Santa Cruz man named Entertainer of the Year at balloon convention
By PEGGY TOWNSEND
Sentinel staff writer
Ivan Whitworth’s fingers dance and Bugs Bunny appears.
They turn and twist and poke, and suddenly there’s shy-looking Elmo from “Sesame Street.”
Someday, Ivan worries, he might have to get a real job. His fingers move on to a wild-looking something that resembles Scratchy the cat from “The Simpsons.”
But right now, the 25-year-old with the leather jacket and fashionably loose blue jeans is happy holding the title of the world’s best balloon twister.
After all, he’s got a job that makes everybody like him.
Delivering a blow
It depends on how you look at it, but Whitworth had a likely — or unlikely — start as a balloon entertainer.
He grew up in a family of eight brothers and two sisters.
His dad is a Vietnam vet turned Christian missionary.
His mother is Japanese.
Whitworth spent a year as a vagabond surfing in Bali, then spent four years as a comedian in Japan, hawking a brand of beer in bars around Tokyo.
“I was born in Japan,” Ivan says, balloons squeaking and hissing in his hands.
“And being foreigners, you get used to being on stage all the time.”
So when the Whitworths moved back to the states in the early ’90s, the family looked around for a new venture and decided to start a party entertainment business called Adventure Balloons.
Run by dad Jimmie Whitworth, four of the brothers quickly joined in: Ivan, Gideon, Jimmie Jr. and Chris.
Pretty soon, they were all creating huge balloon tropical jungles or turning latex and air into Winnie the Pooh or the Tasmanian Devil.
They did birthday parties for kids. Then birthday parties for adults, slumber parties, prom parties and high school graduations.
Silicon Valley started calling, arranging for the brothers to wander through cubicles cheering up the cube-dwellers or spice up an advertising luncheon with balloon Harleys and bikinis.
They’ve even done a divorce party.
“It was the ex-wife and all her girlfriends,” Ivan explains. “They were all really cool.”
Like families full of baseball players or soccer players, the four brothers are all pretty competitive.
So it was tough for them to pick one brother to represent the business at the International Balloon Arts Convention in Chicago this year.
The convention draws balloon artists from all around the world. The event started after the balloon/singing telegram business swung into high gear in the ’80s.
This year, Dad Jimmie decided, Ivan would be the one to compete.
With 3,000 delegates attending the convention, the slender young man with the dark GQ hair took to the stage to create his best balloon figure in under 12 minutes.
Risking every balloon entertainers’ nightmare — the big bang — he completed his figure, then strapped on his balloon apron, and headed into the jaded crowd, delivering balloon characters and one-liners for tips in the busking event.
Finally, came the big event, a five-hour competition to create a balloon sculpture that fit the theme “Under the Sea.”
“It was easy, being from Santa Cruz,” Ivan says.
He created a life-size mermaid with dreadlocked hair and eyes that glowed.
At the end, Ivan was named Entertainer of the Year for the international convention.
The best balloon man in the world.
It’s not that Ivan, his dad or brothers spend a lot of time practicing.
“We don’t twist at home,” Ivan says.
Instead, they’ll try new figures as partygoers play stump the twisters. Cheshire cats, Lincoln Continentals, an A’s player with a bat in his hand.
Then they’ll come home and share with the rest of the family.
They also get new techniques from the International Balloon Arts Convention, says Ivan as he twists, blows and bites to create a small ball that rolls around inside another balloon.
Suddenly, he twists the balloon and the little ball shoots out like it was a miniature cannon ball.
“Stuff like that,” he says and grins. Ivan likes the entertaining side of his work. He likes walking into a party full of stiff-faced, sophisticated folks and leave with them clutching their balloon figures.
Office parties are too easy, he scoffs. Everybody’s so bored, it doesn’t take much to entertain them. Ivan’s fingers continue their work. Tigger. A bouquet of daisies. He’s done work for the San Jose Sharks, for the Santa Cruz Blues Festival, for Chaminade.
Adventure Balloons charges $150 per hour per entertainer. Some companies hire the whole family for the whole day. Is there any party he won’t do? Ivan grins.”We got invited to do this nudist party, which we turned down,” he says.
His dad laughs.”They couldn’t pay us enough money to do that,” he says.