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His Life’s a Soap Opera

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tom Noddy makes a living blowing soap bubbles. With a wand or two and the cheapest soap solution around, he can transform the elusive spheres into caterpillars that dance or a volcano that blows its top. He can create a cube-shaped bubble, seeming to defy the laws of physics.

But explaining the properties of science are precisely the point of his performances Saturday and Sunday at the Launch Pad’s fourth annual Bubble Festival at South Coast Plaza in Santa Ana. He’s been the festival’s main attraction every year because of his ability to illustrate such concepts as surface tension or air pressure while being entertaining, said Pam Shambra, the museum’s director of marketing.

The 47-year-old Noddy has spent most of his adult life perfecting his bubble ability. He happened upon the talent while trying to save money to travel in Europe when he was 21. Instead of going out with friends, he holed up in his room at home in New Jersey perfecting such skills of childhood as the yo-yo and jacks. The bubbles took hold.

“It never got boring. I was doing things. Nature was doing things. I was watching things nature was doing. Two bubbles in the air would bounce off each other. Two bubbles would hit and become one. I wondered, ‘Could I make it happen?’ ” Noddy said.

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After 10 years as a street performer, he packed up his puppet show and made his sideline the main attraction. His evolution as a bubble-ologist was helped along by “science guys” who would stop to explain to him why he was able to perform a trick. They told him about an old book, “Soap Bubbles: Their Colours and Forces Which Mould Them,” written at the turn of the century by an English physicist. It became his bubble bible.

He took his act indoors, to science museums in the United States and in vaudeville acts in Europe and more than 30 other countries. Away from the outdoor elements, the properties he saw in practice at home--he prefers to call it “playing"--began to appear, as if by magic, in his act. “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” first came calling in 1983, which put his slippery career on sturdier footing. (The Santa Cruz resident will perform strictly for grown-ups April 21-27 at the Magic Castle in Hollywood.)

He creates a 12-sided jewel bubble, bubbles inside of bubbles, a “love bubble” where two become one, a “wonderland bubble” filled with smoke that eerily swirls around like dense fog inside the sphere. (Smoke is an essential element in his concoctions, but he gave up smoking tobacco two years ago. Instead, he puffs on herbal cigarettes that he says smell like incense, and he gives the kids a “smoking is yucky” message at the beginning of his act.)

“The bubble guy,” as he is universally known, likes playing science museums because of the diverse crowds he draws. “I have 2-year-olds and physics professors in the audience, and both are taking an interest in what is going on,” Noddy said.

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“He’s a terrific entertainer, and he has a great following,” Shambra said. “The second year he performed, it was the first time we had seen adults come to the Launch Pad by themselves.” Entire college physics classes have been assigned to attend his show.

After his routine, which lasts about 20 minutes, Noddy gives parents with young children a chance to flee to the interactive bubble exhibits before he takes questions. Activities will include painting with bubbles, creating geometric bubble wands, making string and straw bubble blowers and experimenting with bubbles and dry ice.

“It’s amazing, the things he can do with bubbles,” said Rob Casaba, education program manager at the Launch Pad. “He’s taking something that everyone’s seen, and he’s doing something with them that you probably never imagine you can do.

“I’ve seen the show probably eight or nine times in the last three years. I always say, ‘I’m going to watch the first 10 minutes,’ then I end up staying for the whole show.”

BE THERE

Fourth Annual Bubble Festival, featuring Tom Noddy at the Launch Pad, South Coast Plaza’s Crystal Court, 3333 Bear St., Santa Ana; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. $3.25, Launch Pad members, $5.75 nonmembers, includes admission to museum. Space is limited. To reserve tickets, call (714) 546-2061. Running time: About 50 minutes.


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