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Meanwhile, Hardy had invented a valve-less pump he called the Marlin because it looked like a fish. It occurred to him that he could sell the pump with an instructional book, and then anyone could learn to make balloon figures.
He released his first Balloon Magic kit in 1983. The Pioneer Balloon Company bought him out two years later and started selling the kit with its new Qualatex latex balloons, the now-standard 260s. Two inches wide and sixty inches long, they were ideal for twisting basic figures.
Pumps have become essential for anyone who works with balloons. "Blowing up a balloon is one of the most dangerous things you can do to your body," warns James. "You can rupture your sinuses, your soft palate and your eardrums, or blow out your retinas. I tell people not to do it. I learned how back in the day, and it looks cool and impressive, but if that's what's important, be a balloon blower-upper."
(That said, during his shows at Culver's, James blows up all his balloons himself.)
Over the years, Hardy has expanded the balloon-artists' repertoire. "I started weaving balloons in 1984," he recounts. "I injured my back in Vietnam, and as part of my recuperation, the occupational therapy folks taught me how to do macramé. I saw that it could be directly tied to balloons. Instead of knots, you twist them together. It caught on like wildfire."
Troy Apprill's fingers never stop moving. If they're not tying and twisting balloons, they're flicking at the controls of his iPhone, flipping through pictures of his many sculptures.
There's a rainbow with a pot of gold at the end, and a cluster of fruits and vegetables, including a big green watermelon with a stippled rind. There's a six-foot menorah in the middle of Chesterfield Mall, lit by real candles and kosher-certified by a rabbi. There are life-size football players, oversize Mardi Gras masks and Apprill's personal favorite, a towering bubble-gum machine that dispenses sixteen-inch gumballs.
He made them all from balloons.
"Our first question is: How big do you want it?" Apprill adds. "I can build anything anyone is willing to pay for."
Last November Apprill received the Don Cheeseman Lifetime Achievement Award for Balloon Artistry, one of the industry's highest honors. The Wizard of Oz float he created for the 2007 Veiled Prophet Parade landed on the cover of the trade magazine Balloon Images, the balloon artists' equivalent to appearing on the covers of Newsweek and Time on the same week.
Balloons have fascinated Apprill, who is now 45, since childhood. "My grandparents took us to the circus, and I got a clear balloon twisted into a little mouse shape," he recalls. "I was so intrigued, that by the time we were out of the parking lot, I had deflated it in order to figure it out." When he was a teenager, an aunt decided he needed a hobby and bought him Marvin Hardy's Balloon Magic kit.
Within a few years, Apprill was working as a twister, riding a unicycle around St. Louis Union Station and making hats and swords for tips. "Would I do that again?" he asks. "Yes, but at a premium price." By the time he was 22, he had crossed over to decorating and launched Balloonville.
There are decided psychological differences between twisters and decorators. "We're more unique than the standard decorator," explains James. "They follow instructions. Twisters don't think that way. They're more inventive. You've got a long skinny balloon, and you've got to make something out of it. It has to turn into a frog."
Like most decorators, Apprill is a Certified Balloon Artist, a professional designation bestowed by Qualatex. CBAs must pass a battery of five written and practical tests in subjects like science, arch-building and bouquet-arranging. Apprill is familiar with every event venue in town. He knows that in a casino, balloons cannot block the security cameras.
But Apprill's experience at Union Station has made him a new hybrid in the industry, a deco-twister. "He incorporates twisting into decorating," says James. "Before, decorators didn't touch skinny balloons and twisters didn't touch rounds. Deco-twisters opened up new avenues for both sides."
For Apprill, the best part about decorating is that he can be creative without having to perform. "It's nerve-wracking, building a sculpture with an audience," he says.
"He's a hidden jewel," enthuses Cindy Vogel, director of sales for the Fox Theatre and a long-time Balloonville customer. "When we want a wow factor, we use him. Bless his heart, he comes to us with concepts that live in his head, and mathematically and physically, he gets them into balloons every time."
"This is what I've done longest," Apprill says modestly. "This is what I know. It's very labor-intensive and extremely emotionally gratifying. Never underestimate the power of a balloon. It changes people's attitudes. It makes them happy. When an event or a party starts, people see the balloons, and suddenly there's a celebratory atmosphere."