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?"
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."
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.
"I can sell anything," boasts Diane Burton, Apprill's assistant at Balloonville Productions, the business he founded 23 years ago. "And any unusual thing I can sell, he's come out and made it."
"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."
Recently, Apprill has begun to experiment in the new field of balloon couture. For a balloon fashion show in Las Vegas last summer, he designed a hoop skirt with a matching parasol. A live model (recruited from Craigslist) wore it down the runway.
"Most people think of a balloon on a string," Apprill says. "I want to make the customer realize that they are more than balloons on strings. Every balloon tells a story."
As a student at Webster University in the early 1990s, Jason Hackenwerth had the best balloon-twisting job in St. Louis: He was a member of Team Fredbird. "I'd make crazy hats and pump up the crowd out in Big Mac Land. And I got to hang out with the cheerleaders."
Hackenwerth got into balloons after he discovered that wearing clown makeup and busking at Union Station was far more lucrative than making copies at Kinko's. He learned the basics from his mother, who was also a street performer. But what he really wanted to do was paint and sculpt.
Years later, as a struggling artist in New York, Hackenwerth was still making ends meet by twisting hats and swords for tourists in Times Square. In the middle of the night, he'd sneak down into the subways and construct balloon sculptures.
"I'd make very short balloons, like mushroom caps or fungus, and when the trains came, they would wiggle and wave," he remembers. "The best part was surprising people, to see them smile instead of looking like zombies."
He had to stop when the police threatened to arrest him for littering. "They didn't recognize the magic power of balloons," he says sadly.
In 2004 he was invited to take part in the SCOPE art fair in London. His piece "was about the London fire, from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, likening it to the orange security alert in the U.S. I put balloons all over the hotel. The walls were covered with balloons. It looked like flames. It took 36 hours. Then I went to take a nap for two hours, and the hotel staff took them all down."
Hackenwerth was distraught. But in the bathtub at 4 a.m., he had an inspiration: He still had several hundred red, yellow and orange balloons. He would twist them into a giant sculpture. Seven hours later, he had completed Second Nature, 600 yellow balloons exploding from a wall of red, like blood pouring out of a vein.
A career was launched.
These days Hackenwerth displays his balloon sculptures in galleries all over the world. (In October he returned to Webster for a show at the Cecille R. Hunt Gallery.) Unlike the work of most other balloon artists, his forms are abstract, most frequently compared to sea anemones or vaginas.
"My sculptures are twisted together, like a scarf pattern," he explains. "I repeat the form and add more inner structure and pull the shape in or out. There's a kinship between this and the process of the shells sea creatures form. It's a pattern of growth."
James regrets that Hackenwerth doesn't have a larger presence in the balloon world. "Larry Moss thought of doing balloons as an art form," he says. "Jason has done it to the extreme — in a good way. He's not recognized in the balloon world as he should be. But he doesn't do it for us. He does it for the art world."
So far, no one at any of Hackenwerth's gallery shows has asked him to make a balloon dog. This disappoints him. "If anybody asked me, I'd offer to twist my cock into a poodle. I've been practicing for so long."
Ah, balloons! Symbols of innocence! Companions to lonely children! Who, after watching Albert Lamorisse's classic 1956 film, The Red Balloon, would not want to wander Paris with a red latex friend in tow? ("I was very intrigued by that movie," Apprill remembers.)
But, perversely, some balloons have taken on a more sinister aspect. Consider the enormous titular object of Donald Barthelme's short story "The Balloon," which hovers over lower Manhattan. "Some people," Barthelme writes, "claimed that they felt sheltered, warmed, as never before, while enemies of the balloon felt, or reported feeling, constrained, a 'heavy' feeling."
In the real world, in California, there have been attempts to ban helium-filled Mylar balloons. The mixture of helium and foil is said to conduct electricity, and a stray balloon tangled in a high-tension wire could cause widespread power outages. The Balloon Council, a group of pro-balloon activists, says these accusations have no merit. Current law requires all helium balloons to be weighted down to prevent accidents.
This may not be a problem for much longer. A nationwide helium shortage has been driving up the price of balloon bouquets.
But the sorrows of balloon artists are more mundane. No matter how tight the knots are tied, no matter how carefully it is tended, a balloon sculpture always shrivels.
"It's magical, breathtaking," says Hackenwerth. "And then the sadness hits. It's a reminder of the briefness of life."
"That's why I take pictures," says Apprill, who is seldom without his iPhone. "It doesn't last forever. Nothing really neat lasts forever. It lasts as long as it can."
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