The guy in the straw hat and the American flag vest handed me a balloon and told me to blow.
My cheeks were puffy like those of Louis Armstrong on the trumpet. My face took on a color that made an apple turn pale. Nothing happened. The ball stayed long, skinny and empty.
Dennis Forel supported me. He’s been the balloon guy, ever since he worked at a pizzeria in the 70s and discovered his talent for pinching and twisting party favors into animals. He’s been traveling the Ventura County Fair since 1989, bringing balloon hippos, koalas, penguins and dozens of other creatures to life.
All are presented free of charge to visitors.
“You have food, fun and frolic to pay for. It’s quite expensive,” he tells parents several times a day.
He agreed to show me how to make the simplest balloon animal – a four-legged, thin-bellied sausage dog. Prepared for my inflation problems, Forel brought a pump to the main street of the fair.
A handful of fairgoers gathered to watch. Forel placed his hands on mine, showing me how to trap and shape air. We pinched, twisted and lifted to reveal a head and ears. We started again for a neck and one last time for the hind legs and tail.
An orange dachshund is born.
Forel’s hands flew over another balloon and, within seconds, produced a litter mate. We asked 9-year-old Charlie Skeath to choose. He chose blue.
“The professional did it,” he explained with a smile before setting off with his mother for the Ferris wheel and the Alaskan pig races.
Our sidewalk strip vibrated with parents and grandparents pulling children in carts or strolling with teenagers wearing FFA t-shirts. Forel spotted Tatianna Gaviglio. She is 6 years old and wore a green wristband, good for as many rides as her belly could handle.
” Excuse me. You are a child, aren’t you? said Forel, throwing out a crackle as practiced as his art of the ball.
He told Tatianna that he made a special animal every day for a pure-hearted viewer. He sculpted a balloon into a pony. He made a long red horn from another balloon and tied it to the foal.
It was a unicorn, matching the one on Tatiana’s T-shirt. She was beaming. Him too.
Daniel Mooney, an adult from Ventura, wanted something different. Forel told him about giraffes in Okanagan, British Columbia, who feed on the region’s McIntosh apples. He pinched and twisted, repeated the steps, then tore and tied. In an instant, a small apple was bouncing around in the long belly of a yellow giraffe.
“Look at that!” Moony said.
Forel, 69, makes mice with long tails, owls that perch on the fairgoer’s fingers and a snake as curly as spiral fries. Reptile balloons sometimes explode with a sonic rumble, setting up their creator for another slashing line.
“Excuse me,” he said.
He makes 100 different animals and a few more that he won’t reveal until the DIY is complete. He performs at fairs, malls, nightclubs and at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, sometimes calling himself a balloon sculptor. He prefers clearer terms.
“If you need a guy to make balls, I’m the guy,” he said.
He has spent much of the pandemic in Torrance tending to his parents’ property. They died of natural causes three months apart in 2019. His mother was 88. His father was 90 years old.
It was a difficult time. COVID-19 restrictions closed fairs in the first year and limited Forel’s performance to 16 days in 2021.
This year also had bumps. Forel tested positive for COVID in May, but symptoms were almost non-existent and downtime minimal.
Now he’s back on a circuit that takes him one day from a Sacramento fairground to Lane County, Oregon, and then back again. By October he will have played 83 days – a good year.
When he welcomes people to the fairgrounds again, he thinks about how much the events and the human connection have been missed.
“It’s been a great year to be here,” he said.
We walked down Main Street. I twisted and coaxed balloon canines. Forel helped at first but I made progress. When he made Makayla Giles, who is 9 years old and wore a tie-dye shirt, a snake, she agreed to wait longer for one of my puppies.
“I would love to,” she said.
I introduced another dog to Luna St. Clair, 7, of Oxnard. She rocked the gift and named it “Sweetie Pie.”
I was ready to go from basic sausage dog math to French poodle algebra. I pinched and contorted like a mad scientist. Forel gave me tips and then created his own to show me the steps.
His poodle was styled with a pom-pom hairstyle, the final tuft revealed with a sleight of hand as he presented the gift to Sofia Manzano. My creation sported a giant muzzle offset by way too many oddly shaped pink spheres. He looked more like an airborne Bullwinkle the moose than Fifi the poodle.
Sofia, 14, from Santa Paula, reviewed my work. His brother gave a thumbs up. She was more diplomatic.
“It just needs a little work,” she said.
Went back to sausage dogs. Forel made a spider that turned into a starfish. He said his performance wasn’t really about balloons.
“My real job is to be in places where people are going to have a good time and to help them have a good time,” he said.
Tom at the fair
Writer Tom Kisken covers the Ventura County Fair by collapsing on it. He walked stiltswhirled like a ballerina in a hypnosis show, misplayed the cymbals in a fanfare and sold hot tub. Her to-do list this year includes vegan Mexican food and balloon animals.
Fair Details: The Fairgrounds, at 10 W. Harbor Blvd. in Ventura, open for lunch on weekends and 1 p.m. on weekdays. Buildings typically close at 10 p.m. and dealerships close an hour later. The fair runs until August 14.
Admission: $15 at the door for ages 13 to 64; $10, 6 to 12 years old; $10, ages 65 to 99 and free for ages 100 and over
Parking on the exhibition center site: $20. People can also park and use Free Shuttle service from several different Ventura sites.
More information: venturacountyfair.org.
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Join it at email@example.com or 805-437-0255.
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