Monday, May 5, 2008 | Joe Crase’s coworkers were his toughest crowd.

The orthotics and prosthetics practitioner dreamed of having his own business, his own practice. But then he found something more immediate to scratch his entrepreneurship itch. A couple of years ago, the certified cervical spine orthotist quit his day job, leased a warehouse in Spring Valley, filled a 6,500 square foot room with seven huge inflatable bounce houses and opened a birthday party business for kids: Airtime.

“When I told them what I was doing, my coworkers thought, ‘Oh man, this guy’s an idiot,’” he says. “People looking at me like I was a nutcase.”

With the shift, everything changed. At one time, Crase found himself for hours every day in neutrally painted doctor’s offices with skeleton diagrams for decoration. Now, he works in a warehouse with blue and yellow and orange and green walls, a padded red floor and bounce houses like the 1,100 square foot Adrenaline Rush II and the Jurassic Adventure, complete with a climbing wall and 17-foot volcano.

He’s truly happy, he says, for the first time in years.

The job’s not without drawbacks. The process of nurturing a small business to life is exhausting. Crase is one of about 43,600 small business owners with 10 or fewer employees in the local service industry, the kind of business where the hope for any profits hinges on the owner’s willingness to work long hours. As Crase markets his space as a stress-saving place for parents throwing birthday parties, as he advertises Tuesday night Moms’ Night Outs and encourages parents to drop off their children for a three-hour break, it’s not clear when he’ll next take a break himself.

Crase offers a feeble “50?” as an estimate for how many hours he works a week. But with the Airtime calendar booked a month in advance, with weekend days bursting with seven or eight parties each, with parents telling their friends, and their friends telling their friends, he admits that number’s on the low side.

He hasn’t abandoned his former work, at least not officially. The American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics and Pedorthics lists Crase’s certification as valid until the end of 2010. In fact, he says, he just paid about $800 to keep his license current.

And he’s convinced most of those skeptical former coworkers — once he sleuthed out their kids’ birthdays and coaxed them to throw parties at his spot. It’s a hard thing to describe: a warehouse filled with inflatable games. He could tell some imagined a concrete room with a couple of balloons in it.

“They come, and they’re saying ‘Wow, this is not what I expected at all,’” he says, laughing. “They’re expecting just a shell.”

And so now Crase, once part of a small, specialized medical community, is most commonly known now as Joe at Airtime. And on this recent weekday afternoon, Crase is flipping the nine switches to start the seven inflatables filling up with air.

Around 3 p.m., 26 kids descend on the Spring Valley warehouse, an assortment of parents in tow. It’s Alex Lachina’s six birthday party, and these kids are going to bounce.

Crase and two student workers greet the kids as they come in, stamping their hands with a smiley face, collecting accident disclaimer forms and making sure they’re all wearing socks. Crase leads a few into the rules room, carpeted in a streamers and ribbon pattern. Shrieks of excitement carry through the doorway, where early arrivers are already playing in the gym.

Crase starts the rules.

“No head first on the big slide, OK?”

Heads nod.

“You can’t do any flips, dives or jumps, OK?”

More nods.

“You can’t jump off the volcano, OK?”

With the word “volcano,” six-year-old knees quiver and little fists tremble in anticipation.

“Have fun and be safe, OK?”

They scramble into the gym, overwhelmed by the choice of what to do first. Some clamber up ladders; others climb the slide. Some parents congregate on couches. Two moms challenge each other in the Full Court Press, a basketball game. The birthday boy’s dad pulls his shoes off, stows them in a cubby and joins his son inside the Rock ‘N’ Roll Boxing and Jousting Ring. Over in the corner, a grandma slides down the 20-foot slide with two girls.

The kids bounce and jump and slide and box and run and climb hard. They have an hour and a half in here, and then they’ll move into the private dining room for candles and cake. That’s the typical package for parties at Airtime: two hours for $249 on weekdays and $290 on weekends. On busy days, as one batch of kids moves into the dining room, another floods into the bouncing gym. The place averages 17 parties a week and is booked through June.

Today, Crase’s employees Breanna Hernandez and Joe Kozel supervise the playtime, switching off duties so each can swig Rock Star energy drinks in the front lobby. Most of the part-time workers are friends of Amanda Tyer, a former barista in a nearby café whom Crase hired right out of her old job and told her to bring her friends.

Crase walks from room to room, answering the phone, chatting with parents, making sure the dining room is ready.

