Twisting and turning out a career

Entertainer: Jeff Teate makes a living through magic and gigs shaping balloons into sculptures.

SUMMER In Harford County

August 14, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A rainbow of balloons sorted by color packed the apron Jeff Teate fastened around his waist. Above the apron, he secured his "automatic balloon blower upper," named as such by his audience at a Towson restaurant one night last week.

Teate pulled out balloons like a cowboy drawing his pistol in an old West gunfight. In less than two minutes, in a flash of color and movements, he held up the balloons he'd twisted, turned and contorted into a penguin.

Only the number of wide eyes and astonished looks from the faces in the crowd surpassed the amount of balloons hanging from Teate's multipocketed pouch.

"I just see myself as a guy who likes to make people smile and just happen to have fun doing it," the Churchville resident said.

His balloon sculpting and magic talents have landed Teate 270 jobs a year, including a fourth consecutive invitation to entertain at the 42nd Annual Havre de Grace Art Show, this coming Saturday and Sunday at Tydings Park. The event is sponsored by Soroptomist International of Havre de Grace and is free and open to the public.

"Jeff is one of the best balloon artists on the East Coast," said Marty Grams, owner of Martini's Magic Co., in Delta, Pa. "I see 40 to 50 different new clowns and entertainers a month, and Marvin Hardy is the only living person I know who can do the balloon sculptures Jeff's doing. What he creates are works of art."

Teate, doing business as Nothing Up My Sleeve, will join other entertainers as well as hundreds of craftsmen of leatherwork, basketry, metal work, photography, pottery, ceramics, painting, drawing, sculpture, woodworking, fibers, florals, glass, jewelry and decoy carving.

In addition to selling their wares, crafters -- including a potter at the wheel and a blacksmith forging iron -- will give demonstrations of their skills. And Teate will perform his magic act and twist balloons throughout the weekend.

Magic shop visit

He was introduced to magic in 1989 while serving in the Army in Louisiana. He visited a magic shop, saw a trick done with invisible cards and liked the trick so much he bought a deck.

He spent years impressing his friends and adding tricks but never started magic shows until he met his future wife, Laura, who was his boss at a property management company. Laura now runs the business and from time to time makes balloon sculptures with Jeff.

"Laura liked what I did so much she suggested I go and do a magic show for some kids," Teate said. "I was paid $35 and my hands were shaking so bad I could hardly do the show."

He must have fared well, because after the party, a guest asked him if he could do balloons at her child's party. He didn't want to say no, and decided to add balloons to his repertoire.

In 1994, he bought a book ("Basic Balloon Sculpting" by Marvin Hardy), a hand pump and bags of balloons, and practiced the nine basic twists and turns hours a day until he could twist basic balloon dogs.

Six years later, he performed at a school and watched another sculptor creating elaborate balloon sculptures. Teate asked for lessons.

"He told me he couldn't teach me, but if I could watch and do it, that was fine with him," Teate said. "I already had the basics down, so I was able to watch him and immediately do what he did right after he did it. So it took six years to get the basics and a day to get the elaborate stuff down."

Teaching others

Grams said Teate is a hit with the public but he's an even bigger hit with the clowns and entertainers. Each year, Grams offers a variety entertainment convention and Teate gives a balloon-sculpting workshop that attendees rave about. He's also teaching a workshop at the University of Delaware to dentists in the fall and has performed for doctors at the University of Maryland.

"The idea behind teaching the dentists and doctors is to give them ways to put kids at ease when they need medical or dental treatment," Teate said. "The dentist can do a simple balloon animal and the kids are concentrating on that instead of their dental work."

Grams said Teate's work is recognizable and distinguished in complexity.

"Jeff is able to take a latex balloon and twist, tie and adjust it until it takes on a character," Grams said. "I've seen him create a full-size antique Model T car using nothing but balloons. It had a steering wheel and windshield wipers and everything. This type of work is what separates him in the field."

Teate has met such stars as comedian Jay Leno and musician John Michael Montgomery performing at benefits. He had an opportunity to show his talents when the Ravens hired him to create balloon decorations for the party after their Super Bowl win.

"We made the archways and the sculptures throughout the club," Teate said. "Then we got to go and meet the Ravens and eat dinner with them during the party."

Teate makes $150 an hour for his time, but he says that isn't nearly as rewarding as making a child smile.

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