What is a bubble? A universe? A career? A life? No one knows the mysteries of the bubble better than performer and educator Tom Noddy, the bubble master/wizard/scientist behind Bubble Magic. In an effort to let people see the inner workings of my creative process I’ve turned a series of emails into an article. The following is a communique between us where we discuss bubbles, love, street performing, science and the dynamics of energy exchange between performers and audiences. I hope you learn as much from Tom as I did, Enjoy!
Written by: Tom Noddy, Matt Heide
Editor: Malorie Urbanovitch
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Matt: Hello Tom, I just discovered you on Youtube. Your work is amazing. Can we chat?
Tom: Sure Matt .. what did you have in mind ... I'm usually best chatting in email ... but if you had a telephone call in mind .. um ... What are we talking about?
Matt: Just a few questions via e-mail about bubbles and life, if you have the time. I watched a video of your performance on Johnny Carson (1983), it was amazing! I have questions, [but] at any time if this is not worth your time just say and I'll stop asking. No hard feelings.
Tom: Are you writing something?
Matt: My intention isn’t to write a piece, it's personal interest. I'm part of an art studio that uses process driven techniques to generate "random" surface patterns. Our process leverages principles of fluid dynamics, surface tensions, flow, etc in concrete and mineral pigments to create something that looks loosely fractal.
Your passion for bubbles and the idea of conflating art and science to entertain and educate is dear to us as well. I can see from your performance on Carson that you understand real magic, that's why I had to reach out.
That being said I do write both for our studio blog and freelance. What you do is fascinating. If this group of questions started to look like an interview would you allow your words to be published? You would have final draft approval and could link the article to anything you want (ie: website, events coming up, etc).
Tom: I have no problem with you sharing what I write with your blog and I appreciate your offer to allow me to see and perhaps edit it ...
Matt: What did you eat for breakfast?
Tom: LOL! I built a lovely potato mushroom omelette.
Matt: That’s a little ice breaker I like to ask people, I’m always thinking about food. What were you doing before your appearance on Johnny Carson?
Tom: Before and after the appearance on the Tonight Show, I was performing on the sidewalks and passing the hat to make money to get by.
The bubbles and my puppet show ("Political, Social and Spiritual Satire with Puppets") was the only "work" that I had done for eight years by that time…before that I worked in factories or took odd jobs but mostly lived out of a backpack as I traveled across America and Europe hitchhiking.
Matt: I read an article in the LA times where you say you didn't consider yourself a good performer when you started in puppets, but what I saw on the Carson show was amazing. How did you go from being a poor performer with puppets to being an amazing performer with bubbles?
Tom: I was not really a poor performer with puppets, in fact, I got really good. The plays that I wrote were sometimes inspired pieces that came to me whole and wrote themselves on to the page complete with dialect and marks or sizes or block letter vs script to indicate how to deliver them…others came partially and then I gave some left brain attention and got really good at constructing smart and funny pieces.
Matt: So what did writing all these puppet plays lead you to?
Tom: After filling a notebook with [them], while I was living in California, I went back to the East coast and a friend surprised me by telling me that she was making and selling puppets on the sidewalks in New York City. I joined her and in return for helping to gather crowds and sell puppets, I got some lovely little hand puppets. I had assumed that all of this meant that I was supposed to build a puppet stage but I didn't get that together for a long time and when I finally did, I carried it back to California with me.
Matt: Did you ever perform with these puppets?
Tom: I performed many times on the streets. I [would] ask my audiences to just pretend that I was hidden from them. I referred to what I was doing as "honest puppetry" or "bad ventriloquism." In California, when I set up the stage and hid myself ... it was horrible ... I had become an important part of the charm of the show. I abandoned the stage. The show was good—some of it really good—and, in any case, I was a good performer who learned and got better.
Matt: So the LA Times got the story wrong?
Tom: What I was probably talking about in the article that you refer to was that I was not a very good street performer. Street performing requires something more than a good performer. I had seen it done right. I saw performers on the streets who were just a wonder to behold and I learned things from them but some of the things I saw were beyond my skills and some were not well suited to my temperament. Part of it was that I was living on the road and I was often new to whatever town I was performing in. I knew that I would make more money if I could build a crowd, play the crowd and at the energy peak get my hat out to them.
Matt: Ask for money at “peak energy” in a performance. These are great lessons for aspiring performers, but what is “peak energy”?
