Inflatables - Search and Design 1974-1979

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In my transition from the music biz to whatever was next, I really didn’t have a clue what it was. All I had ever wanted to be was a rock and roll musician and now that was done at age 25. I was clueless. I had no experience at that point with transitions. The film and the interactive entertainment chapters would come later, but I waited for some inspiration to come and when it did it was a total surprise.

 

During this "in between" period I met Peter Richardson who was the head of the Mission Model Cities Program in San Francisco. Peter became a close friend and suggested maybe I could teach music programs at the child care program run by Susan Castro a pioneer in such things. I wasn't sure. I had never taught before, but I visited the centers which were mostly in school and church gymnasiums and found most of the musical instruments broken. The kids were running all over the place. Hardly an environment for quiet activities.

At Cal Poly I had a good many friends that were architecture students. In the late sixties we were always throwing some sort of outlandish "happening" event. Some of them involved big inflatable structures made of thin, transparent plastic pumped up by a big fan. I usually was the one staging whatever was going on inside the inflatables as we concocted music, dance, lights and some altered substance experiences. I had that memory when I looked at these child care centers and had a flash that I could design and build an inflatable learning space that would hold about eight kids. The fact that this had never been done before did not occur to me at the time. In that moment, my next phase of storytelling was birthed. I was going to create a space that you could tell stories in. Lots of trials and failures followed, but ultimately the project was funded by a grant from the San Francisco Foundation and that would lead to working in schools for three years plus designing a completely different type of inflatable used as portable theaters. I know, how did I get from music to inflatables, but at that moment I was excited by the possibilities without knowing what all was to come.

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Inflatable Learning Environments

If I had known the design problems involved with creating a learning “bubble” before I started I probably would have never done it. The big inflatables we had done in college had lots of air mass, so you could open a slit door and the structure would not collapse. If you did that with these small spaces, the ripstop fabric we used for the bubble skin would collapse on the inhabitants. Not exactly the best thing for kids in schools. I had also wanted the bubble to be easy to set up and taken down by the kids themselves and store in a box with the fan in it for

carrying it around. I also wanted to project educational film programs on to the inside of it.  I could draw it out, but how to build it I had no idea. San Francisco in those days was filled with all kinds of kinetic sculpture studios. Artists worked with a variety of materials and I had a crazy friend that liked the idea of working with fabric and air to create the bubble. We literally prototyped the first ILE out of white plastic. The first ones were miserable failures, but one night we actually created one that would stand up, not over inflate because of a unique venting system and get its air from a standard fan you could buy at a hardware store.

Here was the next challenge. Who was going to fund this project? No companies existed that offered these kind of learning environments.  I was used to making records for music companies. A friend told me about non-profit foundations. (I had no idea such a thing existed) As the story went, you gave them a proposal and they gave you money. That seemed easy. Little did I know it was a highly competitive. Again, ignorance was bliss (artists way) so I took some pictures of the prototype, wrote up a proposal to test it in a school and sent it out to foundations. The odds that it would be funded were astronomical low, but one day I got a call from Lew White at the San Francisco Foundation. He said they had no idea what this really was, but it was intriguing. They gave me $6,000 dollars. Enough at the time to get one made and test it in a few schools.

 

This began three years of work, multiple grants, working with educational media companies to provide the programs to the project and eventually the Foundation paid for a patent application on my behalf and to my surprise it was granted. Without even realizing what I was doing, we created something unique. This whole process was such a learning process for me. I would never again say something was impossible no matter how crazy the idea was AND that storytelling for me would take many forms.

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Airspan Inflatables

Somewhere in the period we were testing the ILE’s in schools, I took one of the prototypes to San Luis Obispo to show my old friend, Cliff Branch. Cliff and I had met briefly in college and then later after he started Warehouse Sound Company. Cliff, at one point when I was hung up in a legal battle with a music manager, made it possible for me to record the music that eventually became my solo album for Capital Records. We also had a lot of fun together in the seventies and eighties.

Cliff flipped out over the ILE and asked if we could make a theater sized one for a tour that a friend of his was doing. The design of the ILE was not suited for that size, but I did have an idea. Could you build it out of inflated tubes like an inflatable boat? I took the idea to a inflatable boat builder and there I met a genius named Ivan Swickard. Ivan was an expert on inflatable tubes. All the others at the company laughed at my idea, but Ivan smiled and said they were wrong. Ivan showed me how to design the tubes and when we were done, you could hang 200 pounds off the mid span. We built two of them, one for Vetter Motorcycles and the other for the Lawrence Hall of Science at Cal Berkeley. They both toured successfully for a year.   

Search and Design Inflatables

In this journey I had lots of help and encouragement from old friends and new ones made along the way. There was something about the inflatables that everyone liked. It has been suggested that we start a company and sell different kinds of inflatable structures. Cliff Branch had his advertising guy Doug Johnson create a beautiful brochure, we issued stock and we were in business. At some point however, I wondered if this is what I really wanted to do. I loved designing and making these things, but selling them was something else.

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The San Francisco Foundation did insist that I patent the ILE design. I had never thought of the design as that unique, but when the patent lawyers did a search of prior art, they found we did have something. The Foundation even paid for the application. To my surprise the patent was granted for 25 years. There isn't more to the story where companies began licensing the patent from me for lots of money. It was fun though to feel I was my Papa's grandson. Apparently a bit of the inventor in him rubbed off on me.

As I was pondering this, life took another turn. An old friend of mine who I had met in the Universal mail room was now a big time film producer. He was starting his own production company and wanted me to come to work for him. I felt the old pull to entertainment again. I had loved music production and film was just the next step. I eventually decided to forgo Search and Design, although we would resurrect it later for creating interactive entertainment. A creative chapter had come to close and another one opened up. This would be the way of it for the next 40 years.