this is what awesome looks like
Story by Ken Beck
Photos by Caitlin Steva Photography
Once upon a time there was a Balloon Kid with a Balloon Mom, a Balloon Pop and a Balloon Brother.
They lived in a (sort of) Balloon House with a Balloon Room and a Balloon Closet.
Meet Anthony the Balloon Kid, an effervescent Balloon Artist.
“I probably have more balloons than anyone in Mt. Juliet,” says the BK, making the understatement of his life while standing in his favorite room.
And once he opens the door to his Balloon Closet, there are definitely thousands of balloons in plastic containers. In fact, there are about 40,000 balloons in the closet and room combined.
“I have been making balloons for 15 years, since I was 10,” said Anthony Lena, 25, as he shares his knowledge of his medium, which is made of a natural latex tapped from rubber trees. “These balloons are 260s. That means they are 2 inches wide and 60 inches long when fully inflated. These are 360s, and these are 160s, the smallest. This is a 646, the big daddy.”
He grabs a hand full of brown, yellow, orange, red and white balloons of different sizes and inflates them quickly with a hand pump. He twists and manipulates the small blimps filled with air. They squeak in resistance.
Within a few minutes, he reconfigures them into a marshmallow roasting over a campfire.
“This one of my favorites,” he says of the balloon art. “This is pure awesomeness.”
A little while later, he takes some gigantic balloons and creates a gorgeous butterfly with a 4-foot-wide wingspan. Pure magic.
He has made bigger balloon projects. These include a life-size balloon of Pope Francis, a three-day project. And there was that 8-feet-wide and 5-feet-tall display of a farmer holding a pitchfork staring googely-eyed as a UFO attempts to airlift his cow. He calls it “UFO Frenzy on Farm.”
A Wilson County resident since he was 3, Anthony attended Gladeville Elementary School and West Wilson Middle School and graduated from Wilson Central High School in 2009. He completed his business management degree from Aquinas College Nashville in 2013. His hometown of Mt. Juliet remains his favorite balloon playground.
He entertains 5:30-8:30 p.m. Mondays at NYNY Pizza in Providence Marketplace, 5-8 p.m. Tuesdays at Chick-fil-A, and 5-8 p.m. Thursdays at Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina.
The BK truly was a kid when he took up the hobby that blew up into a profession.
“When I was 10 years old, my mom and dad gave me a balloon kit for Christmas. It had a few little balloons, a little hand pump and instructions,” he recalled. “The most detailed creature you could make was two doves kissing in a heart. I thought if I could make that I would be the best balloon artist in the world.”
However, he confesses that when he opened his present that Yuletide morn, he really wasn’t into balloons. In fact, he says his Balloon Mom was the first one in the house to play with the kit.
A short time later a girl in his neighborhood came to visit, toting along her balloon kit.
“She was better than me. I was jealous,” said Anthony, who then set out to step up his game.
After creating a batch of dogs, flowers and swords out of balloons, he held a garage sale.
“I sold balloons for 25 cents. I made a sign that said, ‘Balloon art, 25 cents, made before your eyes,” he laughed at the memory. “All our neighbors bought one.”
Anthony, who was born seven weeks premature at Centennial Hospital, attended the annual NICU Reunion for children who had been patients in the neo-natal intensive care unit. He gave his nurse Patti Scott a balloon gift of the two doves kissing in a heart.
Scott rhapsodized over the creative present and told Anthony that he would have to perform at their next reunion, thus came his first paying gig as he entertained for the families who had spent anxious hours in the unit.
“At age 13, I officially became Anthony the Balloon Kid,” he said of that initial step in front of the public.
When he was 16, he began to get serious about his craft. Befriended by Nashville balloon artist Scott Tripp, Anthony was invited to fill in for Tripp at the Lebanon Shoney’s Restaurant.
“The first time I was so nervous. It was amazing the feeling I got. I made balloons for kids even older than me. I think the whole concept of ‘if I’m subbing for a professional balloon artist that makes me a professional balloon artist’ made me feel more comfortable,” he said.
In 2007, he attended his first balloon convention, Twist and Shout, which was being held in Nashville.
“At that point I realized I had a lot to learn. I saw hundreds of balloon artists from around the world, the best. They were superstars. I saw some of the creations they made, and it blew me away.
“I realized, ‘oh, man, I’ve got a lot of work to do.’ I thought I was great, but that propelled me to want to become the best balloon artist I could. I want to be the best balloon artist in the world,” said the BK.
That same year in Nashville, Anthony competed in the TJam on the Road “Through the Door Contest” and placed first with a figure of a bubble-blowing boy on a tricycle. And at TJam on the Road 2010, he won Best of Nashville in the Through the Door category with a clown having its fortune told by a fortune teller and also for Best of Nashville in the 7-Minute Contest with a grimacing sumo wrestler.
He would win third place in the small figure competition at the 2013 Twist and Shout Convention, this time held in St. Louis, with his piece titled “Caveman Campout.” “What makes that win so special to me is the fact that I was competing against the best balloon artists from all over the world,” he said.
And at the TJam on the Road Contest 2013, he won Best of Nashville Through the Door event with “UFO Frenzy on Farm.”
These days Anthony performs at all sorts of venues and events from birthday parties almost every weekend to grand openings, company picnics and other corporate events. His clients have included Dick’s Sporting Goods, Steak and Shake, Coca-Cola, Cracker Barrel, Nissan, Lochinvar, Mars Pet Care and the Grand Ole Opry.
“I’ve done birthday parties from age 1 to 100. I made a 100-year-old woman a balloon arch and cake. She told me, ‘This is the grandest birthday I’ve ever had,’” said Anthony, whose second motto is “always a kid at heart.” “I think balloons bring that out of everyone, not just kids but adults as well.”
