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Balloon Cowboy Hat

by Ralph Dewey

The Balloon HQ Challenge this month is a cowboy hat.

This time I have a simple cowboy hat made from only four #260 pencil balloons. I used it for my "Walker: Texas Ranger" balloon contest that I performed for a senior group recently.


Start by inflating a black #260 fully except for about 2" and tie off the nozzle. Twist off a 1" bubble and ear twist it. Twist off a 6" bubble and another 1" bubble. Ear twist the 1" bubble. Twist off a 14" bubble (half of the headband) and a 1" bubble. Ear twist the 1" bubble. Twist off a 6" and a 1" bubble. Ear twist the 1" bubble. Discard any excess balloon. Take the second black #260 balloon and inflate it fully except for 1" and tie off the nozzle. Connect the nozzle to the second ear twist. The twist off a 14" bubble and twist connect it to the third 1" ear twist. Tie the nipple end to the second ear twist. Shape it like the top of a cowboy hat (similar to the capital M).

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Inflate two more black #260 balloons fully except for about 2" and tie off their nozzles together. Tie them to the first 1" ear twist on the first balloon. Position both balloons equal length (about 36" long) to the last 1" ear twist and twist them all together. Tie and discard any excess balloon. That completes the simple cowboy hat.

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This month I want to introduce you to Allynn Gooen who is a long-time balloon performer and who uses improvisational balloon-theatre and storytelling to entertain and delight audiences. He shares some of his performer's insights and philosophy about his work. I think that you will find his interview interesting reading. You can visit his web page for more information about his services at:

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Allynn Gooen and His "Sculpted Air"

Where and when born? Where did you grow up? etc.
1953.... Born in Elizabeth, NJ... grew up in Fords, NJ... college - BA & MA from Montclair State College (Speech/Theatre/Broadcasting)

What type of work did you do before taking up balloons?
- In college I figured I'd be a speech theatre teacher, then got interested in broadcasting. I got my feet "wet" teaching Jr. High and High School and realized I didn't want to spend more time as a disciplinarian (I used balloons as a bribe). I decided to teach in college. By then my plan evolved - teach 3-days/week and have the rest of my time (and vacations) free to perform. Soon I realized there were going to be conflicts (being called out of town to perform during the school year) and decided to give up the teaching.

When and how did you get started in balloon work? Anyone mentor you?
During my BA I got interested in broadcasting. My professor introduced me to puppetry. Through puppetry I found balloons. The year was about 1975. I began gathering every book I could find on balloons. My instinct in everything I did at the time was that when someone told me how I "had" to do something, I'd go the other way (I had a difficult time accepting teachers and "mentors" as guru's). I'd "eat up" those balloon books. Not looking for materials to copy, but rather looking for inspirations.

When I think of mentors, I think of a few of my college professors. I think of Bob Keeshan. I think of a number of "giants" in the world of puppetry I have been fortunate to have met and had personal contact with. One of my luckiest earliest moments was to work for Bil Baird's Marionettes for a year.

What is the best part of working with balloons?
Just like origami or a number of other media, you start with something that looks like nothing and you change the whole energy around you.

What is the least favorable part of working with balloons?

  1. As with all the other arts (or anything else you love), if you make your living at it and financial times get tough, it's easy to feel "betrayed".
  2. Specifically with balloons - the greed and disrespect of some of the audience members (usually adults).
  3. When a balloon snaps back into your eye. Is balloon twisting/performing a full or part-time job for you? If part time, what percentage?
    This has been full time for me since about 1980. I met and teamed up my wife in 1988. Since then I do my solo work, we do shows together, and I assist her in all of her shows as well as book all of our shows.

What balloon artists have influenced you the most?
My favorite balloon book when I began was by George Sands. One line I enjoyed in one of his book was how to respond to a kid who asks, Kid: "Make me a dog!" --- Balloonguy: "Puff! You're a dog!" That helped open a door for me that I doubt Sands ever thought of. Another thought I attribute to him was that anyone can tell a dirty joke and get a laugh. The test is to do it with a clean joke.

What have been your greatest successes (awards, achievements, etc.) in your balloon career?

