Dreaming of Balloons

Like ice cream and fireworks, balloons are guaranteed smile-generators.

Photo of balloons

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In 2002, the alternative rock band They Might Be Giants recorded a sweet but soon forgotten song titled “Where Do They Make Balloons?” Its writer, Danny Weinkauf, said the lyrics came to him in a dream.

As it happens, I’m in a position to offer a specific, if way tardy, reply to Mr. Weinkauf’s question. It’s common knowledge that balloons today are made in many places. (The Balloon Council — yes, there is such a group — says the industry employs thousands of workers worldwide.) But when I was growing up, I had reason to believe that all balloons came from one grimy little street in the town of West Caldwell, New Jersey. My father was the foreman in a factory there that manufactured toy balloons round the clock. And so I’ve long had a special connection to balloons, which, like ice cream and fireworks, are guaranteed smile-­generators. (The presence of white balloons at a funeral is an obvious exception, unless you’re a weirdo who grins broadly at graveside ceremonies. Also, incendiary balloons used by neighboring countries in conflict fail to express proper balloon etiquette, but let’s not go there.)

About a dozen years ago, to greet visitors to my house, I even purchased a large metal sculpture of a street vendor selling multicolored balloons. It sits just inside a set of entryway doors. I think the piece sends a welcoming message. Additionally, it subtly ties me to my family’s story.

Steel chains and sprockets rumbled, glass forms dipped into deep pools of reeking latex, flames heated what needed to be heated, air jets whooshed.

As a youngster, however, balloons had no intrinsic meaning to me, although it was clear that people all over the globe purchased them in huge numbers. Occasionally, out of curiosity, I stopped by my father’s balloon-making factory. Just beyond the packing and shipping room were the machines that produced millions of balloons annually. Each was massive — maybe 60 feet in length and the height of two men. Steel chains and sprockets rumbled, glass forms dipped into deep pools of reeking latex, flames heated what needed to be heated, air jets whooshed. Imagine! To a kid, all this mechanical wizardry was magnificent and intimidating all at once.

The manufacturing process has changed slightly in the decades since, but the inherent magic of toy balloons has endured undiminished. Indeed, balloons of all shapes and dimensions have played memorable roles in popular culture for nearly a century.

For instance, in both the Winnie-the-Pooh childhood series and the award-winning French short film The Red Balloon, balloons are presented as a metaphor for the universal allure of freedom, life untethered. They are thus more than a colorful distraction; they are art.

It was the art he perceived in balloons that grabbed the attention of Larry Moss, a one-time Manhattan busker who is president of Airigami, perhaps the preeminent American company in the business of producing large-scale balloon installations. (Once, as a guest on a Martha Stewart TV show, Moss used 100,000 inflated balloons to build an extraordinarily lifelike house of horrors. Martha was suitably impressed.)

Moss has created his famously massive installations in many countries. (In Turkey his art was so new and alien that “the kids wanted to pop the balloons.” Ouch!) He told me that, as an artist, what draws him to the medium of balloons is that “they’re fragile — they look solid, but they’re fragile. And they are temporary. They are going to go away. They exist only now, in the moment.”

He then thought to gently remind me of this memorable line in A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh: “Nobody can be uncheered by a balloon.”

In the last issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about the power of the printed photograph.

This article is featured in the January/February 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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