- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2020

Among the coronavirus’s non-human victims in 2020 can be slotted the balloon-filled Big Finale.

In place of their traditional festive parties, Democrats and Republicans are offering virtual, balloon-free nominating conventions, which means COVID-19 has claimed another celebration and left those who design and rig the complicated systems that shower celebrants at the gleeful climax with nothing to do but watch glumly.

When it comes to the big time with balloons, “those” is practically one guy, a man in Newport Beach, California, who invented just about every balloon trick party planners have and who has been doing the balloon finale for the Republican Party since it nominated George H.W. Bush in the New Orleans Superdome in 1988.

Treb Heining is the man and, in balloon circles, the legend.

“Oh, man, it’s been something,” Mr. Heining said from his California base. “I do know I’m not going to be involved. And I guess in some ways the traditional celebration finale, something I look forward to every four years, is not in keeping with all that’s happened anyway.”

Mr. Heining declined to comment on whether he would have released the thousands of balloons at the Republican and Democretic national conventions this year, saying he had signed non-disclosure agreements with both parties.

Still, the balloon drop is so ingrained in the image of the conventions that it is taken for granted, right up to the time it doesn’t happen.

Before this year, the most infamous example of that occurred at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, as presidential candidate John Kerry shook hands with delegates in the Boston Garden and a CNN producer dropped an F-bomb on a live microphone while wondering why all the balloons were still in the ceiling.

Unlike this year, Mr. Heining was happy not to be involved and watching that convention on television.

“They’re always the most important thing when balloons become paramount in the moment,” he said. “Beforehand, they’re the worst, just taking up space and getting in the way.”

The coronavirus has definitely impeded balloon flight. Marla Borokoff, whose Balloonzilla company handled President Barack Obama’s campaign’s Los Angeles victory party balloons in 2008 and 2012, has been forced to lay off 29 full-time employees as celebrations have been crimped or canceled.

But she wouldn’t even have such an enterprise were it not for Mr. Heining and his “constant creative input into the industry over the 40 or so years he has been creating mind-blowing balloon designs.”

“Treb is an icon in our industry,” Ms. Borokoff said. “I know how much he has brought meaning to our sometimes under-appreciated industry. He is a real trailblazer, and we appreciate him so much.”

The balloon columns and spirals that form the backdrop for political events, graduations and the like sprang from Mr. Heining’s imagination, ideas he came up with while running the balloon carousel at Costa Mesa’s upscale South Coast Plaza shopping mall, Glass House Balloons. The Glass House Balloon is another a Heining invention, an inflatable with a protective outer-coating over the usual latex that makes balloons re-inflatable and more like a reusable toy than a happy moment.

One of the Disney parks’ most popular balloons — one in which an inflated Mickey Mouse is encased in another balloon — is a Heining invention, as is the balloon arch, a gimmick he unveiled at a birthday party Cher threw for her son on a Malibu tennis court in 1979.

Mr. Heining owns the patents for some of these inventions, such as the lit balloons that are the biggest seller annually in Disney’s worldwide parks.

Indeed, it is the contracts with Disney parks from Orlando to Anaheim, Tokyo to Shanghai, that form the heart of his business now, deals that have him Asia some 20 times a year and his son running its Shanghai trading post.

With the exception of the political conventions and New Year’s Eve in Times Square, Mr. Heining said, “I’ve been out of the event business for a while now.”

But relying on Disney for his main revenue stream means Mr. Heining’s business took a big COVID-19 hit beyond the conventions.

In his event-business heyday, however, Mr. Heining was the man, handling Olympic ceremonies, Super Bowl halftime shows, the Academy Awards, and three decades of his confetti falling on Manhattan to ring in the New Year.

“Well, it’s an amazing American success story, I guess,” he said. “I was a music major in college and said to myself, ‘I can’t do anything in this world except tie balloons real fast.’”

By 1984, the man who began selling balloons by hand at Disneyland when he was 15 was bringing in more than $1 million a year in balloon sales. The coronavirus shuttered South Coast Plaza and Disney parks for long stretches, which was a devastating but not fatal blow to Mr. Heining’s balloon empire. He has streamlined his personnel over the years to the point he said the pandemic did not force him into any layoffs.

“We really took a hit at the beginning of all this, but it’s come back very well,” he said.

The balloon has bounced back favorably for the roughly 50,000 people involved in the industry worldwide. Deann Allen, a sales representative with A2Z Balloon wholesalers, said “we’ve been crazy, crazy busy,” and credited the inventiveness of customers.

For Ms. Borokoff and other balloon enthusiasts, the Republicans’ 2016 convention in Cleveland was “simply legendary,” she said.

But Mr. Heining said he retains a soft spot for the GOP’s Houston convention in 1992, where his introduction of “a couple hundred thousand” 9-inch balloons drew an appreciative comment from Walter Cronkite.

“The Astrodome — man, what a great venue: high ceilings,” he said. “That was in my press kit for years.”

A typical convention balloon shower involves between 100,000 and 150,000 balloons of various sizes, said Mr. Heining, who exclusively inflates Qualatex balloons out of Wichita, Kansas. As a former high school trumpeter, he likes to hire local high school bands to fill the balloons, a process that takes hours and involves people in the upper deck of the venue filling balloons, four to a valve, and tossing them over their shoulders into giant funnels that lead to custom-designed net pockets.

The pockets are then hoisted to the ceiling by around 5 p.m., where trip lines — much shorter than the ones used in Boston that infamous year — are strung to await the signal.

“It’s got to be just right — you wait until the moment Mr. and Mrs. Bush meet, that kind of thing,” Mr. Heining said. “But something can always happen, and the thing with the balloon drop is, there’s no do-over.”

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