Tom: Well the energy peak for an audience is almost entirely in the hands of the performer, the single focus of their group attention. I eventually DID know [that] what I would end with would be impressive for the audience. [But] when I had the attention of the crowd I was more interested in performing everything that I [knew], and there is a limit to the amount of time that a street crowd will remain standing for a show they didn't plan for.
Matt: How long would you say an impromptu crowd typically lasts for?
Tom: The amount of time varies. It's different if you're performing at a tourist center like Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, Mallory Square in Key West or Faneuil Hall in Boston. But when you spring out of the background on a street corner or surprise people in a park or college campus they probably aren't going to sit—they'll lean your way for a bit and when you finish a song or in my case, a puppet play, it's a cue for some to go.
Matt: Show’s over folks.
Tom: I could [have] start[ed] over and with a newly gathered crowd but I cared more about the company than the money. I would reluctantly ask them for money. And by then, the people I was asking were the third audience...I had let the first two go without getting the hat out. Instead of saying funny things about them giving me bigger bills and such, I typically said "So, if you have any coins or bills or joints or a place to crash tonight or a ride north in the morning...if you don't have anything, neither do I...it's a nice day though, huh?" People responded to that by giving me coins, small bills and sometimes joints or banana bread, and sometimes a bed or a ride.
Matt: You get banana bread?
Tom: Yeah, banana bread, zucchini bread, polished stones, small poems or love notes. My hippie peers were often members of my audience and they were often as broke as I was but they did want to share and show their appreciation. I honestly valued those contributions and more than once it led me to a hot meal and a warm bed for the night, things I needed more than anything else.
Matt: Sorry, I digress, you were talking about being a good street performer.
Tom: No worries, another thing that kept me from being a "good street performer" was that more and more these tricks that I was evolving with soap bubbles became an important part of what I could offer. The wonder that they evoked created some wonderful synergy and opened hearts in a way that allowed me in IF if the wind didn't blow. Even a very slight breeze could keep me from being able to do what I was able to do and, especially on the coasts, there is always some wind.
Matt: That sounds tricky.
Tom: The thing that I was least good at—the thing that is a crucial skill for a street performer— is that I was terrible at calling out to passersby to bring them in [to watch the show].
Matt: Yeah, how do you get people’s attention?
Tom: I was by temperament, especially bad at this. But nothing attracts a crowd like having a crowd. On a college campus it happens at the hour and the half hour. Classes let out and come pouring across the campus. If the architecture is such that they funnel through some limited space, they are almost already a crowd and really all you need to do is stop enough people to obstruct the pedestrian traffic for a bit. If people further away look to see what it’s about and they see what looks like a curious audience in front of you, it will draw a number of them to that place.
Matt: Do you ever just make a lot of noise? Like bang on a drum?
Tom: There are some visual equivalents to banging a drum. Fire juggling or my smoke-filled bubbles were powerful crowd gatherers but if I was relying (as I often was) on the soap bubbles to draw a crowd then I also needed still air. If people saw me bouncing a smoke bubble from arm to arm, I wouldn't need to say a thing to gather a crowd. But with even a little bit of wind and any attention that the bubbles drew went literally up into the air. People pointed for their friends to see but if they were walking by me and didn't know me to be the source of that curiosity then it did me no good at all.
Matt: So how do you keep them there once they’ve gathered in front of you? I imagine it can be pretty hard to keep people in one spot for too long.
Tom: Once I had them—once I could think of them as my audience—I was never shy about it and I could easily and happily talk to them, charm them, make jokes about myself and brag about myself. But when they were passersby, [still] strangers, it was just the hardest thing in the world for me [to get their attention]. And when it didn't work, when I did call out to them and they just kept walking, I was mortified.
Matt: So how did you deal?
Tom: I never got really good. But I got better. Enough to know what to do when I stepped out onto the Tonight Show set and found myself in front of an audience that was actually sitting in chairs that were all facing me (!) while I stood in the light and they in the dark (!) and I had a microphone. I felt [their attention] immediately and I relaxed. I knew that I had something that I would never have on the streets: silence. That is such a sweet and useful thing, silence.
Matt: How exactly is silence so useful to you as a performer?
Tom: Mark Twain talked about it in something that I read once. He was advising his fellow authors who might, as he did, tour around and read from his works to a gathered audience. What he advised them was that they never *read* to them; you need to have learned—memorized—the passages you intend to present because you need to look at [the audience] and you need that especially when you come close to what he called "the nub", we call it now, "the punchline". But it's more about the pause, the silence that you want to leave just before the punchline. He talked about it being something that requires the utmost attention on the part of the presenter and that's mostly about the amount of time to leave the pause.