His first motto is “balloons of pure awesomeness.”
The BK did have a day job, working at his alma mater, Aquinas College, in Nashville where he worked for three years, most recently scheduling campus visits for prospective students and doing data coordinating in the admissions office. However, he bid that job goodbye in late June and has gone full blown into his balloon entertainment career.
Anthony said, “After a lot of thinking and a lot of prayer, I just decided there is so much I want to do, and I believe it is so important to live your passion. So I talked with my family about it, and we decided that this was the time to do it.
“And it’s a God thing, because as soon as I sort of made this decision that I’ve got to look for some more business, well, Salsarita’s wants me to be there every Thursday now.”
He truly lives for the moment when he can switch into his Balloon Kid persona. That means diving into his Balloon Kid Clothes Closet and putting on his Balloon Kid Costume. His guise features a striped shirt, cardinal khaki pants, suspenders, a portable, electric balloon pump around his waist and a Tilley hat atop his head.
If he has a little down time, he may take a few minutes to peruse his favorite magazine, Balloon Magic, a periodical published expressly for balloon artists.
So what skills does it take to be a fabulous balloon artist?
Says the BK, “Anyone with enough practice could make balloons, but it’s one thing to just make balloons and another thing to entertain and interact with the people. Number one, I would say patience. You have to have great patience with balloons. Many times trying to learn a new technique is very difficult. It takes practice, practice, practice.
“But you also have to be patient with your guests. Some balloon artists I’ve seen, they are not patient with the kids. You have to communicate on a level to go from conversation with a 5-year-old to a 40-year-old just like that. Balloons do that… Balloons cause laughter which is a universal language. Laughter means happiness, and balloons promote that with entertainment.”
Anthony frequently creates personalized balloon creations for his fans and says the possibilities are endless.
“I really try and play on people’s passions when I am creating a balloon, such as making a photographer a balloon camera. Among the most interesting requests I have received through the years would be a ceiling fan, a unicorn mermaid, a person inside of a vacuum cleaner, a jar of pickles and a championship wrestling belt.
“One of the hardest requests I’ve ever had was [performing] for a blind child. I used my voice and told jokes and did impersonations of characters like Shaggy and Scooby-Doo. I made balloon maracas so they could shake it and hear it. The parents could not believe I had made a balloon that could interact so well with their blind child. Balloons are for everyone.”
The feedback and reactions that Anthony receives from his audiences he describes as “pure joy.”
“The children’s eyes light up like it’s like Christmas morning. Sometimes when I’m surprising somebody and they don’t know what I’m making them, when it clicks in their brain, a smile comes on their face, and that’s pretty cool. I love seeing the reactions. It touches my heart and makes me feel very warm inside,” he said.
As for the varieties of creatures he can create with just balloons and several breaths of air, well, it’s only limited by the imagination.
He says, “Literally, if I have enough time and enough balloons, I can make anything out of balloons except porcupines. Every time I make a porcupine it pops itself. (That’s a Balloon Artist Joke.) I’ve made dogs, sea turtles, cats, dolphins, horses, frogs, ducks, octopus, jellyfish, dinosaurs, unicorns, ladybugs, monkeys, elephants, alligators, chipmunks, lions, tigers and bears.”
Besides his public and private performances, Anthony makes deliveries for special occasions of balloon flower bouquets and balloon/candy combos. But he has bigger balloon dreams.
“I really want to grow the business in ways and branch out to decorating. We’ve been doing a little decorating here and there. One thing I really would love to have is a balloon mobile, a big van, where I could go to events and set up and have a mobile store so I could make balloons anywhere,” he said.
In the meantime, he has an instructional video for balloon artists about ready to launch. Titled Balloons of Pure Awesomeness, Volume One, the 2½-hour DVD is for seasoned artists. Among the feats he illustrates on the video are how to create such objects as a pterodactyl, caveman, sumo wrestler, laser gun, ice cream cone, zombie and, yes, a cow being abducted by a UFO.
As passionate as Anthony is about balloons, there is one other thing that he may be equally excited about, and that is classic Walt Disney movies.
The walls of his Balloon Room boast Disney artwork and a framed sheet that bears the images of miniatures posters of Disney’s animated classics.
Says Anthony, who sports a big Mickey Mouse wristwatch, “When you think of Walt Disney, what comes to mind is wholesome family fun. Walt created incredible characters that people could relate to. Growing up when I would watch a Disney move, I would get lost in it.
“My favorite Disney movie is Up. It has lots of balloons in it and a man in a house flying across the world because of balloons. That’s going to be me at 80 years old.
“Walt Disney had a quote that has inspired me. He said, ‘The real trouble with the world is too many people grow up.’
“People often ask me, ‘Are you gonna change your name to Balloon Man,’ and I say, ‘I’m always gonna be a kid at heart,’ and that’s why I will always be Anthony the Balloon Kid, even when I’m 100 years old.”
Balloon Kid gives birth to Balloon Baby
The Balloon Kid is actually a proud Balloon Papa.
Just check out this photo of the balloon baby he conceived.
“I came up with the baby and the bottle when a little girl holding a baby doll asked me to surprise her with a balloon. I figured her baby doll might like a friend, so at that moment the baby sculpture was born (no pun intended),” said Anthony Lena.
“At first I was only making the baby with a happy face, but then I changed the design where one side was happy and the other was crying. This got a great reaction when I made it in public.
“However there was a problem, it took just as much time to draw the two faces as it did to make the actual sculpture itself. So that is when I contacted Continental Sales in California to custom make a crying/happy baby face balloon. They really liked my idea and my enthusiasm, so they decided to make it a reality.
“I jumped up in the air in jubilation when I found out they approved my design. Now I, along with balloon artists around the world, can use this balloon to create the happy/crying baby with bottle very quickly,” said Anthony.