By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
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The ad has garnered more than 2 million hits on YouTube. There are no statistics as to whether there's been an uptick in condom-balloon animals.
The phallic nature of balloons has not gone unnoticed by those who work with them. Several artists do a brisk business in "adult" balloons. At Twist & Shout, the annual twisting convention which takes place the first weekend in February (this year it was in Cerritos, California), classes are offered on how to create different iterations of the penis for fun and profit.
"Twisters share," says Jones. "They're different from magicians. You see something and you want to rip it off. Early on, we were more secretive, but now it's: Look, you can make this."
Twisters are also eager to learn new ways to make money. "Marketing is huge," James admits. "Dumb balloon twisters are not business people."
Twist & Shout was immortalized in the 2007 documentary Twisted: A Balloonamentary. The directors, Naomi Greenfield and Sara Taksler, bonded over their shared love of balloon-twisting during their first week at Washington University, and filmed part of the movie at the 2006 convention in St. Louis. "I almost appear five times," boasts James, who attends the convention every year.
He describes the appeal of Twist & Shout this way: "I walk into my first convention, and there's Larry Moss making a dragon, and then within an hour, I'm helping Larry Moss make a dragon. He's showing me how to do it. And he's the forerunner of the modern balloon movement."
Moss is also the mastermind behind Balloon Manor, one of the biggest events on the balloon calendar. Every October hundreds of artists descend upon Moss' hometown of Rochester, New York, to build a haunted house of latex and air.
Balloon manufacturers keep a close watch on events like Twist & Shout and Balloon Manor to find out which shapes and colors are in demand. Most balloon people favor Qualatex, but Westport Plaza-based Betallatex, which debuted ten years ago, has also gained a following.
At one of Betallatex's early visits to Twist & Shout, twisters complained about the lack of gray and brown balloons. The response was immediate. "Within six weeks we had gone into production," says Mary Ann Amick, vice president of sales for Betallic, Betallatex's parent company.
"It was great," James remembers. "We didn't have to make only white elephants anymore."
"We're like artists," Jones adds, "and this is our paint."
The art of balloon-twisting began with the Aztecs in the fifteenth century. It was their custom to clean and dry the bowels of cats and then inflate and twist them into giant sculptures of dogs and donkeys. These they would sacrifice to the sun god. When an epidemic killed off the cat population, the Aztecs began using human bowels instead.
In the following centuries, manipulating inflated intestines — animal, not human — into different shapes became an amusing pastime in the houses of wealthy and decadent Europeans. But the first rubber balloon was not invented until 1824, when British scientist Michael Faraday decided he needed a receptacle to contain hydrogen. A British rubber manufacturer named Thomas Hancock saw the balloon's potential as a toy and patented it the following year.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, round balloons became a staple in decorating and in vaudeville. "Clowns would blow up giant airship balloons and shoot them into the audience," says James.
In 1912 Harry Ross Gill, founder of National Latex Rubber Products of Ashland, Ohio, upped the ante. Gill invented a cigar-shaped balloon and a dye that wouldn't rub off on people's faces and hands. He sold his new products in what he called "the first sanitary balloon package."
Less "sanitary" was Sally Rand, who was arrested four times at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair for dancing in the nude, protected only by a five-foot balloon. An enterprising audience member discovered that the balloon could be popped by paperclips launched by a rubber-band slingshot at crucial moments in the act. After the balloon-popper was apprehended, Rand began performing behind a diaphanous silk curtain.
No one is sure who twisted the first balloon dog. One likely candidate is Henry Maar, who, as a child, was forced to inflate an infinite number of balloons to strengthen his lungs after a bout with tuberculosis.
"Over time," writes his son Joseph, "he started to twist several together and make things up much as a kid would." As an adult, Maar became a magician. He resorted to twisting onstage one night in 1938 after a thief broke into his car and stole his stage equipment, leaving him with nothing but a pocketful of balloons.
By the mid-1950s, magicians and clowns had begun to incorporate twisting into their acts. But skinny balloons were still nearly impossible to inflate, and the art was reserved for those with great lung capacity.
It was Marvin Hardy who brought balloon figures to the masses. Originally a magician, Hardy became fascinated by twisting after learning a few basic animals from a clown. Soon he had a bag-a-day balloon habit, which has persisted for nearly 30 years.
Hardy began with the standard swords and swans. "I started making other figures," he remembers, "when a little boy down the street asked if I could make him a motorcycle. His father had one. Kid, I said, I can't make a motorcycle out of balloons. But one day I was doing a doll and it popped. As it fell, I saw that a bubble tucked inside a loop looked like a wheel. A few weeks later, I was doing all sorts of wheeled vehicles."