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In the Jacuzzi Tradition

Lamorinda's creator of the hot tub came from a family of inventors


On a hot, dusty day in 1968, visitors to the Orange County Fair were milling around, looking at everything from homemade marmalade to baby rabbits. Many paused at a booth manned by Roy Jacuzzi, who was displaying his weird, wonderful Roman Bath, the first-ever bathtub that circulated currents of air and water to soothe tired muscles and nerves.

Roy was taking orders and $50 deposits. Once the fair closed, he drove back to his shop in Berkeley to build the baths, then load them onto his pickup for personal delivery. Roy, a fit, energetic, and slightly graying man who lives in the Lamorinda hills, admits that back then he was hardly leading the glamorous life that his whirlpool baths would one day represent. “I was working so hard I didn’t even realize what was happening,” he says.

But something was definitelyhappening. His tubs were slowly changing the function and even the shape of the American bathroom. “You have to remember what the bathroom looked like in 1968,” says Roy, sitting in the spacious kitchen of his contemporary Mediterranean-style villa, which is equipped with eight Jacuzzi tubs and showers. “The bathtub was essentially a birdbath,” he says, meaning it was only designed for getting clean, not for getting blissed out. “It wasn’t even deep enough to get really wet,” he says. “The Roman Bath converted the bathroom from utility room to at-home retreat. When we did that, American bathrooms started to geta lot bigger.

”By inventing what has become a prominent symbol of Northern California joie de vivre, Roy added another chapter to an immigrant family history that has paralleled the past 100 years of California history.

Joseph Jacuzzi, Roy’s grandfather, immigrated to America in the early 1900s, along with six brothers and six sisters. Joseph and his brothers worked up and down California as farmers, vineyard workers, and craftsmen. They were also ingenious backyard inventors, building the first enclosed-cabin, high-wing monoplane. While working in the San Joaquin Valley orange fields, they devised pumps to spray water across the trees to reduce the risk of frost and the first agricultural pumps that could draw irrigation water from low water tables—an innovation crucial for California agriculture.

From the 1920s on, the family manufactured pumps and water systems in their Jacuzzi Bros. factory in Berkeley. Their focus turned to in-home pumps in the 1940s, when Roy’s cousin, Kenneth, developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of two. His doctor recommended that his mother drive him from Lafayette to an Oakland medical facility for daily therapy. Getting there and back every day was a struggle for both mother and son. To help out, Kenny’s uncles invented a portable pump that could circulate water in a bathtub to help ease the pain of the boy’s contracted joints.

“The family worked as a complete group,” Roy says. “It was a very Italian idea. My uncles used to sit around the table and just think up problems to solve, stuff to invent.”

The brothers eventually marketed their portable pump to hospitals, rheumatologists, and arthritis patients, says Kenneth, 65, who now lives in Arizona. But what made the product a success, he says, was when the pumps were given as prizes to down-on-their-luck women appearing on the popular Queen for a Day TV show in the 1950s. “After that,” says Kenneth, “everyone knew what a Jacuzzi was.”

Trained at the California College of the Arts in industrial design and knowledgeable about hydraulics from working in the family factory, Roy took the idea one step further in the late 1960s, when he fitted jets right into the sides of bathtubs. His timing was perfect. The U.S. health, fitness, and leisure industries were taking off, and sales exploded when Roy began selling his Jacuzzi tubs to stores and plumbing contractors, who in turn marketed them to middle-class homeowners.

In the 1970s, the tubs became icons of luxury and even hipness. Celebrities like Suzanne Somers and Charlton Heston promoted them in print and TV ads.

As Jacuzzi became a household name, Fred Cline, the husband of one of Roy’s cousins, began selling another mainstay of the California good life. Staying true to the Jacuzzis’ agrarian roots, he founded Cline Cellars outside Sonoma in 1982 and will open the nearby Jacuzzi Family Vineyard this fall. Cline learned the art of winemaking from his wife’s grandfather, Valeriano Jacuzzi, one of the brothers who originally founded the family’s pump and water system business and who owned land and raised grapes in east Contra Costa County.

These days, Jacuzzi produces not just baths but shower systems, toilets, bidets, and kitchen sinks, and has several billion dollars in annual sales. Roy retired as Jacuzzi’s chairman in 2004 but still works with the company.

While he says he’s proudest of the fact that nearly any homeowner can afford a Jacuzzi at the local big-box home improvement store, he’s busy inventing products that take luxury to new levels and further redefine the function of the bathroom.

Take, for instance, La Scala. Going for a mere $25,000, La Scala is both a gleaming whirlpool bath for two and a high-tech home entertainment center. It features a 42-inch high-definition plasma-screen, state-of-the-art stereo system, surround sound, and a floating, waterproof remote.

Now that’s a bathtub.

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