehow hustle copies of original film footage — including out-takes — from the offices of CBS News. This visual archive gives The Stringless Yo-Yo a bit of coherence, even as Matusow wanders off on a variety of tangents.

But that's Matusow. His life seems to be a maze of tangents — of side streets that just happened to lead to somewhere important, interesting and original.

Calling collect from Taos, N.M. in 1954, Matusow spoke with publisher Albert Kahn about writing what would become False Witness. At the time, he thought about titling the book Blacklisting Was My Business.

Over the phone, Matusow arranged to meet Kahn in New York City. In his own book, Matusow Affair, published decades after the "Red Scare," Kahn reflects on his first meetings with McCarthy's star-witness-turned-whistleblower. He recalls Matusow's first-hand accounts from the front lines of the Communist witchhunt, including scenes of McCarthy himself "in an undershirt in hotel rooms cluttered with whiskey bottles."

Many such details didn't make it in to The Stringless Yo-Yo, and a longer documentary about Matusow might never run out of material. Even so, this hour-long, self-made project seems good for starters. It does its best to reveal a life filled with important history and a dizzying variety of experience.

Living comfortably now in rural Utah, Matusow calls himself a John Birch Communist. He believes in communal living, but embraces the American Dream. That sounds like a contradiction, but with Matusow, it's just another way of proving that people aren't always what they seem.

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