Tying Tubes

Tying Tubes

“Balloons, man. I don’t know what it is about balloons, but kids just love them,” Matt Martin says. Martin is a children’s magician and balloon twister—that’s the technical term—who performs as Matt The Balloon Man, and if anyone can attest to the enduring appeal of tubular, technicolor inflatables, it’s him.

Twisting for events that range from children’s birthday parties to corporate functions, Martin found his way to a career in balloons through magic, which found its way to Martin through his father, who brought him dime-store pranks and magic tricks as a boy. He fondly remembers classics like trick decks, vanishing silk, paper snakes that sprung out of peanut cans and cameras that squirted water. When he began performing as a magician at kids’ parties, though, he quickly learned that humor, not advanced sleight of hand, was the trick. “I would be doing really impressive magic tricks—the parents in the back would be like, ‘How did he do that?’—but it fell flat for the kids,” he says. “Nowadays the tricks aren’t that complicated but my show is better. The kids laugh more, they’re more engaged, they have more fun.”

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At a party in the Branford Armory last Sunday, Martin—who performs mostly in New Haven and Hartford Counties—did a half hour of magic for a group of children as a warmup to an hour of balloon twisting. The young audience screamed in delight as he found that his magic wand had been replaced by a stinky gym sock, and trick after trick went awry as his audience shouted suggestions. “You’re more of a children’s standup comedian than a magician,” Martin says.

But Martin is more a twister than a comedian. When he first started ballooning in 2013, he thought it would be a good supplement to his magic shows, which would still take primacy. Instead, he “ended up liking balloon twisting so much that it became my primary thing.” Toting a heavy black roller suitcase, you might mistake him for a casual business traveler, though, if you were to get a peek inside, you’d see hundreds of colorful balloons sitting nozzle up.

Balloon twisting, according to Martin, is more about muscle memory and confidence than it is about an extensive set of skills, starting with three basic twists that beginners learn. The first figure most trainees learn is the “classic balloon dog,” he says, which teaches the most important lesson: that you always want to twist in the same direction, either outward or inward, like you’re engaging or releasing a throttle. If your twists are willy-nilly, your balloon creature will unwind as soon as you hand it to a soon-to-be-startled child. Once you’ve got that down, you learn the Lock Twist, Flower Petal Twist and the more advanced Ear Twist, so named because it creates the classic ear shape on a balloon teddy bear.

“That’s the gist of it,” Martin says. “It’s really about becoming comfortable with the balloon.” At the party, he was working from a menu—offering 14 options like “Spider-Man,” “Princess Wand” and “Surprise Me!”—because there were so many children. At smaller functions, he says, he goes more off-menu and will try to make anything the kids request, which can range from high-top sneakers to jellyfish but usually cleaves to popular movie characters like Elsa and Olaf from Frozen.

The first few kids asked for pirate swords, soon running off to do battle. As Martin was working on a puppy dog for another child, a dreaded “pop” sounded through the event: the first latex casualty of the afternoon. Martin gamely twisted another sword.

A member of the Southern Connecticut Balloon Jam, a group that meets once a month to talk and twist and help one another with any tricky creations they’re workshopping, Martin is careful to distinguish himself as a balloon twister and not a balloon decorator—someone who creates larger-than-life balloon sculptures for car dealerships or weddings. “There’s more money in balloon decor,” he says. “The joke is that you can always tell who’s a decorator at the balloon conventions because they have their own rooms.” The twisters, on the other hand, “always share.”

In addition to the pecking order, Martin says the balloon community is divided by a “fierce debate” as to which of two prestige balloons brands—Betallatex or Qualatex—is the best. He likens the argument to other longstanding feuds like “Pepsi versus Coke, Mac versus PC or Yankees versus Red Sox,” and, of course, he’s got his side. “All balloons are not created equal,” he says. “I’m a Betallatex evangelist.”

Back at the party, the young swordfighter has now popped his second balloon blade. He approaches Martin again, sheepishly vowing not to run with his sword anymore. Martin inflates a third and the boy goes sprinting off with a whoop. When another adventurous kid asks for the “Surprise Me!” option, Martin conjures his own favorite balloon creature: a green octopus with a big polka-dotted head and bulging white eyes.

It was a chance for Matt The Balloon Man to fill himself with delight, along with everyone else.

Matt The Balloon Man
(203) 514-0148 | MattTheBalloonMan@gmail.com
www.matttheballoonman.com

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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