  1. My son once asked me to do balloons for some of his high school group - up to that point, I tried to keep the balloons out of the picture with his friends because I didn't want to take the spotlight from their time together.
  2. Over the years I've had a few kids join me on stage who peed on stage. To my knowledge, I've been able to cover for them so I was the only one who knew.
  3. I once had a little girl volunteer to play the evil witch in Snow White in my show. She was very timid and I couldn't get much energy form her. I debated whether to replace her but chose to just keep the show moving. Afterwards I found that she had come with a group from a battered wives' shelter and hadn't opened her mouth for a couple weeks. I never noticed the tears from one section of women at the show that day. After that experience I came to an understanding that some higher power helps me choose the volunteers in my shows. Not always for what will work best for the show, but sometimes helping me choose the kid who needs to be up on stage the most.

In your shows, what do they mostly consist of? How long? What types of things?
When I began, I'd perform my puppet and follow it up by making balloon dogs for all the kids. At one show I forgot my puppets. Rather than have to admit it when the producer asked, "where are your puppets?" I responded, "The kids are my puppets and the balloons are their costumes, sets, and props. I've always done it that way!" It has worked for me. I stopped making puppets and began my story-telling, creative dramatics, participatory, improvisational balloon-theatre performances. The venues vary. Festivals have always been my favorite gigs. You get to spend a few days with a variety of other performers and share inspirations and stories. At one festival in Canada, there were about 15 stages and non-stop shows for 4 days. Each act did about 4 shows per day. There was a solid core of kids (from other performers and from the venders) who would stay in the kid's tent most of the time. I remember one performer who had a wonderful magic show, however it was tightly scripted. By the second day the kids had memorized his jokes and would shout out the punch lines before he could. When he'd return to perform his next show he'd say, I'm going back to the piranha's tent!" Since my show was improvised, I had it easier. By the second day I'd finish each show asking what stories I should tell next time. If I didn't know the story, I'd ask the kid (or adult) to meet me outside the tent and "teach" me the story. Then I'd return with that story next. My audiences grew from show to show over the 4 days.

I like to work with about 45-60 minutes. Outdoor festivals, shopping malls, and some others prefer 20-30 minutes.

Where do you mostly twist or perform?
The venues change year by year. In the 1980's I lived in Manhattan and did lots of birthdays, festivals and corporate gigs. I left for the suburbs in the late 1980's and left the birthday market. The corporate work dried up and my wife wanted to start performing in schools so we shifted there. The festival market slowed down in the late 1990's and I began to perform at loads of summer camps and recreational departments.

Also, once our son got to about the 3rd grade, it felt wrong to take him out of school for our gigs, so we concentrated more on local performances. Now that he's out of the house (actually in college), I've been working on week-month long "adventures" out of town again.

Tell me about your TV show or experiences.
In the late 1970's I hosted a local children's television show - Goowin's Balloowins. I'd do some puppets, some balloon stories, bring on guests, and let the kids do talent shows. In the US New and World Report issue (December 1979-January 1980) there was a story about local cable stations and had a picture of me on the set seen through the director's room. With my image also on each television monitor in the studio. I like to say I was in US News and World Report several times between the 1970's and 1980's. :)

I've also done a short special for Nickelodeon, been a guest on Shining Time Station, The Fred Penner show, The Felix the Cat Club House, and a few other shows.

What balloon twister "firsts" have you accomplished?
When you've been doing balloons for 30-40 years, everything you do is part of you. It's hard to think of anything you do as original when you see other people doing similar things. I've toyed with putting out a book over the years, but never stopped to create it. Recently I saw a book with some of my "signature" balloons. I read the bio of the writer and saw that he attended a festival I performed at back in the 1980's. I guess I would have felt a little happier had he mentioned my name.

On that note, I performed at a festival in Toronto for 3 years in a row. I got a call from a Toronto juggler once saying he just saw my show, "but it wasn't as good as when you do it." It turned out one local clown had video-taped my improvisation show and was using it as his "script". The next year I ran into that clown. I showed him my current promo picture (in my signature simple balloon house). He took out his promo picture. "Hey Al, it's funny we both chose to do a promo picture in the balloon house." I didn't know how to react. A year later he called me and said, "Hey Al, The Three Pigs isn't working for me. Do you have anything new?"

