(This story first appeared in the Mail Tribune May 20, 2001)
Chantell Fraser stares in awe at the man twisting little pink and purple balloons into an object of her buggy affection. First the torso, then the wings and finally the long, droopy antennae of a butterfly spring forth from a hodgepodge of latex tubes pumped full of air.
“It IS a butterfly,” the 4-year-old Chantell shrieks. “I like to catch butterflies, and I wanted this because it’s the biggest one I could dream of catching.”
The balloon man smiles as Chantell pretends her butterfly hovers over the Red Robin restaurant table like it’s a bright red flower. Another dream satisfied, he turns his attention to the animal fantasy of Chantell’s 3-year-old brother, Dalton, squirming with anticipation and unaware his cheeseburger has arrived.
Garry Smith makes fantasies come true from blowing and twisting simple balloons, and in the process he’s inflated this one-time hobby into a business and persona as the Balloon Man of Medford.
In five years, the one-time diesel mechanic and golf-course mower has parlayed a two-hour lesson in balloon-twisting into a new life entertaining Medford diners with his artful exhalations.
From chickens and motorcycles to Pink Panthers and a fruit-basket hat that would make Carmen Miranda wiggle, Smith takes his balloon magic to birthday parties and company picnics across Southern Oregon.
His main work, though, is done Friday and Saturday nights at Medford’s Red Robin, where he labors for more than just tips and a free meal.
“I like watching the kids’ faces as things come to life in front of their eyes,” he says. “I see their astonishment on their faces, and I’m so addicted to that.
“Plus, I like crowds,” he says. “I’m a crowd-pleaser.” Among this Friday night crowd is the toothy face of Dalton Fraser, who tells Smith he wants a blue-and-green version of one of Smith’s most requested critters.
“I want a dinosaur,” Dalton says, “because he likes to tease and bite.”
Smith inflates the first of five balloons he’ll use on Dalton’s dinosaur, and it feels just like old times.
While in auto-diesel mechanic school in Arizona five years ago, Smith had an instructor who just happened to be a balloon-tier.
Intrigued and broke, Smith took interest when the instructor offered a two-hour lesson on tying the seven basic Balloon Man offerings - a teddy bear, dog, cat, giraffe, person, Joker hat and dinosaur.
“He said if I can do those, he’d find work for me,” Smith says. “I did those and about 30 others from a book.”
Smith began tying at restaurants and parties until he graduated, then returned to Medford and a career in diesel mechanics with a little balloon play on the side. But the moonlighting as Balloon Man started to outshine his day job, which he quit two years ago.
He now works just on weekends, with his Red Robin hours offering steady work as well as a chance to pass out business cards and book private parties at $45 an hour.
“I heard people talking about him, so I thought we’d come to dinner here and get some balloons to make it fun for the kids,” says Joliene Fraser, who brought Chantell and Dalton in during a shopping trip to Medford from their home in Yreka, Calif.
Dalton’s cheeseburger grows cold as Smith’s hands whirl the final balloon into a dinosaur hat - and the four teeth are perfect for eating butterflies.
“Haaa, I eat you,” Dalton says as the dinosaur assaults a man sitting in the booth behind him. Joliene Fraser implores her son to eat as she digs through her purse for cash.
Tips usually run from $1 to $20, with Smith imploring himself to remember the bigger tippers for the next time he sees them. Smith has made as little as $80 a night and as much as $200, and he’ll blow through as many as 2,300 of the five-cent balloons in a weekend.
Joliene Fraser scrounges up $1.75 and hands it sheepishly to Smith, who smiles and slides to the next booth to a boy waiting for a motorcycle.
“It was all I could find,” the mother says. “I couldn’t write him a check.”
Smith’s repertoire now consists of more than 200 different balloons, some of which he learned from books on balloon tying and others he has poached from other tiers.
He spends his days lounging around his Medford home, watching kid movies and cartoons for new characters he tries to re-create with balloons.
“I work weekends and have 14 parties booked for May alone,” Smith says. “I’m surprised at what I’ve done.”
So is Rebecca Barlow, an 11-year-old Grants Pass girl who asked Smith for “something cool” and got a 4-foot-tall crown. “He did it with such ease, like he didn’t even have to think about it,” Barlow says. “Wow.”
To no one’s surprise, the Fraser kids have eaten little since Smith left them. But their balloon creatures certainly have.
The dinosaur attacks the butterfly. The butterfly counter-attacks. The steak fries go untouched. But Chantell Fraser leaves with a lesson in dining dynamics.
“If the butterfly is going to eat the dinosaur every time,” she says, “I’ll need a bigger butterfly.”