Answer Man: What's up with those giant balloons?

News-DemocratNovember 30, 2013 

With all the talk about the giant balloons in the St. Louis Thanksgiving Day parade and the winds in New York that threatened to ground them in the Macy's Parade, it made me wonder: Where does St. Louis get its balloons, how do they inflate them, etc., etc. Any tidbits of knowledge you can bestow would be appreciated. -- Robert Griffin, of O'Fallon

Ah, brings back warm memories of that 1994 Seinfeld episode. Remember the one? Elaine earns Mr. Pitt a spot on a Macy's Parade balloon team only to have Jerry deflate their excitement when he punctures the thing by knocking a statue of the Empire State Building onto it.

Fortunately, no such disasters happened Thursday when 10 giant balloons -- including Frosty, the Cookie Monster and a giant wreath -- made their way safely through the 29th annual march in downtown St. Louis.

The balloons here are furnished by Dynamic Displays' Fabulous Inflatables, of Dearborn, Mich., which, for a fee, can supply you with characters ranging from Popeye and Kermit to Uncle Sam and Santa Claus himself. (See their complete collection at www.fabulousinflatables.com.)

Starting at about 4 a.m. on the side streets near the Edward Jones Dome, the deflated balloons are carefully laid out on huge sheets of plastic so that they aren't lying on anything sharp or jagged. Then they are inflated with a mix of helium and hot air.

Depending on their size, they hold anywhere from 1,500 to 6,000 cubic feet of gas, according to Ken Mallin, vice chair of the Christmas in St. Louis Foundation and the parade itself. To put that into some perspective, a recent Macy's Parade used 300,000 cubic feet in 15 balloons -- which, some Big Bang Theory nerd figured out, would fill 2.2 million gallon milk jugs.

(Some have decried this use of helium as frivolous at a time they say the world may be facing a shortage for more important uses such as fiberoptics and MRI machines. But a spokesman for the Federal Helium Reserve has said the reserve has billions of cubic feet in storage and shouldn't face a shortage for a "very long time."

In any case, once the balloons are inflated, they then wait to be inserted into the parade at their pre-assigned spots among the 140 marching units.

Each one is controlled by a team of 10 to 20 handlers who are led by one or two senior guiders from the balloon vendor. The rest are volunteers from various businesses or organizations, including United Cerebral Palsy, Schnucks and Purina. Louie the Lightning Bug, of course, is the mascot of parade sponsor Ameren. Wings of Hope, which provides free air transportation for children with major health issues among other services, has its own giant airplane balloon.

Gusts of wind can cause guidance problems, but the balloons can withstand a few bumps and bruises.

"They're not that delicate at all," Mallin said. "You can tell that they could withstand a little bit of a kicking around here or there.

"And they're not like the balloons that you or I blow up where they just have one little compartment that gets filled with air. These actually have hundreds of different individual balloons or compartments in them. That way in case, God forbid, one of them hits a post and has a little hole poked in it, the whole balloon doesn't deflate. Just that little section will lose helium."

So on Thursday, we didn't have to hear KMOV's Claire Kellett repeat the sad Seinfeld news, "Hey, it looks like Woody Woodpecker is running out of air! In fact, it's collapsing!"

Oh, the humanity!

Anyway, in St. Louis they simply let the gas out of the balloons at the end (don't worry, it's not enough to give paradegoers chipmunk voices) before they are folded and returned to the vendor for next year.

Today's trivia

Despite the heat, how many rivers would you find in Hades, according to mythology?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: Did you remember all four of the Robert DeNiro movies that have a mammal in their title? If not, here they are: "Wag the Dog," "Mad Dog and Glory," "Raging Bull" and "The Deer Hunter." He also provided a voice for "Shark Tale, but a shark is a fish, not a mammal.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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