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Blizzard of Tchotchkes

Corbin Bernsen Is Shaken Up Over Snow Domes

October 19, 2003|MARIA WILHELM FERNANDEZ

No two ways about it, Corbin Bernsen is a little obsessive. Neatly organized in labeled boxes are the following: Every T-shirt and baseball cap the actor has owned since the 1960s, his Shogun Warrior robots, tin windup toys and "Bobble Head" sports figurines such as Cal Ripken and Mickey Mantle. "The nodding heads were getting out of hand," he says. "I had to stop that."

But that's not the hard stuff. Bernsen's real obsession is what he calls "little, protected, comforting worlds," also known as snow domes. Best known for his TV role as Arnie Becker, the unctuous, megalomaniacal lawyer on "L.A. Law," Bernsen has one of the world's largest snow dome collections at upward of 6,000. There's former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with snowy flecks dotting her stiff 'do. There are cartoon characters and blizzards in locales where snow is a rarity, such as the Virgin Islands' St. Thomas and the Hawaiian city of Honolulu. There's Gen. MacArthur, circa 1940, dozens of Disney domes and a macabre tableau from the Coen brothers' film "Fargo," featuring the infamous woodchopper on a blood-spattered snowscape.

Bernsen's domes are organized in categories such as Skyscrapers, Spam, Santa and Snowmen (a subcategory of Christmas). They fill old pharmacy cabinets lining the walls of a nondescript San Fernando Valley storage locker. His passion for domes has its roots in the late '80s and early '90s, when he was traveling around the country doing publicity tours for "L.A. Law" and discovered a world of "amazing pop art," as he characterizes his collection. By the mid '90s, he had 2,000 domes (plastic tops) and globes (glass) and was frequenting snow dome get-togethers and corresponding with other collectors. At one point, he even ran an ad in this newspaper: "Snow Domes Wanted: Will Buy." "I got calls from real kooks," he says.

Snow globes reputedly have been circulating since the late 1880s; in the mid-1890s a ceramic model of the Eiffel Tower was sold in Paris. Japan and Germany produced fine-glass globes in the '30s, American-made globes became prevalent in the '40s and Hong Kong-fabricated plastic domes proliferated in the late '50s and '60s. During that period some U.S. trucking companies adopted snow domes as a form of advertising, much like coffee mugs and pens are used today.

Between acting assignments and Public Film Works, a production company he launched recently, Bernsen, 49, is working on plans to manufacture snow domes. He already has designed and produced several, for Qantas airline, Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Hotel and UCLA, where he received an MFA in playwriting. "It's not like I'm walking around in a smoking jacket, velour slippers and a Speedo," says Bernsen. "I admit I'm somewhat eccentric, but in a very normal package."

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