Inflatable Men

This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

NS: (So it just Velcros onto the base of the fan, and we’re just turning on the unit, and we’ll be up and running)

RM: You see them on street corners, at gas stations, at shopping malls. You see them at blowout sales, and grand openings of all kinds.

SG: Their wacky faces hover over us, and then fall down to meet us, and then rise up again. Their
bodies flop, they flail.

RM: They are men.

SG: Men made of tubes. Tubes full of air.

RM: Producer Sam Greenspan is full of more than hot air

SG: You know these things. A vinyl column perched on top of a fan, with skinny little arms and a big dumb grin; blowing around goofily on the street corner near you.

NS: People are familiar with it but when they’re driving by it’s just that you have to look and turn your head and you know for is… it’s the best return on your advertising dollar that you could spend.

SG: If by some stretch of the imagination you have never seen one of these things in person, you have probably seen them around the Internet, or on T.V.

(tv commercial plays)

RM: They’re either full of ridiculous joyful exuberance, or the tackiest thing in the world. Depending on your tastes. A number of cities across the U.S. have actually banned the use of tube guys an ordinance in Houston enacted in 2008 proclaims that the dancing tube guy “contributes to urban visual clutter and blight and adversely affects the aesthetic environment.”

SG: I want to go ahead and try to imagine an origin story for these things. Used car salesman by
some Tarp and a leaf blower and messes around in his garage? No. Slighted bounce house designer goes rogue determined to show them all? No no no no. The real story behind these is so much better, and it all starts with this guy.

PM: I am Peter Minshall, Born in 1941 the world was at war, so where my parents as a result of which I was taken in my mother’s womb to Georgetown, Guyana where I was born in the general hospital in the embrace of her family, and brought back to Trinidad shortly thereafter, in her arms.

RM: Peter Minshall, ladies and gentlemen. renowned Caribbean artist who could easily have a second career narrating nature documentaries for PBS.

PM: I’m an artist, stroke, mossman. This is a word indigenous to Trinidad which is where I’m talking to you from now.

SG: In Trinidad and Tobago, A Mossman is someone who works in the carnival arts tradition.

RM: Peter Minshall made a name for himself in part by making these larger than life puppets that danced through the street to the beat of a steel drum band.

SG: His work was featured in a book called Caribbean Festival Arts, which wound up in front of someone on the steering committee for the Olympics; which is how, in 1995, Peter Minshall found himself in a stadium in Los Angeles working with a bunch of different artists trying to figure out ideas for the opening ceremonies at the Atlanta games. The following year, as Minshall tells it, he was trying to do something using inflatable tubes.

RM: But it wasn’t working out.

PM: it was a total failure.

But there I am sitting in the bleachers with a little note pad and there are all these tubes side
by side going up. And somewhere out of the haze, I just sketch two of the inflatable tubes, and I joined them at the waist going into one tube which is a torso and if you divide them again at the top with some
arms and a bit of a head, you might get an incredible, undulating, dancing figure.

SG: Boom, a dancing tube guy is born.

RM: Minshall realized that these figures are made from a tube hooked on an air source would dance, just like the people did back home in Trinidad & Tobago.

PM: And so it might to another person seem like a great leap of the imagination. To me it was like jumping into water like an eager little duckling.

SG: Peter Minshall knew how to make giant figures, but they had always been powered by people, not air.
And so while Peter Minshall was, in that moment able to glimpse upon the possibility of giant undulating inflatable dancing tube guys…

PM: For short let’s call them Tall Boys.

SG: And so while Peter Minshall was in that moment, able to glimpse upon the possibility of these Tall Boys, he knew he needed help.

PM: And I got a call from the Olympic Games from Peter Minshall and he asked me if I can create a human shape. And I told him, yes it definitely can be done.

SG: This is Doron Gazit, another artist who like Peter Minshall had gotten known in the Olympics
planning scene. He had done some work in the 84 games in Los Angeles.

