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Wherever He Is, He Bubbles With Enthusiasm : For a quarter-century now, Tom Noddy has been creating soapy wonders and performing tricks with them in shows around the world.

February 11, 1995|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Life's a bubble for Tom Noddy.

Specifically, it's a caterpillar bubble, a bubble inside a bubble, a jewel bubble, a bubble big enough to surround a 6-foot-tall person and a multitude of other soapy wonders. All of those can be seen today and Sunday at the Launch Pad in Costa Mesa. Noddy's "Bubble Magic" show launches the pad's second annual Bubble Festival.

If for no other reason than lack of competition, he's considered the world's foremost bubble-ologist.

"Bubbles are just a little liquid soap and a breath of air," Noddy, 45, said in a phone interview from his home in Santa Cruz. "I use ordinary soap bubbles, the dime-store stuff, two wands and a plastic straw. I fill some bubbles with smoke from a non-tobacco cigarette. But I have yet to blow an ugly bubble. Every one's a jewel, a transient jewel."

Though Noddy has been playing with bubbles for a quarter-century now, his career really began to bubble in 1982, when he first appeared on "The Tonight Show." He appeared twice more on that show, and on countless other shows and newscasts here and around the world since. He's blown bubbles in Chile, Australia, Yugoslavia and Japan; he produced his first Bubble Festival at San Francisco's Exploratorium in 1983.

Like his bubbles, Noddy is somewhat transient himself. He tours most of the year; in fact, he began his career as a street performer.

"I took a job in a New Jersey factory, but as soon as I took it, I set a date for quitting," he recalled. "I was 20 years old and saving money for (a trip to) Europe."

Looking for cheap ways to entertain himself after work, he first tried his hand at the yo-yo, then a plywood paddle, to which a rubber ball is attached with a rubber cord.

As for his experience with the paddle board, Noddy said: "I got up to 600 paddles . . . before I got bored. Then I got soap bubbles, and they never got boring.

"I tried to do a puppet show on the streets, and I wasn't a very good street performer. But I found that I could stand in one place in Central Park and bounce a soap bubble on my arm, and I didn't have to gather a crowd for the puppet show. I had a crowd."

Noddy now makes a living blowing bubbles at science museums and colleges around the United States. He also performs at corporate parties and at trade fairs--promoting such products as bubble-jet printers and bubbling hot tubs--and often appears on TV shows abroad. He boasts that he uses no gimmicks in his show. In his 1988 book, "Tom Noddy's Bubble Magic" (Running Press, 1988), he shares the secrets to most of his bubble tricks.

He also includes a "bubbliography" and expounds on the "fizzix" of bubbles. He notes, for instance, that the bubbles in a sink, which most people think of as suds or foam, are actually a "plethora of polychromic polygons and polyhedra."

"There are dodecahedrons and tetrahedrons and all sorts of shapes in there," Noddy said. "If you look closely at suds, you'll go crazy. But you'll also find cubes. Bubble cubes are central to what I do." A bubble cube is created when a cluster of six bubbles surrounds a seventh. "That center bubble is being pressed on equally. If I could press you equally from six different directions, you'd be a cube too."

A bubble cube, however, is "a spherical cube, not a square cube," a cube with "traumatically" bulging sides. Researching the physics of soap film, Noddy found that bubble walls never join other bubble walls at 90-degree angles but, rather, at 120 degree angles, and that "bubble edges always meet bubble edges at 109 degrees, 28 minutes and 16 seconds. That's California time. And that's a joke. 120 degrees between the walls, 109 between the edges.

"That apparent chaos in your suds has an exact and repeating order to it," he said. "All the bubbles that have ever been, join at 120 degrees. When dinosaurs were frothing at the mouth, that little spit at the corner . . . ."

Though not that old, bubble-blowing among humans is a time-honored pastime. In fact, Noddy joins a distinguished line of bubble enthusiasts, including 18th-Century mathematician Sir Isaac Newton and British scientist C.V. Boys, whose turn-of-the-century tome "Soap-Bubbles, Their Colours and Forces Which Mould Them" is still in print; Noddy considers it the "bubble Bible."

In "Mathematics and Optimal Form" (Scientific American Books, 1985), authors Stefan Hildebrandt and Anthony Tromba note that there is an Etruscan vase in the Louvre portraying children blowing bubbles. The book also includes photographs of Noddy with such creations as a "near dodecahedron within a bubble cluster" and a "worm" of 17 bubbles.

The caterpillar, as Noddy calls the worm, is actually a chain of bubbles, "typically eight in a row, and I make it dance. My record chain is actually 18--on a really still, good day and it's not too dry and I was really quick and I was in the mood, you know?"

For his local performances, Noddy will also put himself inside a bubble.

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