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Bob Kemp: Premier Builder of Parade Balloons

August 26, 1988

GLEN BURNIE, Md. (AP) _ Bob Kemp remembers when he was a novice businessman and needed a loan. He listed Chicken Licken, Goosy Loosy and Ducky Lucky as collateral.

He got the money after explaining that the animals were the parade balloons on which he planned to build his company, Kemp Balloons Inc.

″I told them that’s what makes the money for me,″ said Kemp. ″It was survival at that point. We’d only been in business a couple of years.″

The turning point was President Carter’s inauguration, which was 12 days away when the call came asking for a giant, inflatable peanut.

″We said, ‘If the peanut’s there, pay us. If not, forget it.’ We made it in 12 days,″ Kemp said.

That accomplishment and the ensuing publicity launched the company’s reputation as a premier builder of parade balloons. Kemp’s cast of more than 50 characters includes Popeye the Sailor Man and his wife, Olive Oyl, the Pillsbury Dough Boy Poppin’ Fresh, Woody Woodpecker and Felix the Cat.

His colorful creations meander parade routes across the country and around the world, including the Tournament of Roses parade, the Orange Bowl, the Indianapolis 500 and other major festivals.

″It’s fun. It’s like being on the fringe of show business,″ said the affable Kemp, 57.

On the paint-splattered floor of Kemp’s suburban Baltimore warehouse, Humpty Dumpty sits in a corner with a perpetual grin on his massive face and Popeye’s head occupies much of the opposite side of the room. Various pieces of other characters wait for a fresh coat of paint or a call from a promoter who wants to hire a balloon.

″We’ve done a lot of exciting things,″ said Kemp.

Don Lunday, the executive director of the International Festivals Association in Pasadena, Calif., an organization of festival promoters and suppliers, says Kemp Balloons is one of the oldest and largest balloon makers.

″There’s a quality about Bob’s, but the fact remains he is expensive. You can rent cheaper inflatables. But the odds are they are not going to do what Bob’s do,″ Lunday said.

Kemp’s balloons rent from $500 to $11,000, depending on the character and the season. Prices go higher during holiday periods.

″There are other balloon makers, but I haven’t come across anyone who has the balloons Bob has and the quality he has,″ said Jo Hauck, executive director of the Indianapolis 500 Festival Associates Inc., a civic organization that stages festivities leading up to the big auto race.

″His Felix the Cat has one arm that waves to everybody. The kids just go wild,″ said Hauck.

Kemp built his first balloons in 1973 for Gimbel’s Thanksgiving parade in Philadelphia and made many of the balloons used in Macy’s legendary parades. This year, Kemp expects sales to top $1 million - a long way for a man who says he learned how to starve while employed as a social worker. He’s also taught ballroom dancing, sold cars, promoted wine in California and was director of tourism for the city of Baltimore.

Kemp employs about 10 fulltime workers and as many as 30 during a busy period. His son, Bobby, is the chief designer. Once the design is created, a pattern is traced on long sheets of black rubber. The pieces are cut and sewn together, then inflated and painted.

When his balloons leave the warehouse, any number of things can happen. Popeye, for instance, was mistakenly taken off a plane in Paris en route to a children’s Passover festival in Israel.

The balloon mysteriously arrived just in time for the festival, but on the way home, it was seized briefly by Israeli customs agents who questioned how it had entered the country.

Here at home, it’s not uncommon to see adults try to poke Poppin’ Fresh in the stomach to make him giggle like the character does in television commercials. Since they can’t reach that high, spectators tickle his toes instead, Kemp says.

Kemp refers to the dough boy as ″the little guy,″ despite his height of 55 feet.

Kemp’s worst moment as a balloon man came during the Winter Olympics in Calgary where he staged his most ambitious project - an inflatable Canadian Rockies that was 110 feet long, 55 feet wide and 67 feet tall. Plans called for 25,000 smaller balloons to be released from inside the mountains as two huge dinosaur balloons cavorted in front of the spectators.

High winds forced Kemp to abort the project only a few moments after the mountains were inflated.

″They were asking me, ‘Bob, is this mountain going to work?’ We were calling the weather (service) every five minutes. It was my decision,″ he said. ″The wind had died down. We had 300 people to hold it down. We had people with knives (to deflate it if necessary). We were prepared to immediately kill our balloon.

″The place went crazy when it went up. The wind hit and moved it about 10 feet. That’s when we murdered the mountains. After we killed the mountain, they stood up and applauded and went crazy. It was an emotional moment for everybody.″

His next goal is the franchising of his business, which he hopes will bring in enough money for his final project - Balloon World, a home for retired balloons.

″It would be a place where people can stop in and see a part of history,″ Kemp said. ″These are things they grew up with and saw on TV. They’d be retired there. It would have to be gigantic. People could walk around and touch a 65-foot Popeye on the nose.″

End Adv Friday Aug. 26

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