As a young Jewish boy growing up in San Francisco, Louis Pearl knew he was expected to become a doctor. His father, Dr. Milton Pearl, was the well-regarded chief of surgery and chief of staff at Mount Zion Hospital. Pearl’s brother, Jeffrey, followed suit into medical school, eventually becoming the associate dean at UCSF/Mount Zion after the hospital merged with the university.
And Louis? Louis Pearl became the Amazing Bubble Man.
With 30 years of live, interactive bubble performances at places like Edinburgh’s renowned Fringe Festival; rave reviews and a legion of dedicated fans; 21 “bubble inventions” and two books about bubbles under his belt, Pearl has made a name for himself as the father of an art form that’s not often considered beyond children’s birthday party entertainment.
That’s a big mistake, says Pearl, 54. “It’s absolutely an art form, and it’s performance art. There are so many elements to experiment with — light, color, music, different gases like smoke and helium,” he adds. “These are not the bubbles your grandma used to blow.”
Pearl’s family-friendly performance, “The World’s Funniest Bubble Show,” will run through June at the Marsh Berkeley Theater Stage. At month’s end, he will fly to Auckland, New Zealand to open a full-scale theatrical bubble production designed around his work — “directors, lighting directors, set designers, everything,” says Pearl — that’s the result of selling out theaters five years in a row in Edinburgh.
It will be a break from Pearl’s usual schedule, which involves traveling mainly to appear in schools, smaller theaters and science museums. Although every now and then, “I have had top photographers fly me out to New York to put naked models in bubbles,” says the artist. “Just a handful of times.”
Pearl grew up in the Richmond District and attended George Washington High School; his family belonged to Congregation Beth Sholom. He majored in English and art at U.C. San Diego. “I thought I was going to be a writer,” he remembers. It was in New Hampshire, where Pearl spent a few months on a Dartmouth College-UCSD exchange program, that he first discovered the magic of bubbles.
“I was 20, and late at night in the dorms, it started as me and my friends just playing around,” he recalls. “We’d make giant bubbles. We figured out how to fill them with smoke, shine lights on them in different ways, make movies of them.”
After graduation, while living in Berkeley, he discovered a toy called the Bubble Trumpet. He began performing with it, demonstrating how to use the toy and selling it near the university, quickly becoming a fixture on Telegraph Avenue. His act was a hit. His repertoire grew as he learned how to make “square bubbles, bubbles in the shape of a spaceship — you name it,” he says. “And the next thing I knew, I had founded a toy company.” Berkeley’s the Nature Company published his first book and interactive bubble kit for kids.
In 1983, a chance run-in with the iconic activist and entertainer Wavy Gravy changed Pearl’s life. The two met in a nightclub in Mill Valley, and when Pearl demonstrated a bit of his act, the activist invited Pearl to Camp Winnarainbow, his theater and circus arts camp, for a session with adults before the kids arrived.
“That was how I learned to be onstage,” says Pearl, who lives in Sebastopol when he’s not on the road. “I’ve been doing shows ever since.”
Pearl can cater his performances to almost any demographic, and he regularly performs for toddlers, elementary through high school–age students — often incorporating age-appropriate science lessons about physics and aerodynamics. However, he’s been working intensely the past few months on taking his shows for adults to the next level. To that end, he’s collaborating with his wife, the singer and performer Jetty Swart, to incorporate her music into his performances. The two are currently using a former dance studio in Oakland as a rehearsal space. Pearl also still operates his online toy company, Tangent Toys.
He’s happy to count his parents, who initially were skeptical about his career, among his many fans.
“Like all Jewish parents, they wanted their kid to have a successful career … and when I first started out, I know there was a period of time when they were worried because it didn’t seem like I had a real job. They didn’t get what I was doing,” recalls Pearl. “And then one day I got my father out on the back porch of the house to try some of it. And he blew this really giant bubble and couldn’t stop laughing. And he got it. That was it.” Soon after, the esteemed doctor helped his son found his company.
It’s one of the many moments that has made Pearl feel grateful for his unusual career path.
“I never imagined it would go on this long,” he says. “I thought it was just something I would do while I was in my 20s, until I figured what else I could do for a living … and then this thing that was just fun for me got successful.
“And it’s still fun,” he adds. “I have more fun doing shows onstage than any other job I could think of.”
The Bubble Man 11 a.m. Sunday, June 3, plus June 10, 16, 24 and 30 at the Marsh, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley. $8-$11. (415) 826-5750 or www.themarsh.org. For more info on Pearl visit www.amazingbubbleman.com.