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Balloon Bender Seeks Air Apparent

Man trains students in the art of entertaining people young and old using a little latex, lung power and lots of imagination.

December 29, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

Over the last 14 years, Addi Somehk has mastered the art of air and inflatable latex, making thousands of balloon hats for total strangers in 34 countries on five continents.

Somehk, a professional balloon guy, makes a living twisting balloons at bar mitzvahs, elementary schools and corporate parties. But this winter he undertook his biggest balloon challenge yet: teaching the magic of twisting to a bunch of teenagers in bustling, multiethnic Hollywood.

The idea? Make an army of balloon twisters to spread holiday cheer to the residents of a nursing home and anybody else the teenagers might want to make smile.

On a gray day in early November, Somehk walked into the student government leadership class at Hollywood High School -- a long, cold room once used for shop classes -- with a slide show, a balloon apron (made by his mother) and a proposition.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Balloon artist -- An article in Thursday's California section about balloon artist Addi Somekh misspelled his last name as Somehk.

"I've been a balloon guy for 14 years and it's actually how I make a living, and I have some things to show you and a cool project that some of you might want to get involved in," Somehk began. "But first I need a volunteer."

A few hands shot up. Somehk brought up Andy Ayala, 17, and got to work. He blew up a couple of balloons with strong bursts of air and measured the student's head. In a matter of seconds, Somehk made Ayala a ridiculous hat.

The room responded with applause and a chorus of "ahhhhs."

Somehk dimmed the lights to present a slide show of the self-funded balloon hat world tour he took with photographer Charlie Eckert between 1996 and 1999.

"The goal of what we did was to show that everyone is born with a sense of humor," he said. "No matter what country you're from, what language you speak, what religion you are or what politics you have, you don't have to learn to laugh. It's like a universal language."

Among the shots, Somehk showed an image of several stone-faced Eastside vatos standing before a lowrider car -- in balloon hats: "This is here in East L.A." The students laughed.

"Once you learn how to twist balloons, we then will go to a nursing home, around Christmastime, and make balloons for old folks," Somehk said. "Once you go inside, it's very -- I've got to be honest with you, it's very creepy. It's the opposite of high school."

The students listened.

"It's either going to work or it's not going to work, but it'll be interesting to see what happens. Any other questions?"

Sixteen students signed up. The bell rang, and as the class filed out, a few curious students approached Somehk's apron and asked for a balloon. Someone went ahead and grabbed one. Others followed. Soon Somehk was giving them out by the handful.

That type of response never surprises Somehk, who was awarded a $10,000 grant from the city's Cultural Affairs Department to create a "balloon art brigade" with the students at Hollywood High.

From the Amazon rain forest to the sub-Saharan plains of Africa, from Indiana to Ireland, Somehk has found balloons to be irresistible.

"I enjoy making people happy, but it's really about balloons giving me access to different facets of life, [to places] where I most likely would never have [gone], whether it was behind the bars of a jail or past security at the governor's mansion," Somehk said recently.

Somehk, 33 and living in Altadena, never figured balloons would become his life's work.

He was 19, home from college, lonely, lovesick and unemployed when a friend recommended him to a Bay Area company that trains people to twist simple animals at chain restaurants and birthday parties. His mother, before believing in the charm of balloons, told him it was a "dumb job."

But something about balloons made sense to Somehk.

Using mostly the long, narrow variety that resemble psychedelic sausages, he created such hats as the "Master Blaster," the "Ballie Brain Protector" and the "Princess Crown." Then came the balloon bass, an instrument that creates a low, twangy sound when plucked. This led inevitably to a balloon bass band, Unpopable, in which Somehk plays at places such as Mr. T's Bowl in Highland Park with guitarist Henry Bermudez.

He traveled to international balloon conventions. He twisted balloons with Martha Stewart on TV. And he circled the world, spreading the silliness of balloons to Buddhist monks in Thailand, camels in India, Norwegian soldiers, Hasidic children in Jerusalem and Mongolian herdsmen.

"I try to make each hat 51% classy, 49% wacky," Somehk said. "I don't want people to feel foolish about wearing a balloon hat; I want them to feel classy."

People, he added, instinctively "want balloons -- they want balloon hats, they want the happiness and the whimsy that these balloons offer."

It was easy to see that idea at work immediately after the Hollywood High students' first session with Somehk, where they learned the basic techniques for blowing up a balloon (it's harder than one might think; pumps were used in the earliest sessions) and twisting them into shapes or small "ballies."

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