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Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

After four years on Santa Monica Pier, Tim Dillenbeck is popular with visitors but not with authorities.

November 14, 2000|ROBERT GAUTHIER

But how about the Bubbleman of Santa Monica?

Tim Dillenbeck, whose Rube Goldberg-like bubble-making machines are a fixture on the Santa Monica Pier, says he should have the right to blow bubbles day and night. But his obsession to blow bubbles during restricted hours has led him to the police station, the municipal courthouse and to jail. After four years on the pier, he's nearly broke and is having trouble paying his rent.

"Let's get a grip now; we're talking bubbles here," says Dillenbeck, 52, who carries a fistful of weathered misdemeanor violation tickets. The Van Nuys resident abhors a Santa Monica ordinance that limits the hours that street performers and artists can set up on the pier. "At the very least we should be on parity with the [performers on] the Third Street Promenade."

Dillenbeck, who makes most of his money from tips, has received more than a dozen tickets--most of them in recent months--for violating the performance curfew (10 on weeknights and midnight on weekends) and for other related offenses. "I never hold it against an officer if they believe their duty dictates them giving me a ticket," he says. "There's a law on the books. . . . Until the law is changed, I'm at the whim and discretion of each officer."

At the same time, he says, some of the tickets have been unjustified. And he hopes that through persistence, the city may ultimately rethink its policy.

"I'm not doing this just for myself; the law is silly, and everyone suffers," Dillenbeck says. "Santa Monica is the first municipality in the U.S. to have jailed someone for blowing bubbles."

The ordinance is meant to help businesses and street performers co-exist, according to the director of the organization that helps manage the pier for the city. "The purpose of the ordinance is to try to establish guidelines and rules," said Jan Palchikoff Monica Pier Restoration Corp., who added that it is subject to future review.

Santa Monica Police Lt. Betsy Stratton said her department has been "fairly lenient on" Dillenbeck. "We don't make a judgment on the ordinance, we just enforce it," she said. "That's what police departments do, we enforce the law."


A self-described hippie who made his first bubble-blowing machine as a hobby in 1970, Dillenbeck says he finds creating bubbles the most fulfilling thing he can do. He does it "to make people smile," he said, "that's the bottom line. It results in 100% positive response from everyone."

After years of jobs ranging from designing concert sound systems for rock 'n' roll bands such as Fleetwood Mac and Lynyrd Skynyrd, to designing and assembling robotic stage lighting, Dillenbeck settled into a life making bubbles.

He builds his machines, some of which he sells to supplement his pier earnings, out of aluminum, stainless steel, nylon and plastic in a small Van Nuys shop he rents, not far from his mobile home. A finished bubble blower measures 11 inches wide, 11 inches tall and 4 inches deep. It holds about 16 ounces of fluid, which he purchases retail from Toys-R-Us because he considers it the highest quality available. Eight plastic wands travel in a circular motion, emerging from the mixture and passing in front of a small, electric fan, to deliver a payload of bubbles that shoots forth like a friendly meteor shower.

"I leave the pier [each day] having made thousands of people smile," he said in his swift-moving voice. "Thus, in our silly little ways we achieve our immortality through the memory of others."

Dillenbeck's hair is matted, long and stringy. His beard is full and bushy and snakes down over his belly. He pushes a rusty cart loaded meticulously with milk crates full of tools, bags, bungee cords, clamps, batteries, spare parts, bottles of bubble fluid and two handcrafted bubble-blowing machines. At first glance, he looks like a homeless man traveling slowly to nowhere.

"Let's face it," he says while heading to his usual spot on the wood planks of the pier. "I've got an image to overcome. I work doubly hard because it's a matter of pride." He believes if someone talks with him a few minutes, "usually all the hair and all this can disappear as far as [how] they perceive me. I enjoy turning the preconceptions upside down."


In the last year, Dillenbeck has been cited for running his bubble machine at sunrise, blowing bubbles in a no-performance zone on the pier during a city-sponsored concert, and blowing bubbles after hours on New Year's Eve. He says that in each of those instances, he was not soliciting tips, but merely expressing himself and adding to the ambience of one of the region's most prominent and free-form gathering spots.

In some cases, he has been sentenced to community service (sweeping sand off Santa Monica beach walkways), or small fines. At other times, such as in early October, his violations have been dismissed in court. Once, though, Dillenbeck paid a particularly steep price for his bubble-making. He was sent to jail after a tussle with an officer.

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