Louis Pearl's father always wanted his son to be a doctor. Instead, he made a career out of blowing bubbles.
It's not the life Pearl predicted for himself, either. When he graduated from the University of California San Diego, with a degree in English, he just wanted to go sailing. But without a job, he had to find a creative way to afford it.
Pearl didn't have income, but what he did have was a random box of 100 "bubble trumpets," a funnel-like device for blowing bubbles that a former roommate falsely claimed to have invented. So he stood on a windless stretch of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, Calif., blew giant bubbles and sold the whole lot for $200 in two days.
"I was thrilled," he says. "I didn't have a lot of money. I didn't have a job. I didn't want a job."
Thus, the Amazing Bubble Man (amazingbubbleman.com) was born.
Today, Pearl performs regularly with his musician wife, Jetty Swart, aka Jet Black Pearl, at Southeast Portland's Clinton Street Theater. His one-hour show is a mix of magic, political commentary, French cabaret—and lots and lots of bubbles.
But Pearl didn't immediately leap from the street corner to the stage.
For two years off and on, he hawked bubble trumpets on the streets of Berkeley, eventually crossing paths with Wavy Gravy, the iconic Woodstock emcee who invited Pearl to perform bubble tricks as "the Pope of Soap" at the all-ages Camp Winnarainbow.
Along the way, Pearl purchased the rights to the bubble trumpet from the actual inventor, a man named Stardust Smith, sold the toy to stores, and built a company, Tangent Toys, with 147 products.
"I sort of felt I had been going off on a tangent in my life," says Pearl, now 61. "I never planned any of this."
Bubbles eventually pop, and so did Pearl's business, whose corporate customers, such as the Nature Company, disappeared in the market crash that followed 9/11. He sold his inventory and licensed his products to Washington-based Toysmith in 2002. Then he went on a new tangent.
In 2007, he appeared for the first time at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, expecting to perform for adults. He made a discovery: He was a hit with babies.
Now, he performs hundreds of shows a year, including about 30 at the Clinton Street Theater. He can pull off dozens of tricks, including square bubbles, tornado bubbles and bubbles inside bubbles.
At a recent show in June—Pearl will perform again at the Clinton Street Theater on July 14—Pearl created a rocket-like bubble filled with stage smoke that lifted into the air. Pearl urged the crowd to cheer when it hit the ceiling, "as if your team won the game—or your president got impeached." Cue uproar.
He may have never gone to medical school. But in a way, Pearl has achieved his father's dream. After all, blowing a free-floating bubble inside another free-floating bubble requires "surgical concentration," he says. The most concentric bubbles he's ever been able to do in a row is five.
"If I think about anything else," he says, "the bubble pops."
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