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Once a month about two dozen of the area's most talented balloon artists gather in South County for a few hours of merriment

A recent gathering of clowns and balloon artists at America’s Incredible Pizza Company in South St. Louis County was hardly a dull affair. photo by Bill Burckhalter (click for larger version)
May 02, 2008
As children, they were the class clowns. As adults, they're clowns again. But this time, most of them get paid for their antics.

And on the fourth Tuesday night of each month, they get together at America's Incredible Pizza Company in South St. Louis County's Ronnie Plaza to crack a few jokes and learn new balloon sculpture tips at a gathering labeled "Balloon Jam South."

Alydia Strohmeier all dolled up as a balloon butterfly. “Balloon Jam South” is a guaranteed good time for the kids. photo by Bill Burckhalter (click for larger version)
About 25 of the St. Louis area's most popular clowns/balloon artists recently gathered there – Pokey, Silly Jilly, Sparky, Spunky Beans, LollyPop, Mimi, Razzle Dazzle, Whisper and Sammy J. The room was filled with the best of their balloon creations, including eight-foot cartoon characters Homer Simpson, Tickle-Me-Elmo and Goofy along with balloon rainbows, binoculars, baby rattles, choo choo trains and numerous hats.

"I was the kid who got kicked out of class for goofing around," said Sharon Cohen of Big Top Clowns of Chesterfield. "And I've never grown up."

"It's the look in kids' eyes that keeps us going when we entertain them and give them great balloon characters," she said. "We're in the business of making memories."

Diana Smith shows off a ... well, we’re not sure what to call this creation. photo by Bill Burckhalter (click for larger version)
Debra Boehmer of Kirkwood (performing as Razzle Dazzle the Clown) is a novice in the clown business. But after three months, she's more than enamored with the "profession."

"I love to bring joy and happiness to children," she said. "I don't think I've ever grown up. I think I'm an embarrassment to my kids." So far, she's become an expert at balloon-twisting wiener dogs, bumble bees, carrots and swords. She frequently thumbed through a balloon-making book at the balloon get-together, finding new animals to sculpt.

Thad James of Fenton, who performs as Sammy J, is fond of making extra-large balloon sculptures.

Jason Vaughn, dressed for the occasion. photo by Bill Burckhalter (click for larger version)
"One of my best sculptures is a dead snake," he said. "But really, I can make anything big or small – just show it to me or tell me about it, and I'll give it a shot."

Jill Schmidt, formerly of Kirkwood and now of Webster Groves, appears weekly as Silly Jilly the clown at Helen Fitzgerald's Grill in Sunset Hills and monthly at Pediatric Dentistry of Sunset Hills.

"My most popular request is to make Tweety Bird in a cage balloon," she said.

So how difficult is it to make a balloon sculpture?

"The hardest part is blowing up the balloon and tying it off," explains Karen Owens of O'Fallon, Mo., who used to teach a clown class for community colleges and school districts. "Then it's easy to teach people how to twist the balloon and make certain figures. I guess I simply am teaching them to have confidence in themselves."

Lions and tigers and balloons ... (click for larger version)
Today, she gives private lessons on balloon sculpting, clowning and face painting. She also performs as Sparky the Clown.

To begin making a balloon sculpture, most balloonists use a hand pump to inflate the balloon. They leave a small portion uninflated at the end to give the pressurized air someplace to go. This portion often becomes the "tail" on the balloon animal. Some balloonists use only one balloon, but bigger items can take up to 20 balloons or more.

Pam Mulhall of South County, who performs as Pokey, has been clowning around for 18 years. She's retired and says she "plays for a living." She performs mostly at parades, charity walks and nursing homes.

Carol Pelster entertained by Randy Jones. (click for larger version)
Donna Wiles of St. Peters might be familiar to some as Spunky Beans the Clown, who appears regularly at Culver's restaurants in St. Charles and Fenton.

Experienced clowns/balloonists can make from $35-$100 an hour for private parties and corporate jobs. One clown performing at restaurants makes $140 for the first hour and then $100 for each other after that.

All of the balloonists are eager to see the documentary "Twisted: A Balloonamentary," which was shown at last year's St. Louis Film Festival and returns May 23 to the Tivoli Theater in University City.

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