Matt: How long a pause is too long?
Tom: [Twain] says that you want it to be long enough to allow the slowest among [the audience] to catch up, but not so long that the quickest among them is able to anticipate the nub. He says that the only way to know when that point is right is to be looking at them, not down at your text.
Matt: So you need silence, but also memorization and timing.
Tom: On the streets, you never get silence. That, I believe, is why most good street performers have evolved at a very different pace to their comedy and almost all of them are of the “rat-a-tat-tat” school ... you don't, you can't leave a silence on the streets. If you do, it will be filled, it won't be silent. Some kid who is hanging around and saw your last performance will holler out your punchline and get the laugh for himself, or a bus will drive by making a noise that distracts and removes the build-up you were after and you have to drop your punch into that aural puddle. But there on the Tonight Show, if I left a silence then nothing would happen until I broke [it]...POP! I could hit it, I could tap it, I could say it as an aside to that girl on the left, it was mine to touch or not touch. I loved that.
Matt: From what I've read you're credited for inspiring many artists working in the same field as well as founding Bubble Festivals. Do you remember the first time you saw someone performing a trick you invented? What was going on in your head while watching? Starting a Bubble Festival is a clear step towards encouraging people to follow in your footsteps. What made you decide to go this route?
Tom: I don't know that I remember the first time, but I know what you are asking. [Watching other artists do my tricks] I found myself wanting to correct them—I thought they were doing it wrong. One friend, a guitar player who was a long time partner, went away and when he came back he showed me that he could do some of my tricks and he delivered them with some of my lines. I really didn't like it. [The way] he did it, I just felt like I was being mocked. I struggled with that for years.
Matt: Have you ever seen anyone doing bubble tricks that you haven’t seen before?
Tom: I met a man who had a bubble show that did not come from me. I had been asking [other] performers—magicians, jugglers—any older guys I met who had experience in the business. None of them had ever seen or even heard of a bubble act before me. And then I met a magician who knew about an old guy, Eiffel G. Plasterer. He lived on a farm in Indiana. In those pre-internet days it wasn't a simple thing to track someone down with that much information and no money. But I did track him down. I got him on the phone. I was on the East Coast and heading West and I asked if he would receive a visit from me on his farm if I detoured from my direct route. This octogenarian gentleman farmer graciously accepted my request and I drove to Huntington, Indiana.
Matt: Tell me about Eiffel.
Tom: Eiffel was a wizard. He was formerly a high school physics teacher and in that role, he found a classroom demonstration that helped his students to understand a number of principles by showing them surprising things that soap bubbles could show. It was so popular that it led him to take it to the fairgrounds and eventually, to what was left of the vaudeville stages of those days. His was a science demonstration but he was a performer. A teacher and a performer.
Matt: What did he show you?
Tom: Unfortunately, when I arrived I found out that he couldn't really set up to show me what it is that he did. He showed me some brochure. And he showed me bubbles that he kept in jars in his basement. I saw a bubble that he told me was 100 days old! He showed me another that was 220 days. His oldest bubble was 340 days old…he had special formulas and none of them allowed him to do most of the things that I do. When I set up to show him [my routine], the first thing I did was to blow a big bubble and then blow on the wall and create a bubble inside of a bubble. After 50 years of his work with bubbles, he had never seen them do that.
Matt: You impressed him?
Tom: We loved each other...and we loved that what we did was so different. We wrote letters afterwards. He had a beautiful hand writing and he addressed me like we might expect from an educated gentleman farmer, letters that spoke of "our great friendship".
Matt: That’s beautiful. Did you ever learn anything about bubbles from him?
Tom: Before I left his farm, I did have one question. He had these nine different formulas. He referred to some of them as fast and some were slow. He had wet and dry. I had the cheap stuff that everyone could buy at Woolworths. Standing just outside my van, preparing to step in and drive out West, I asked him about his formula. He met my eyes and [smiling], he said: "Are you asking me as a magician or as a scientist?" I'd never considered that. I sputtered ... "I, ah ... um ... as a ... as a ... scientist!" (it was a guess). He let a light in his eye show and he said "Well then, I'll have to tell you everything, won't I?" That was it. I knew that moment was what I had come for.
Matt: So did he change the way you think about sharing bubble knowledge?