I told him to come down to NYC and we could try to work out some original stories for him. He never came.

What balloon ideas are attributed to you?
If you don't put your work in print and have a date associated, only a small group will attribute anything to you... the people who haven't seen whatever it is before. It's like asking who made the first dog, the first poodle, the first bear, the first bubble in the balloon? My feeling is that when you have creative people who are inspired by the same medium, they'll all come up with very similar things at the same time. Every once in a while someone presents a "break-through" idea that opens the door for entertainers to use and for other creative folks to push the envelope a little further.

I like to think of my balloons as at "minimalism". The object for me isn't to create beautiful creations, it's to advance the stories and shows. If a hunter in the show needs a weapon, I need to make the sword or bow and arrow quickly and then the show continues. I like to think one difference I have with most balloon folks is that when they finish the balloon creation, the moment is over and they get a round of applause. When I finish a balloon, the "act" is just beginning. It's a different way of using the balloons.

What are some interesting or funny balloon stories?
One bit I have is a balloon boxing match. I performed this once at a dinner for Sports Illustrated Magazine. Afterwards someone came up to me and said, "I can't believe you did that to Floyd Patterson. When you slipped the balloon on his fist I thought he was going to deck you. When you stuck the balloon on his nose I thought you were dead!" My reaction? I didn't know who Floyd Patterson was.

A couple years ago I performed for a graduation for a preschool group. It was a 3-hour drive for me in some restaurant. While I was doing my show with a handful of kids on stage I slipped and fell. I felt my side and looked at my hand... it was wet but not red (no blood). I joked about who brought a glass of water on stage and kept the show going. After the show I packed up and started my 3-hour drive home and kept thinking about the water on stage. Finally it dawned on me that no one brought a glass of water on stage. One of the kids had accidentally peed on stage. So I pulled over to the side of the road, took my wet costume out of the suit case to let it air out for the rest of the ride home. The next day I stopped at the dry cleaner's to drop off my costume.

What is your favorite balloon animal, balloon skit or balloon bit of business?
I only did this once, but it's a vivid memory. In the mid 1970's I was performing a school show. There was a very loud kid in the audience who seemed to be intimidating the other kids and the teachers weren't stopping him (I found out later that he had stayed back a few times and was much older than these other kids). I needed to do something but if I played the "disciplinarian" it would be hard to keep the rest of the kids enjoying the playfulness of the show. I looked out in the audience and said I needed someone who thought this show was beneath them. That they were too old for balloons and would like to break everything I had on stage (I had arrived about 2 hours early to prepare the show. I need a couple hundred balloons for each show and I inflate them by mouth). I then stared right in his eyes and said, "You look like you'd love to wreck the whole stage of balloons, right?" He said "right!" I then "invited" him on stage to a round of applause (now he was on my turf). I then said I'd tie him up to a chair with 50-100 balloons. If he could break out in 30 seconds, I'd promise that every kid in the school would get a balloon dog (I had already made them). He agreed. So I pulled out a chair from backstage (there was one with wheels) and proceeded to tie him up. Before he was about to break out, I said "This will probably be the best moment in the show, right?" He said, "right!" Then I explained, "In theatre, the best part is usually at the end... they call it the climax." So I explained that we'd wait until the climax and then we'd put him in the center of the stage, turn the spot light on him and give him 30 seconds to get out. If he couldn't do it, no one would get a balloon... but if he broke out of everything in 30 seconds everyone in the school would get a dog. The final point, if anything broke before the final break-out, the bet was off and there'd be no dogs. Now I wheeled him to the side of the stage and proceeded with the show. At the end, I wheeled him back out. I had an "evil" inspiration and went with it. "Have you ever seen the TV show "The Hulk?" He said, "yea" (it was popular at the time). I said, "Okay, pretend you're the Hulk... but now you're just Bruce Banner. You have to get mad so you can turn into the Hulk and break out. I called a wimpy looking kid and gave him a balloon whip (it had the image of a whip but couldn't hurt). I told him that he had to "whip" Bruce Banner until he got mad and turned into the Hulk. Then I told the "Bruce Banner" to tell the "wimpy guy to hit him harder to so he could get mad. Finally, "Bruce" turned into the Hulk and he broke out. I had the two kids shake hands and leave the stage to a round of applause. I got to do my show... the kids all got balloons... the trouble-making kid became a "hero" ... the teachers enjoyed a manipulated laugh where no one felt bad. I've never had that situation come up again, but it stays vivid in my memory.