RM: And if there’s one guy who knows about making things full of air it’s him. Doron Gazit first got interested in inflatables when he was a college student visiting the US. Gazit is from Israel. He saw someone making balloon figures on the street, and got obsessed with doing that himself. He sold balloon animals on the streets in Jerusalem, and to this day he still carries balloons around with them in his pockets.

TG: And I said, I like to say that we don’t use the B word… It’s all about inflatables.

RM: Gazit founded a company called Air Dimensional Designs which basically serves to populate the world with his inflatable objects and sculptures.

SG: And so after he got the call, Gazit and his team headed over to meet Minshall and see if they could make the Tallboys a reality; which actually turned out to be a pretty big engineering challenge.

DG: I had to find the right strong powerful motor that would be able to give me enough CFM and the right torque.

RM: You get the idea. Engineering…Physics….

SG: Gazit futzed around with the materials and the methodologies, and eventually these Tall Boys came to life and they looked very much like the tube guys we see today with two major exceptions: 1) They were bipedal, their legs divided at the base each with its own fan. and 2), these things were enormous. They were thirty, or sixty feet high depending on who you ask.

RM: And that was the first the world had ever seen of these inflatable men.

SG: The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta came and went, and so at this point in the story the Tube Guys, the Tall Boys are out in the world. But how do they go from a thing we saw at the Olympics once, basically as an art piece. How do they go from that, to a thing you see at like, every used car lot in America?

RM: Here is where the Minshall camp and the Gazit camp begin to diverge.

SG: By Peter Minshall’s account, a few months after he returned home from Atlanta he got a call from one of his collaborators at the Olympics. He recalls him saying:

PM: “Oh by the way, that fellow um, in L.A. who made those things I do believe um, you sort of better watch your back because I think that he’s making them to sell.

SG: Later on, Minshall caught wind that Doron Gazit had gotten a patent on the Tall Boy. The dancing, vertical, inflatable.

RM: Doron Gazit says that he wanted a patent because he put a lot of research and development into making the tube guys work and he was already starting to see other people rip off his efforts.

DG: The Chinese company just took my designs and it was quickly just imitated & copycatted.

SG: Doron Gazit was awarded a patent for “apparatus and method for providing inflated undulating figures” in 2001.

RM: Gazit refers to them as Fly Guys.

SG: Peter Minshall and Doron Gazit both agree that the dancing inflatable figures were Minshall’s idea and they both agree that Gazit turned that idea into a reality. Where they disagree is whether or not it was cool for Gazit to get a patent on it without informing Minshall.

DG: He had a vision. He was asking for it. It didn’t exist before that, and then a very very very very much respect to Peter Minshall, he’s an amazing art director an artist and he doing beautiful work and it was a an honor for me to work with him.

SG: Gazit says his attorney told him that in the eyes of the law, Minshall would not be considered an inventor. And so busy was surprised to learn that Minshall had been angry with him. He says that since then he’s reached out to Minshall a number of times, but never heard back.

RM: Peter Minshall says that it never occurred to him to seek a patent on the tube guys.

PM:I don’t please, I’m an island boy from Trinidad, I don’t know what the law is. My instinct tells me, that before he could do any such thing, it is his duty to consult with me.

SG: Gazit meanwhile continues to make money off of the Tallboys, Fly Guys, whatever…
He licenses his patents other companies like Look Our Way, which sells inflatables here in San
Francisco. That’s who you heard from earlier, this is look our way’ Nick Sonovich.

NS: Yeah so the technology we license from them has to do with the way the air escapes the inflatable. Air escapes both from throughout the top of the head as well a each one of these arms. so that you know, after testing, that is what gives it it’s uh, dynamic motion; kind of the special sauce and why it’s so effective.

RM: Look Our Way has their own name for these things: Air Dancers. And even though they may be licensing pre-existing technology they also invented a whole new use for them.

SG: It came to them by way of a farmer in eastern Washington state named Gary Long. So a little
set up: Gary keeps apple orchards on this property and he started having a really severe bird problem. Starlings were eating tons of his apples. Like literally, ten tons a year. One season he lost 20,000 out of 40,000 pounds of Honey Crisp Apples after they had been pecked at by birds and rendered unsellable.