Tom: You asked about the feeling of watching others do this thing that I had thought of as mine. Now I knew that that was just the wrong way of thinking about it. I went to the Exploratorium (San Francisco hands-on science center), I met scientists, I asked and answered questions and I told any and every thing that I knew to anyone who ever wanted to know any of it.
Matt: Did you and Eiffel ever get to work together?
Tom: My impulse, after the Tonight Show, was to get the Exploratorium to fly Eiffel to San Francisco to present his show and my show. I told them that there were, to my knowledge, only two bubble performers on the planet and you get them both together then what you have is an "International Bubble Festival" and...it'd be a cheap one. Fifteen thousand people came. And I got to see Eiffel Plasterer's performance of The Bubbles Concerto.
Matt: Can science be magic?
Tom: I believe in science but I named what I do Bubble Magic. The magic that I see in it is something that happens in the audience, or between me and them. They throw too much energy my way, more than is good for me. I've seen people who take in as much as they can and hold it—it's not good for us. We all need some…when I'm conscious, I work to throw it back at them as fully as I can, in the beginning. When I feel it, when it feels doable, I settle in and try to share in it, run on it. It IS magic and I do want some and am entitled to some but it's theirs and they get it too. When it fits we are poles and it moves through us and back to the other...
Matt: The dynamic between performers and their audience is interesting, I’d like to unpack this a bit. What can you tell me about throwing energy and energy exchange between performers and audience?
Tom: I'm not sure that I can explain that. When you're backstage, about to go on you might experience what are often described as butterflies in the stomach. Sometimes performers worry when they feel that, they take it as a sign that they are nervous and might blow it when they walk out on stage. But I think something like the opposite. That feeling is our bodies getting themselves ready to receive this flow of so much more energy than our own. All of those people focusing on us—feeding their energy into us.
Matt: Seems like that could be a bit intense.
Tom: That much is just true...I don't often hear others talk about it this way but it seems clear to me that these single vessels of ours (my body) isn't designed to absorb all of that energy and if you want to see a good example of what it looks like when people take and take that energy without sharing it back you can see it in the face of Donald Trump when he is onstage at those rallies of his. He does put it back out to them and they feel it when they leave. Just look at his face and body language as he swells with it.
Matt: How do you keep the energy flow open?
Tom: That thing that I said about throwing the energy back out to the audience is more difficult to talk about. Performers sometimes talk about bad audiences...you can force them to like you, you can carry them through the set-ups to the punchlines. They can stay focused based almost entirely on our own energy, but man, is that exhausting. The aftershow crash is a big one.
And [then] there are audiences that can carry the performer front to back. But the best is that flow that I talked about previously where the one person on stage is simply the spot that gives everyone a place to send their collective energy. It moves through them and back out with a slingshot force that's like that thing that sends satellites onto the next planet with renewed force. Everyone is giving and everyone [is] receiving. After such a show the performer is energized, not ready to crash...and so is the audience.
Matt: Who do you think are some of the greatest street performers?
Tom: Johnny Fox, Gazzo, Butterfly Man, Frank Olivier, Reverend Chumleigh, Robert Hartman.
But before they got themselves into theaters I thought that the Flying Karamazov Brothers were remarkable. They jumped up, four guys, with fast paced, smart dialogue fired out quicker than the slower members of the audience could keep up with. They did remarkable juggling. Between jokes they had their hats off and were running out into the crowd, still calling out lines as they scattered in all directions. The audience didn't have time to examine the bills they reached into their wallets for. Is it a one [dollar bill], [or] a twenty? No time, they're passing by—throw it in. Then they set up and did it again... and again...
Matt: What's the first bubble you can remember?
Tom: The first bubble I remember was when I was a boy, probably 7 years old. I had an aunt who had come to visit from far away, and I adored her. She was an aunt but just a teenager and the novelty of that was huge. She liked kids and happily played with us. At one moment, she and I stood in the sunshine while she dipped a plastic wand into the glass jar of bubbles she'd bought at the store. I watched as she blew streams of bubbles into the sunshine. The colors were magical but so were her lips and her laugh. I remember my heart thumping ... that and what must have been the warmth of the sun is deeply embedded in my memory ... individual bubbles splitting off from the long stream that emerged as she blew.
Matt: Thank you Tom.
Bubble Mirror > see what's in stock here >
Approximately 20” x 20” x 4.5”
Weight 30 lb
Mounts with easy-to-hang aluminum french cleat