There’s an old photo on the website of Crase’s former orthotics practice of him in a white button-down shirt and tie. His uniform has changed. Today, he’s wearing a red Airtime polo shirt, black Dickies shorts and Airwalk shoes.

By 3:30, despite sweaty foreheads and flushed cheeks, the partygoers still run from station to station, some racing the plastic cars, others waiting patiently for a turn on the boxing ring. A couple of heads collide; a couple of tears are shed.

There’s not much Crase misses about the old gig. He still sees his friends, still works with kids, orders 70 pizzas a weekend for the parties from a former patient. The job was too stressful, he says.

His specialty was working to correct the cervical spine, patients who had to wear metal halos, have metal screws installed in their necks.

“It was the worst, so intense,” he says. “If you move someone the wrong way, they could be paralyzed.”

It was a profession he entered by accident, inspired by an internship he had with an orthopedic surgeon while he studied sports medicine at San Diego State University. He went to grad school at the University of Connecticut, was tested and certified, and practiced for about half a decade.

Having worked in medicine helps inspire some trust from parents, he thinks. More than that, though, Crase thinks having his own two kids helps.

“They really know that I want to keep kids safe,” he says. “It’s a simple concept. If a kid gets stuck or scared or something, I’ll throw my shoes off and get up in there.”

Crase and his wife met at a local dive supply shop in 1993. They have a 5-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter, who was born right before Airtime opened. His kids show the other kids “the bad things to do” in the bouncing gym, he says, “how not to do it.”

He got the idea for the company from a commercial real estate friend in Riverside County, who’d started an Airtime location in Temecula after he watched his daughter get run over in Chuck E. Cheese. He knew of an empty warehouse, and launched the company. Their wives are flight attendants together at Southwest Airlines, and he’d told Crase all about the company and how popular it was, stoking Crase’s entrepreneurial urge.

So, in 2006, Crase and his wife refinanced their Bay Park house, obtained a couple of small loans and invested about $150,000 to launch this Airtime, buying jumping castles for between $3,000 to $8,000 each, leasing space, obtaining insurance. Crase says he’s paying off those loans, but is gradually not having to put as much in the business. In a weird coincidence, the spot where the warehouse is now used to be a manufacturing facility, a sewing plant for some prosthetic devices that Crase used to prescribe.

Word-of-mouth advertising has worked well for Airtime. But last summer, Crase got a phone call he thought would put him out of business. A woman called and said she had a party booked for the following weekend and was having second thoughts.

She was pregnant, she explained, and she’d heard from a friend that the non-air-conditioned gym was getting “hotter than Hades” — about 100 degrees, he says — with all of the kids running around on East County summer days. She was threatening to cancel her reservation.

“I told her, ‘Whatever you want to do, we’ll do,’” he says. “‘You want your money back, whatever.’”

She told him she’d call him back. When she did, she said she’d talked it over with her husband and had decided the kids would be heartbroken if they canceled Airtime. So they planned to load up their car with water bottles and juice boxes for the thirsty kids and hope for the best.

“I said, ‘The bottles and juice boxes are on me,’” he says. “And so we did that all summer. Everything was fine after that.”

That was a lesson; he’s looking at air conditioners for this summer. The fear of choosy moms is one of Crase’s chief motivators. He usually stops into the warehouse by 10 or 11 every morning, just to make sure everything’s neat.

“I clean this place all the time,” he says. “I’m always looking at corners, just to get the dust up. If a mom comes in here and sees the same dust she saw two weeks ago…”

He trails off; the consequence appears unspeakable.

Back in the gym, the kids’ steps are slowing, their bangs are stuck to their forehead. The toes of their socks are stretched out and baggy. It’s 4:30, time for pizza and cake and soda, and the kids clamor to put their shoes on and sit down at the picnic tables covered in balloon-printed tablecloths.

As the strains of the birthday song fade, “Happy BIRTH-day dear Aaaaa-lllleeexxxx,” down the hallway, Crase is on the phone.

“Yeah, great, we’re looking forward to seeing you,” he says. “Yeah, make sure to bring extra socks, and we have a room for your snacks and treat bags, and — yeah, we’re excited, too.”

He finishes the call in time to see a blond boy, one of his regulars, making for the exits, pushing open the door and running a few steps down the sidewalk.

“Hey, Kevin! You’ve got to come back in here!” Crase shouts as he runs out the door after him.

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at a letter to the editor.

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