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Every Monday night Thad James puts on a bowler hat and a pair of checked suspenders and hauls his 50-pound balloon bag from his home in Fenton to Culver's ButterBurgers & Frozen Custard. There, he's known as Sammy J, arguably the best balloon twister in St. Louis — and certainly the fastest-talking.
"You know, I started off as a lumberjack," he tells a little girl as he winds three brown balloons together, "but I couldn't hack it. Then I worked in an orange-juice factory, but I couldn't concentrate." The girl ignores this display of wit. She's more interested in monitoring the progress of the palm tree, monkey and bunch of bananas James is building for her.
A balloon pops, and James throws the scraps to the floor in mock rage.
James does birthday parties and corporate events, but his favorite places to work are restaurants. "It's like doing 40 or 50 little shows a night," he says. "And everyone you talk to is a potential customer. I dabble in deco, too, but it's not something I want to do. It's boring. For me, it's about making people happy."
James picked up balloons nearly a decade ago in order to impress his young nephew. "I was always artistic," he explains, "but I can't draw or paint. I started magic, but I wasn't good at it. Then I found this book called The Big Book of Balloons by Captain Visual."
The bug, as he likes to say, bit hard. "I started looking to see where I could buy balloons because I was going through three of those 25-balloon bags a week. The book listed this distributor, T. Myers Magic, in Austin, Texas. I've been ordering from them since. I got a big bag and a real pump. I showed my nephew. He was thrilled. He was all of three years old. Anything would have thrilled him."
Gradually, balloons turned into a career. For the past two years, James has earned his living from performances and tips parents discreetly shove his way. (He chose his nom de guerre because little kids had trouble saying "Thad.")
"If you treat it as a business, you get more respect," James says. "People don't think you're a Shriner clown." Twisters, he confides, "are weird about clowns. We accept them because they're there, and we try not to be disparaging about them in mixed company. But when we're done with an event, we can go to the grocery store. A clown has a difficult time doing that."
James considers himself primarily an entertainer. "There's nothing better than finishing and going, Ta-da!" Still, there's art in balloon-twisting, too. "When I'm doing balloons, I look at so many things," he says. "The bubbles have to be the same size. The colors have to go. Mostly what we're doing is manipulating the air."
Once a month James and about twenty other twisters gather at America's Incredible Pizza Company on South Lindbergh Boulevard for a balloon jam. They have been doing this for years, teaching each other new figures, trading strategies for dealing with bratty children and practicing their stage patter.
On a frigid night earlier this month, James and Randy Jones huddle over plates of pizza and discuss a potential upheaval in the balloon business: One of the two largest manufacturers, Qualatex, has decided to stop making preprinted Spider-Man heads. Spider-Man just happens to be one of Sammy J's most popular requests — along with aliens armed with ray guns.
To compensate, James and Jones have decided to conserve their Spider-Man balloons and start pushing new characters, like WALL-E and Lightning McQueen from Cars.
"Kids believe you if you say you only have one," Jones says. "It's a way of getting out of making too many of the same thing."
"How many balloon dogs can you make, anyway?" James asks rhetorically. "I'd love to be able to do only three things an hour."
Later James stands at the head of the table, demonstrating how to make an alligator hat and a bumblebee that "flies" on a long curly balloon. "It looks a heckuva lot better walking down the street," he says.
Debbie Jones watches her husband create an oversize dog, but declines to try her hand at a figure of her own. "I get scared when they pop," she says, shuddering.
"I'm numb to it," James shrugs. "It's really cool when you're in a balloon class and four or five people in a row go pop-pop-pop. Most don't even flinch."
A woman whose children have already received a hat and a flying bumblebee returns to the balloon-jammers' table. "You guys are gonna kill me," she says, "but could I have one more?"
James presents her with an uninflated balloon. "How about a dead snake?"
Last month Durex condoms released a new commercial aimed at young adults called "Get It On!" It features three balloon dogs made from condoms that happily and squeakily hump one another in a balloon-dog orgy.
"The strategy was: Have fun, but be safe," Jerry Williams, the associate creative director at Fitzgerald+CO, the agency that created the ad, writes in an e-mail. "At some point, I thought about those guys who go around at family-style restaurants and make balloon animals. Then I thought, What if instead of balloons those were condoms? And, What if those condom-balloon animals had really high libidos?"
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