While at the Creation Stargate Convention here in Chicago I met a gentleman with an amazing fancraft talent. Josh Steinhouse is The Geek Balloonist. He travels all over the country for parties and events like conventions and fundraisers where he twists balloons into shapes that fans and geeks recognize and love. Josh was kind enough to grant me an interview and talk about what he does.
Well, my parents were killed in an alley by a clown, so I spent my whole life training and climbing the Himalayas—wait, that’s not right. J
Honestly, there isn’t a great origin story; I was bored out of my mind one day so I went to a bookstore (cause I’m so cool) and found a book on balloon twisting. My grandfather had done it when we were kids, so I bought it, figuring that it would keep me out of trouble for an afternoon. I learned all the basics (dog, cat, giraffe, etc), and from there I had a skill!
What inspired you to start creating pop culture figures out of balloons?
My first paid job doing balloon art was at a hotel. I grew up just north of Philadelphia, and there’s an amusement park up there called Sesame Place (named/modeled after Sesame Street). The Sheraton across the street was hiring for the summer and I needed a job before going to college, so I went in to see what they had. When I was interviewed, they asked me to describe my experience, so I listed off the various jobs I’d had, and that I make balloon animals. I was hired on the spot! Because the park was across the street, I quickly learned the Sesame Street characters, and from there I learned more. The thought was, if I was a kid I would want the geek and pop culture stuff, so why not learn it? I was already a geek anyway J
It looks like a lot of fun! How long have you been doing this now?
I’m just rounding out year number 9…almost a decade!
You must go through a lot of balloons! Do you have any idea how many you use within a given time period?
It honestly depends on the event…if it’s a 2 hour birthday party, I’ll use up maybe a hundred (60 people (kids/adults) x ~3 balloons per character), but if I’m at a big convention I can easily go through over 1,000. I have about 5,000 balloons in my display rack at any given time.
That’s impressive! Where do you buy all those balloons from?
I have a “supplier”…which is almost as back-alley-drug-dealerish as it sounds. Seriously; it’s a wholesaler in Silver Spring, MD (about 1/2 hr from where I live) and it’s in this weird warehouse district that you’d expect to find dead bodies in. But the guy that runs the store is really nice and it’s much better than ordering them from Arizona, where I used to have to get them.
Some of these larger intricate creations must take a great deal of time to build! What’s the longest amount of time you’ve spent building something, even after practicing how to make it?
Lucky for me, the amount of time a large creation takes has decreased over the years. The very first one I did was a snowman for Independence Hall, and that took about 14 hours (I may have died a little inside). The next one was a Buzz Lightyear, and that only took about 6 hours, and after that was Optimus Prime, which was only 4. I’ve got an event coming up that I’ll be doing R2-D2 and C-3PO, and they should probably be 2-3 hours each.
What was the most difficult or challenging item to create the first time you attempted it?
When I first started twisting, the f*cking snail was the hardest thing to make. The spiral for the shell had to be a curved balloon and held in place….just thinking about it gives me PTSD flashbacks. I’ve hated snails ever since. They’re evil creatures. They are. The devil.
In terms of characters, none are particularly hard, though I’ve found Loki to be kind of a pain because of how long he takes. But then you would expect him to be annoying, wouldn’t you?
Have you ever, or have you ever considered, incorporating things like movable parts into some of your larger pieces?
Technically, it is movable…almost any sculpture can be re-positioned or put into a new pose…but if you’re asking about things like motors or wheels or something, it’s not super-easy to incorporate. The fragility of balloons aside, putting a motor on, say, the arm of Optimus Prime to make him wave or something would add at least 2 or 3 pounds of weight, and when the entire sculpture is less than that, it can cause a lot of problems in terms of physics (not that I understand any of it, because I clearly didn’t excel in science, but you get the idea)
Is there anything you have always wanted to make and/or is there anything you are scared to make?
My big dream is to make balloon on-air for The Big Bang Theory…the new season that just aired will have the return of the comic book store, and it would be amazing to do balloons for that episode.
You offer a variety of services like party and fundraiser entertainment. Can you tell me about what that is like?
One of the founding principles of my work is that it, above all else, is meant to entertain. Whether at a 5 year old birthday or a charity race, we are there to make people happy and smile. By nature of the product, it is of course a temporary art, but because we do the icons of pop culture, it is well received and very fun. The fundraising and volunteer work we do is meant to enhance or bring more entertainment to an event that already has momentum in the community, and because I believe very strongly in helping those in need, this is one way for me to do that.
I do! Anyone can call me for lessons or tips, and if you’re not local we can set up a Skype session. I’ve also trained a team of artists that I can call on when I’m unavailable for an event. I don’t really expect anyone to be able to do what I do though…the amount of characters in my repertoire is pretty comprehensive. Plus I don’t need the competition!
If you had to pick one thing you like most about being “The Geek Balloonist” what would it be?
The best part of my work is that it exists at all. What I mean by that is from the original book I bought 9 years ago (which I still have!), I have built up an international, highly successful business that has allowed me to travel, entertain, and meet people and even celebrities all over the world. I love what I do, and it’s a big source of pride to say that every aspect of my work, from learning to twist to making my website to booking my events to making people happy, I’ve done myself.
We SpaceGypsies firmly believe in letting our geek flags fly. Everyone FanGirls or FanBoys for something. With everything you’ve done and all the people you have met at events and conventions, who or what do you FanBoy for?
It’s possible that when I met Dean Cain and Brandon Routh, I may have cried. All video evidence has been destroyed by “someone”, so I can’t say for sure.
Thank you so much for your time, Josh!
Interested in contacting The Geek Balloonist? Check out TheGeekBalloonist.com!