They make balloons into a full-blown art

— The only things missing when Los Angeles’ top air artists get together are inflated egos.

There’s something resembling Betty Boop standing in the corner. Pluto, the cartoon dog, is sitting on the floor. A tiny ladybug rests on a hand. There’s a birthday cake, a Viking headdress, a witch’s hat and broom, an octopus, Casper the ghost. All made of twisted-together balloons.

“We’re standing on the shoulder of giants,” says Eddie Medrano, one of the balloon blowers. “Look at that guy over there. That’s Buster Balloon. He’s one of the best in the world.”

A dozen balloon sculptors are jammed into the back room of the Griddle Cafe on Sunset Boulevard for one of their regular gatherings. Between bites of brunch and a string of one-liners, they create latex works of art.

Medrano is a former Marine-turned-Ringling Bros. Circus clown. He left circus work after blowing out his knee doing acrobatics. The Hollywood, Calif., resident celebrated his 40th birthday recently by jumping out of a giant balloon cake nonetheless.

When brunch is over, the balloonists will leave their fanciful creations for restaurant employees to enjoy. “To thank them for putting up with us,” Medrano says.

Across the table from the man they call Buster sits Rob Balchunas. He’s 23, lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and has been making balloon figures since age 4. He performed his first birthday party balloon show when he was in 2nd grade.

He moved here from Connecticut so he could learn from the masters, Balchunas says. One thing he’s learned is that it’s flashier to blow up balloons with his mouth when he’s performing than with a pump.

“Everybody here shares what they know with everybody else,” he says. “Buster got me using heart-shaped balloons for faces. The people here are pretty much the best in the world.”

Buster’s real name is Don Caldwell. He’s 39 and lives in Garden Grove, Calif., with his balloon-artist wife, Laura.

“I’m actually in the process of legally changing my name to Buster Balloon,” Caldwell explains. “I travel a lot and I want to see the expression on faces when Buster Balloon goes through airport security. It will make carrying 60 pounds of balloons with me easier to explain.”

Caldwell worked as a magician before turning to balloons 20 years ago. He once spent a week in Rochester, N.Y., creating a haunted house out of balloons. It took 150,000 balloons and included monsters and furnishings. Tourists tromped through it for two weeks until it gradually deflated.

For that project, he used air compressors. He and his wife wear out about three of the machines a year.

As he talks, Caldwell blows up two skinny balloons with single puffs and ties them off. Then with one in each hand, he twists them into perfectly matched dogs.

Laura Caldwell, who formerly worked in musical theater, met her husband seven years ago at a Texas balloon-twisters convention. She says she’s changing her name to “Annie Banannie,” the character she portrays when she stages her own balloon magic shows. “We don’t work together — we want to stay married,” she says.

The group, which has been meeting for five years, informally calls itself the “SoCal Twisters.” They gather twice a month to swap techniques as well as jokes.

L.A. has a flourishing balloon art scene, and that’s due at least in part to Caldwell, who has taught generations of artists and sells how-to DVDs.

Among his disciples is Carmen Tellez, 39, of Whittier, Calif. She is a talent agent who got into balloons when a balloon artist she represented was too busy to accept a booking. “I needed to fill the gig, so I went out and bought Don’s videos and taught myself how to do it,” she says. She continues to represent other balloon artists, between her own shows.

Across the table, Brian Potvin, 30, of Downey, Calif., is fashioning a circular creation. “It’s a hamburger,” he says. “I started to make a pancake, but it turned into a burger.”

The weirdest figure he has ever made was a gargoyle, Potvin explains. “It was Optimus Prime, the Transformer. It was for a girl’s Sweet 16 party. She loved it.”

Potvin began shaping balloons into characters eight years ago after studying theater at Los Angeles City College and working as an office administrator for a social service agency. It’s been his full-time job for the last three years. “I’m ashamed to tell people what I do for a living,” he laughs. “I tell them I’m a garbage man.”

In truth, the balloon artists are proud of their calling. They charge $600 to $1,000 to perform at private parties, corporate gatherings and grand openings. The economy has caused some clients to scale back, however.

Tellez, who is wearing a balloon-dog-like earring, allows that her favorite figure is a “full-body flower. ... It takes about 12 balloons, but you can turn a girl into a flower with petals around her head and her legs as stems.”

David Brenion, 28, of Ventura, Calif., says the artists can make virtually any object out of balloons.

His wife, Shana, accompanies him on jobs and does face paintings. “I’m a balloon groupie,” she says. Her favorite character is the huge but not-so-fearsome Tyrannosaurus rex that her husband makes.

Besides animal figures and cartoon characters, the artists create crowns, corsets, devil’s horns and things like ballroom gowns, swords and ray guns, brags Ramon Medellin, 30, of Santa Monica, Calif.

The latex balloons that the artists buy in bulk have a powdery feel, the result of a dusting of cornstarch that makes them easier to blow up. “I have to moisturize my hands constantly” when working, Medellin acknowledges.

Some, like Balchunas, wear gloves to keep their hands from drying out.

Medellin says researchers are attempting to develop a new latex balloon that isn’t powdery, which could clear the way for balloon artists to show their stuff in hospitals. Balloon figures are not allowed in hospitals now because the powder can carry latex proteins that can be inhaled or absorbed in surgical wounds by patients with allergies to latex.

The sculptors say powder-free balloons would create a whole new — and, in this economy, welcome — audience.

Whew.

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