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A Special Bed Just in Case the Earth Really Does Move

L.A. STORIES: A slice of life in Southern California

September 14, 1993|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was built as a better bedstead for the Big One. With it, reasoned designer Curly Jon Ward, his four-poster flop would become no one's final resting place.

"People told me: 'Helluvan-idea. Got to get one for my grandmother who is terrified of earthquakes,' " Ward says. "I thought we'd ship 50 units within the first year, 400 the next, then 600 . . . "

He built his bed strong as a brick outhouse: "Eight two-inch, black-iron pipes tested to take 160,000 pounds of down force. Hell, you could drop a 10-story apartment building on it and the bed would poke through. . . ."

He made it as customer friendly as Lego: "Adding bars you can go from crib to king size. A lady and her friend could assemble one with simple household tools. You could even order one with curtain rings and lace to make it like a Southern canopy bed. . . ."

He played P.T. Barnum, shooting a video of a prop house collapsing on a bed and a supposedly snoozing Ward: "We sent out 350 videos, hired a marketing expert, got an 800 number, set up to accept Visa and MasterCard, even got a small plug in Time magazine. . . . "

Then he rested and awaited the thunder--probably enough to quiver the Richter scale--of the world beating a path to his door.

Silence.

Nothing stirred.

Not one sale so far.

Leaving Ward quietly shook up, and reducing his Earthquake Beds to a still, silent, sad tangle of steel, packing boxes and bolts stored alongside his high-desert home and workshop at Agua Dulce, near Vasquez Rocks.

"Thirty-five beds, all-finished, all ready to powder coat, and the boxes to ship 'em in," moans Ward, 56, maker of race cars, director of television commercials and builder of studio props, "$150,000 sitting in a pile. Isn't that a joke?

"Unless it's your money."

*

It could be the public has put price before personal safety. At $2,999 retail--about the price of a Louis XIV twin bed with satin pillows--the Earthquake Bed certainly carries sticker aftershock.

Or maybe a society geared to instant gratification is setting low priority on protection against something that might never happen?

"It does appear people are more concerned with buying a Hyundai or a wide-screen TV than investing in their own safety," Ward says. "Like seat belts, they don't start wearing them until they get a ticket."

Or maybe they think the quake that will curl our toes will break someone else's head?

"In March we showed two Earthquake Beds at a home show. A lot of attention, but mostly elderly people and, oddly enough, Asians," he recalls.

"Elderly people seem more concerned about the length of the rest of their life. Asians were curious, maybe because in all those eight-point-something earthquakes in Japan, people seem to be in bed and get their butts squashed by homes falling on them.

Years ago, at a lakeside boondocker where the beer flowed like Jack Daniel's, Ward and wife, Shirley, and friends discussed violence slopping from streets into homes.

They knew a woman in Manhattan who had been assaulted in her bed by a burglar.

"Our original, half-swacked idea was for an assault-proof bed, something with chain mail screens or those armored shutters that drop in seconds," Ward remembers. "I thought it was pure paranoia to build an assault-proof bed, even for Manhattan.

"Then Shirley made a suggestion: How about an earthquake bed?"

Nah. But the idea hibernated in the hangovers.

Until last year when a small shaker brought grandchildren running into the Wards' bedroom. They were screaming and yelling about being squished in their beds.

Says Ward: "We finally decided to act on Shirley's idea."

*

He didn't need to look far for perfect protection. As a racer of sprint, midget, stock, sports and formula cars--he won a class title at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1969--Ward knew precisely what saved his skull when vehicles went grubby side up: A roll cage.

So he build a boudoir coop from eight two-inch pipes and 32 three-inch bolts. Two pipes to a post. Four posts to a bed. With a steel mesh roof to prevent ceiling plaster and light fixtures from messing your pajamas.

A lower frame is made from the same two-inch steel pipes. And the whole weighs 650 pounds. So stub a toe on a midnight visit to the bathroom, and your screams should carry to Bakersfield.

Ward's research told him that earthquakes don't always happen between the hours of Jay Leno and "Good Morning, America."

And houses are toppled by more than earthquakes and foreclosed mortgages. Ward believes an Earthquake Bed will keep us safe from the falling detritus of a Hurricane Basil, propane explosions, IRA bombings, mis-swung wreckers' balls, tornadoes, wayward semis and light airplanes landing at the wrong time and place.

Yet, despite this commercial potential, the bottom clearly has dropped out of Ward's market. Truth is, the market didn't stir long enough for a bottom to form.

Ward and wife sleep tight on an Earthquake Bed. So does a buddy over the hill. There's a queen size and a crib used for demonstrations on that same hill. And Wertz Bros. in West Los Angeles has a floor sample.

Ward isn't sure what lies ahead.

He has entered a 500-horsepower Studebaker in next month's La Carrera Panamericana road race in Mexico, which he won in 1991. There's a restaurant he owns and a mission for handicapped youngsters he supports in Zitacuaro, Mexico. He might move to fresh fields in Alpine, Tex., and build race cars.

Or, given the impetus, he could modify his original work.

There's still that need for assault-proof beds in Manhattan.

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