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Dan McLellan took a deep breath. He made deliberate eye contact with a table full of customers, all under the age of 8.
He recited his repertoire of creations with a rhythm not unlike a nursery rhyme.
“OK, listen everybody, I can do flowers, hearts, kittens, doggies, horsies, teddy bears, sharks, dolphins, whales, bunny rabbits and butterflies, swords, bow and arrows, monkey on a tree and bananas, big crazy hats and pretty hats.”
The table sat in silence for a few moments, trying to take it all in. A small voice broke the silence.
“I’ll take a crazy hat,” a young girl said. She leaned over and nervously giggled to her friend next to her as she made her request.
McLellan reached down into the front pocket of his black apron and selected a pink balloon. He stretched it once, then again. He lifted the balloon to his mouth, and within a second blew it up to a length longer than his own arm.
He took another balloon, wrapped it three times around his fingers, brought the end of it to his mouth and began to blow air into it. The balloon took shape like a snake, spiraling up his arm, creating a coil.
He did the same thing with four more balloons, twisting them and connecting them together. He soon placed a giant crown, more than two feet tall, on the grinning girl’s head.
Around the rest of the tables at the favored San Diego family restaurant Corvette Diner one recent evening, I saw various examples of McLellan’s repertoire. Four-year-old boys wielded elaborate swords; a kid at another table threw a spaceship with aliens in the cockpit in the air. Others proudly donned hats with monkeys on top of them, swinging from a rubber tree.
I used to work as a waitress at Corvette Diner (my alias was “Opal”). I always thought the balloon guys’ pieces were breathtaking. I cringed to see a child beat his new toy against the table covered with forks, knives, straws and glasses — just waiting to pop the miniature rubber sculpture.
I went to watch him sculpt.
McLellan doesn’t really see his craft as art, however. Balloon-makers are different from people who are born with a natural talent, like singing, that they hone and practice, he said.
“I don’t think anyone is born with the skill for balloons — it’s a trained skill,” he said.
McLellan says that each artist has his own style, one that you won’t find anywhere else.
When McLellan was 19, a local entertainer saw him juggling salt and pepper shakers at Chuck E. Cheese’s and asked if he’d like to learn face-painting, magic, balloons and stilt-walking. He’s been doing it ever since.
Now, McLellan is in charge of hiring independent balloon artists for the restaurant and scheduling their shifts. He requires all prospective balloon artists to have at least five years of experience. And they’ve got to be ready to blow up their own balloons.
“You have to be able to pump them out in an hour,” he said. “If you can average two-to-three minutes per creation then you can work. That’s why we use our mouths and not a machine. It goes so much slower when you use a pump.”
Corvette Diner pays balloon artists hourly, but it is standard for each table to tip the artists after a visit. McLellan says that some customers only give him one dollar for the whole table. He’d peg a fair price for his and his colleagues’ creations at more like two to five dollars.
He goes through more than one bag of 100 balloons an hour — easily between 60 and 70 bags a month, he said. That can run as much as $400. He pays for his own supplies.
Balloon-making isn’t McLellan’s only passion. He also serves as a San Diego Chargers correspondent for CBS Sports, 619 Sports and SanDiego.com.
He says that his average of 12 hours a week as a balloon artist is flexible enough to allow him to give time to all of the things that he loves, but that his two passions rarely cross paths.
“I’ll be a guest on national and local sports shows as a Chargers expert, but no one ever puts it together who I am,” he said. “I live in two completely different worlds.”
Because of the NFL lockout, McLellan said he’s been told that his job as a correspondent could be suspended. If that happens, he said that he’ll add another Corvette Diner shift to his weekly schedule.
Please contact Amy Smith directly at Amy.Smith@voiceofsandiego.org, 619-325-0525, or on Twitter @amysmitherines.