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Bubbling Over : A Sterling-Silver Bubble Blower Has Burst Onto the Scene as Celebrities' Trinket of Choice

June 28, 1990|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Part bauble, part toy, the Bubbler hangs around some of the best-known necks in town.

Madonna has one and gave them as Christmas gifts.

Singer Tina Turner got hers when she turned 50.

Ron Howard, Darryl Hannah, Pierce Brosnan, Debra Winger, Gary Busey, Emilio Estevez, Stevie Nicks, Dick Van Dyke and Olivia Newton John all have them.

TV's Maria Shriver, wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, was given two when daughter Katherine was born in December.

Supermodel Christie Brinkley was spotted playing with one in an Aspen, Colo., disco.

"Everybody's got them, from Whoopi Goldberg to Larry Hagman," said Robert Walker, actor and co-owner of Tops Malibu, the functional art shop where the sterling-silver bubble blower is the No. 1 bestseller. That despite--or perhaps because of--its $65 price tag. "It was the hit of Christmas," said Walker, who reports that Tops sold almost 1,000 over the holidays, including a goodly number of gold Bubblers at $350 each.

So popular is the pricey little plaything that Walker and wife Judy have entered into an agreement with its creator, New Mexico jewelry maker Ted Cutter, and wife Mary Quitzau to market it throughout the United States and abroad. Their new company is called Tops Malibu Wholesale to distinguish it from the Malibu retail store.

In a recent interview in People magazine, Judy Walker compared the Bubbler, which hangs from a black satin cord, to a chain letter. "One person buys one and three or four friends come rushing in," she said.

The trinket of choice is a round or cylindrical container that includes a reservoir for bubble fluid and a combination stopper and bubble wand. Some are inset with semiprecious stones. The pendant comes with a kit that includes a tiny funnel and a bottle of bubble soap. Recently the Walkers found a formula that produces a better bubble. Instead of a stream, he said, "it gives us a bouquet of bubbles."

They are marketing it under the name Malibubbles.

Walker says that people sometimes look around nervously the first time someone pulls one out, apparently remembering the little silver coke spoons that once hung around people's necks. But the Bubbler is as innocent as the Hula-Hoop. In Quitzau's view, its appeal is that it gives its owner permission to have fun.

"The look on a person's face when she first sees the Bubbler is like that of a child whose mom just said, 'It's OK,' " she said. "Wherever your mom wouldn't let you take the 49-cent container of bubbles is where you're allowed to take your Bubbler: on an airplane, in a restaurant, in bed or in the boardroom."

It also has an "interactive quality," Quitzau said. People are always telling her with whom they blew bubbles--or at whom.

"They're great for traffic jams," says Walker, who wears his on a leather cord "because it's more macho."

Anti-smoker Larry Hagman whips his Bubbler out whenever someone lights up a cigarette nearby. Actress Deborah Harmon, who stars on the TV show "Just the Ten of Us," likes to blow bubbles when she's waiting in line at the movies (she will be involved in the product's promotion, the Walkers said).

Other customers include a new widow who thought it might cheer her up and an animal trainer who has incorporated it into her elephant act. People who have worn them overseas say they draw children like the sound of an ice cream truck. A San Diego woman told the Walkers she distracted herself with a gold Bubbler while she was in labor.

Judy Walker, who was wearing two when interviewed, says she uses hers when she and Bobby are lying in front of a fire and on other occasions that seem to warrant "that kind of punctuation of relaxing." The Walkers also give them as gifts. Among the recipients: his mother, actress Jennifer Jones, and stepfather, corporate tycoon and art collector Norton Simon. They have not given one to Judy's father, geneticist Arno Motulsky, whose initial response was, "What? People really buy these?"

According to Quitzau, who talks to the press for the pair, Cutter began making tiny canteens and other containers to be worn as jewelry when he was a fine-arts student at the University of New Mexico in the late 1970s. In the course of a faculty-student critique session, someone jokingly suggested he make a bubble blower. Cutter never intended to make more than one, his wife said, "but people kept asking for them."

Cutter also makes other jewelry-playthings, including a sterling-silver pea shooter that comes with 10 jade peas.

For years Cutter made each bubble blower himself. In 1987, he perfected a method for making the chic plaything in assembly-line fashion. Able to produce hundreds instead of dozens, the couple began distributing them through Neiman Marcus and other retail outlets. Cutter now has three helpers and can make 2,000 a month.

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