What is your most amazing balloon moment? (most embarrassing, interesting, humbling, etc.)

Where do you get your inspiration or creativity from?

  1. Lots of reading - Some groups ask me to tell stories from a variety of sources (Jewish, African, European, South American, Asian, Caribbean, specific books or authors)
  2. Accept that the inspirations are coming from another source and have faith. I have an image that performing my show is like jumping out of an airplane with a shovel rather than a parachute. I'm going to fall for 45 minutes.... when I get to the ground, I have to dig as quickly as I can so I don't hit bottom. After 45-minutes, I'm not falling any more.
  3. I attended a luncheon years ago that was honoring Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo). Someone posed a question - "in your 25 years of live TV, did you ever slip up and do something inappropriate?" He responded, "when you're sincere, you can't slip."

    That was back in the late 1970's. I remember how this affected me. I decided to stop doing the college coffee houses (using drug/sex/violence related materials and just focus on kids and family materials. When I perform, I improvise with stream of consciousness. I say whatever I think of without editing and have to have the faith that there will be no double entendres or anything inappropriate. I envision driving a car with one gear. Since there aren't any other gears, I can't shift into the wrong one.

  4. I love the idea that when you see a bunch of kids running, you should get in the front and run a little faster... it will give the illusion that they are following you.

What brand of balloons do you use?
I began with Ashland Rubber Products (Toytime)... now I mostly use Qualatex.

What is the secret to your success?
How do you define success? When I looked at my son's classmates in high school (he's in college now), I'd see some who found something they were passionate about and others who were "existing". The first step is to find something you feel passionate about. This might take hard work or luck (or both) to find it. I can't think of anything better than helping people and making this a better world... whether by helping folks with their health, their anxiety level, their culture, pride, education, their happiness...... but I remember the advice a businessman offered me back in high school - before you go crusading to make this a better world, make sure you're not one of the problems!" I don't know if I accept that advice, but it's one way to look at your path. I "lucked" into my show and have been fortunate to be able to make my living at it for over 30 years. I try to be true to myself and love every aspect of the audience and the show business (remember show has one syllable, business has 3... so built into the term is the idea that the show is only 25% of what you'll be doing is you make this a living). I had a professor and friend who was a costumer. At one point he made a suit - first he spun the wool, made a loom, wove his cloth, created a pattern, cut the materials, sewed it together... eventually he wore the suit. He loved the process as much as he loved the suit... he never thought, "I wish it were done already and I could wear it now." I wish we could all go through life, loving every moment as much as he loved his adventure with his suit.

Have you got any bit of wisdom to pass along to beginners?
I have a friend who performs very beautiful, full-length marionette shows. Years ago one of the younger puppeteers who performed in his company asked why they "wasted" so much detail and grace in their manipulation of these shows for audiences who didn't appreciate it. My friend said, "It's my show and we give the audiences the best!" Just before that performance this young puppeteer cut the strings to the legs of his primary puppet. My friend, the boss, was furious.... but they performed the show with these legs dragging across the stage the whole time. After the show the producer of the theatre came up to the puppeteers... thanked them... and said their show far surpassed all expectations. The young puppeteer looked at his "boss" with a triumphant expression... showing this proved his point. The "boss" told him he was fired and should take a bus home.

A few years later this young puppeteer had his own company in upstate NY. He performed one of his shows at a national puppetry festival. After each show, there'd be a critique session by selected experienced puppeteers. They slammed this show, focusing on the sloppiness of the puppets, manipulation, script, etc. This young puppeteer (filled with his ego) responded: "I perform in little hick towns .... the folks there love my shows and think I'm great. I don't have to listen to you!" I don't know if he's still performing... but if he is, he's probably never gone farther than his little local towns and he probably prays that his audiences never see other puppet companies. "My advice - Take pride in what you do and respect yourself, your art, and your audiences."

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