My husband and I drove up to Fullerton last week to see the sparkleballs. The neighbors of North Yale Avenue have been festooning their giant elms with sparkleballs for years now. With the other streets that have joined in, there must be close to a thousand sparkleballs. (If I exaggerate, it doesn’t matter. It feels like a thousand sparkleballs.) It’s as fantastical as I remember, even if they’ve lost a few of their dear trees over the years. Don Bales has built a new giant sparkleball even more amazing as the last one. Jeff’s house is still the most festive. A new city councilman lives in the neighborhood! And it was still fun to see the street during daylight, to admire the feat of wiring that makes this whole show sing. I marvel at a neighborhood that can work together to make this beautiful thing. To learn more read here :)
I’m a darn good googler. My sister Kate calls me Nancy Drew. On the trail I’ll hunt for hours. Days, even. But the Inventor of Sparkleballs? I’m stumped. Who was the genius who fiddled with 50 Solo cups, discovered they made a perfect sphere, added Christmas lights and made the coolest homemade decoration of all time?
I bought my first sparkleball in 1994 outside Tyler, Texas from a rough character selling them on the roadside. (story here) But when I took it home to Richmond, Virginia, people told me they’d been buying them for ages from a man on the river, who sold them through a local hardware store.
On a visit to N Yale Ave in Fullerton to see the neighborhood of 500 sparkleballs, I thought I had a lead. The organizers learned to make sparkleballs from Don Bale’s dad, a man from the midwest, but that’s as far as I got. Maybe the inventors were Victor Papenek and James Hennessey. Their instructions for “Bubble Lamp,” a light fixture made of styrofoam cups, are in the 1973 classic DIY book Nomadic Furniture.
There’s also the story that sparkle balls began as a RV thing, and that they spread among U.S. campgrounds in the 1960s. Look at the sparkleballer map, and you’ll see the most markers in California and Texas. Is that a clue?
I don’t even know where I found the photo above. But when I did, I thought it’s him!
Please tell me if you know.
Or maybe not.
Maybe I’ve grown fond of the mystery :)
(NOTE added. 12 May 2016) Guy writes he bought a sparkleball in La Mirada CA in 1989. That’s close to Fullerton. I’ll put a pin in the history map.)