They call themselves balloon twisters, balloon benders or balloon artists. Some of them also are clowns. But by whatever name, the group of people who gather for a monthly "Balloon Jam" at a Denny's Restaurant in Maryland Heights know how to have fun. And they have the balloon animals to prove it.
There is no formal organization or rules for the group.
"It's just a loose assortment of people," said Thad James, of Fenton.
They meet to eat and share the techniques of transforming balloons into, usually, recognizable shapes. James, otherwise known as SammyJ, is an experienced balloon artist who has built a small business around a hobby that started when he was was trying to impress his nephew. He considers himself a non-clown balloon entertainer. He once twisted and shaped enough balloons to create a two-story tall Frankensterin monster that was perched in front of the garage at his Fenton home on Halloween.
Dabbling in the balloon arts "is the most fun thing you can ever do." says James, who is a popular attraction at trade shows, corporate events and local fairs where he twists and shapes balloons into elaborate figures.
He also was the mastermind behind a tropical balloon garden at last year's St. Louis Home Show that featured palm trees, a waterfall, a fish pond and an assortment of tropical flowers. Seven thousand balloons were used in the display.
One of James' specialities is making balloon monkeys since people always seem to like monkeys.
On Tuesday, James fashioned an almost 5-foot-tall purple monkey that was a popular attraction at the Balloon Jam gathering. The monkey took its place among the balloon hats, flowers, Tinkerbells and a Smurfette that other balloonists created.
Dan Skelton, of Foley MO, had the distinction of creating the smallest balloon animal when he created a palm-sized ladybug made from red, yellow and black balloons.
"I could have made it smaller but my fingers were numb, Skelton said late in the evening after twisting several creations during the evening.
Another Balloon Jam attendee talked about another occupational hazard - an allergic reaction to the talcum powder that lines the inside of the latex balloons.
Donna Wiles, of St. Peters, sported a headband made of uninflated balloons as she showed off her dancing Snoopy creation with a Valentine's Day theme. Also known as Spunkybeans, Wiles is a balloon twister, face painter and a children's magic entertainer, often at the Culver's Restaurent in St. Charles.
Michael Nilson, of Alton, Ill. sat in the back of the room at Denny's with his wife, Nancy, who was busy knitting as the balloonists whooped and joked and created elaborate balloon designs. Michael, who sports a long white beard, spends a lot of time during the Christmas season portraying a certain North Pole resident. As a balloon artist, though, he says he's just a beginner.
"I can barely make a dog," he said, referring to the sterotypical balloon dogs that often are a starting point for those who want to learn the art of balloon twisting.
Diana Smith, of Villa Ridge, MO, also known as LollyPop, put together an elaborate Smurfette balloon sculpture, although she referred to it as a "little blue girl" in order not to run afoul of any trademark issues.
With Valentine's Day approaching, several designs had heart-shaped themes.
Ida Bowles, of St. Charles, is a special education teacher during the day and operates as Cookie the Clown as her second calling. Her business - Cookies Clown Co. - provides magicians, balloon twisters, face painters, mime bubble artists and puppet shows at a variety of company functions, reunions, weddings, grand openings and school picnics. Bowles showed off a large balloon art that, at first she wasn't satisfied with yet. "It's getting there though."
Tom and Donna Lovett, of Wildwood, appeared a bit overwhelmed with the fun and frivolity of the Balloon Jam. They said they are new to the balloon arts and are in the process of starting up a business dedicated to the craft.
Tom showed off a balloon-inside-a-balloon piece that featured the familiar green alien image.
The children of the balloon folk fit right in at the Balloon Jam, some trying to fashion their own creations, others just enjoying the colorful items that soon started to fill up the Denny's back room.
Isabel Gibbs, 6, of Lake St. Louis, proudly displayed a loose hat of balloons she made, wearing it much of the evening.
James said the monthly Balloon Jam is highly anticipated as those who share common interests can unwind, learn and display their latest creations. And they often stay at it late into the night, or, as he joked, "until we run out of air."