Among the rush-hour horns, a heavenly accompaniment ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

January 20, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

When Bob Kemp takes out his saxophone, everybody notices.

This morning, thousands of Beltway motorists will see Mr. Kemp's sax -- bright yellow and 27 feet tall -- looming overhead.

The Glen Burnie balloon maker was hoping his helium-filled creation would be included in the inaugural parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, but he was rejected by the Clinton people.

"I didn't have a commitment for anything," said Mr. Kemp of his talks with the Clinton staff.

Disappointed but not deflated, the president of Kemp Balloons Inc. instead will tether the balloon near the intersection of the Baltimore Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway around dawn to greet 130,000 bleary-eyed motorists.

The balloonmeister isn't a rookie in the inauguration business. His 30-foot-long peanut balloon traveled in Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural parade. His Popeye, a veteran of several parades, made it into George Bush's 1989 inaugural.

He said he showed the Clinton inaugural committee a scrapbook of some of his 70 or so balloons in action -- he has a Clinton-Gore campaign balloon -- but the sales pitch didn't fly.

But the sax will, along with a plain white "Congratulations Mr. President" balloon. They will be tethered at Potomac Airgas Inc. in Linthicum, which is supplying the helium at no charge "to go along with the festivities of the occasion," said Ed Lewis, general manager of the company.

The yellow vinyl sax was crafted last year to add to a collection of such inflatable luminaries as Tom and Jerry, Poppin' Fresh, Ducky Lucky and Lamb Chop. Mr. Kemp thought the instrument might fit nicely in a Mardi Gras parade, should he land a contract for one.

This will not be the saxophone's maiden flight. It appeared Jan. 1 in the Junior Orange Bowl nighttime festivities in Coral Gables, Fla. But it was lighted from inside and had not been painted.

Ken Moody, one of Kemp's 10 full-timers, spent Tuesday with black and white paint, detailing the keys and 12-foot-wide bell.

Ropes held the sax to the floor and ceiling of Kemp's building in the Glen Burnie Industrial Park, where unpainted body parts of Woody Woodpecker lay nearby.

Huge shelves behind the sax held deflated characters of the Kemp cast: Heathcliff, Humpty Dumpty, Felix, Yogi Bear. The balloons rent for $500 to $11,000, depending on the character, season and place.

His 40-foot tall Liberty Bell, made for the 1981 Brian DePalma movie "Blow Out," leads the Philadelphia Thanksgiving parade.

"Every Fourth of July it's someplace," Mr. Kemp said.

Particularly tall balloons, such as 76-foot-high Olive Oyl, have to limbo under electrical wires in city parades.

The 1948 Glen Burnie High School graduate started his company in 1973, hand-making 10 balloons for the Gimbel's Thanksgiving parade in Philadelphia. In 1974, Goosey Loosey and the other Gimbel's balloons became collateral for a Small Business Administration loan.

Now, Mr. Kemp said, he does up to $1 million a year in business.

Mr. Kemp, whose dinosaurs and mountains flew in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary and whose blowups are regulars in Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, said publicity from the Carter custom peanut put his then-fledgling family company on the map of many a parade route.

"They gave us the OK only 12 days before the parade," he recalled. "We didn't know if we could build it that fast. We told them we'd try. If we finished it, it would be there. If not, don't pay us." It was finished less than 24 hours before the parade.

The sax cost $15,000 to $20,000 to make and takes about 2,000 cubic feet of helium to fill, Mr. Kemp says.

"Hopefully, it will be in the next inaugural," he said.

The last time Mr. Kemp, 62, came this close to a sax was in 1950. He was finishing a three-year stint in the Air Force, as a third or fourth alto sax player with the 610th Air Force Band. He retired the instrument with his uniform.

Mr. Kemp, a former Baltimore City tourism director and ex-social worker, hopes to retire his balloons to a Balloon World fantasy land -- a 50,000-square-foot building where visitors can gape at their favorite characters several stories tall.

And, yes, he does have a story about the one that got away.

Fifteen years ago, a clown was tethered to an Atlanta hotel until a gust detached it, and the balloon was gone with the wind.

"We never saw it again," Mr. Kemp said.

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