RM: And so Gary Long was looking for ideas.

GL: I was talking to a person that was selling his products that he grew on his ranch, at a fruit stand. And so he wanted to attract people to come to his fruit stand, so he put one of these air dancers out there that you know, wiggles and jiggles, and you know, hoping that people would see it and you know, come over to it and come to his fruit stand. Well, it didn’t bring any people in of any quantity, but the thing that he noticed was the birds didn’t bother him. They weren’t coming into his fruit stand and pecking on the fruit.

SG: Long story short, Gary bought a few Air Dancers from Look Our Way hoping to keep the birds out. The result:

GL: The dancers started dancing, and they took off, and went to a neighbor; and so I said, “hey, this looks like it’s got possibility.”

SG: With the Air Dancers in place, Gary was able to get the bird damage down from 20,000 pounds to, you ready for this? They got bird damage down two ZERO.

GL: Zero damage.

SG: Gary Long called up Nick Kusanovich from Look Our Way and made some suggestions for how to turn the Air Dancer into a bona-fide scarecrow. They added bits of reflective material to the head, gave it some angry eyes, scary teeth and transformed the thing from an Air Dancer to an Air Ranger.

RM: The Air Ranger section of the Look Our Way website reads: “dynamic unrepeatable dancing motion keeps birds away time after time.”

SG:I mention the Air Rangers to Peter Minshall; it was the first time he’d ever heard of them.

PM: Oh that’s Brilliant! Next time I open up a packet of cornflakes, I’ll smile.

SG: Yeah so no bitterness on Minshall’s part even though he’s not making any money off of these
things. Actually he loves seeing the tube guys around.

PM: Could you imagine how I feel when I’m driving down… I don’t drive actually, when a friend is driving me down from a house in town to where we… to a factory building place in Chaguranas and I see a sort of diminutive version of a Tall Boy dancing up a storm by a gas station? I thought My God, look at where we reach. And I’m suddenly aware that they’re dancing up all the gas stations all over the planet. A part of me can’t help but feel delight that goodness, little fella, look at what you and your island have given to the world.

SG: I don’t know how much money Doron Gazit is making off his Tube Guy patent but whatever it is, you can’t really say he didn’t earn it. Sure, maybe it was Peter Minshall’s idea, but Gazit actually made this thing. And, as Gazit really wanted me to point out he’s done a lot of other work with inflatables since then. But I also love knowing about Peter Minshull and of these things are kind of like shopping plaza ambassadors from the streets of his Caribbean island.

PM: Because that is how we dance: limpid and loose to the music of steel drums on the street. Thousands of us.

SG: And with that in mind the inflatable figures, the Tube Guys, the Tall Boys, the Fly Guys, the Air Dancers, the Air Rangers, I’ve discovered a whole new joy in them. They probably won’t convince me to buy a new car, but I will delight in seeing them try; and when I look upon them I will know to listen to the distant whisper of a calypso band.

Comments (14)

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  1. Tasha Le Mel

    With their violent flailing and creepy, menacing smiles, I find these abominations to be redolent of the giant-sized Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters and truly disturbing. The traditional dances from Trinidad are beautiful, rhythmic and choreographed–a far cry from the random whiplash movements of these ugly things. I agree completely with Houston–they’re aesthetic blight. I wish L.A. would ban them as well.

  2. Thank you for introducing us to Mr. Minshall. The origin story of Wacky Inflatable Flailing Arm Guys is far more interesting than I ever would have guessed. I don’t find them blighty, I find them kitschy fun.

  3. Donald Schoolmaster

    Ha! My kids call them Balloon Goons, too. I wondered where they came up with that. Thanks, Maria!

  4. So Gazit and Minshall s tube guys made an appearance in the 1996 Olympic opening ceremony, and that was the first the world had ever seen of these inflatable men. But how did they go from a thing we saw at the Olympics once an art piece to a thing you see at every used car lot in America?

  5. Keeg

    I’m so sad they called the scarecrow version “air ranger” when “scare dancer” was right there.

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