I receive an email the other day from Joseph Maar an Emmy winning director and a customer of ours. He told us his father is credited by many old-time entertainers and agents as the person who invented balloon animals in the 1930's and asked if we would like to hear...
The Story of Henry Maar
Joseph Maar writes...
Thanks for asking about the story of my father whom many have credited with the "invention" of balloon animals. There's a lot here so pull up a reading chair and enjoy!
My dad, Henry Maar had pleurisy as a child in the 20's and ended up in a TB Sanitarium in Milwaukee for several years of his youth. To exercise his lungs they had him blow balloons. Over time, he started to twist several together and make things up much as a kid would.
Nothing came of it at the time; he was just a kid doing what he needed to keep busy and healthy.
In the 1930s, he started working as a vaudeville entertainer -- performing as a magician in the Chicago/Milwaukee-areas. His "calling card" to agents on Wabash Avenue (where most Chicago agents had offices) was to take a balloon and turn it into an apple, writing his phone number on it with an eyebrow pencil.
There were not all the different types/sizes of balloons. All he had were round ones and 3"-36" .... he used to use the 3-36 and tie-up one of the ends to shorten it a lot. It helped make it look like the stem of the core sticking out.
After performing as a magician before/after a feature movie at a vaudeville theater, he was getting bigger shows and started to buy large illusions. He went into Chicago early for a show at the Chicago or Oriental Theater (which one of the two I'm not sure). His car was parked on Wacker Drive while he went to buy his first levitation illusion for a big show that night. This would have been around 1938-39.
Anyway, he came back to the car to get the rest of his magic tricks only to find the vehicle had been broken into and everything was gone. He needed the money so he went to the date that night with the levitation he'd just bought and the balloons in his pocket he'd been using essentially as "business cards."
He went on stage, did the levitation, then pulled out the balloons. He made the apple then did a few animals, stuff he'd done as a kid. Other than the apple, all the others required only a few twists but were comprised of several balloons. Remember, he only had 3-36" balloons. As far as I know, the long, skinny kind (2"-60's" and such) didn't exist at the time or if they did, he didn't know about them.
He only made a couple of items that night, just enough to justify being on stage and getting a paycheck ... and that was it. Afterward, the agents went nuts and told him to forget the magic and to start doing the balloons. That "everyone's doing regular magic tricks but no one is doing the balloon tricks." Remember, they saw it as "tricks" because his trade was as a magician.
There was no clown suit involved and like I said no twisting one balloon into a dog, etc.... Chicago agents offered him the same money doing balloons as he was making doing magic and to my dad, a person who could sometimes be a bit lazy, the idea of not lugging the magic all around was fine by him.
So, for about 10 years he did an act of "balloon tricks" under the stage name "Johnny Ford." He had a medical discharge from the Army during WWII but was allowed to do USO shows when the troops were home on leave .... the easy transportation of the balloons, plus the large size that could be seen by a crowd, made his act a natural for large groups of GI's to see.
By the time my mom married him in 1944 he was known only as Johnny Ford who did magic with balloons. Dad claims that in around 1946-47 an agent offered him $50 more if he could do his magic routine one night while wearing a clown costume. Seems the agent didn't have a clown available and wanted to double-up with my dad.
Dad's "balloon magic" rate was $50/show so he was fine doubling his money for doing little more than putting on a clown suit for a night. Yes, while that was the advent of a clown doing balloons, it wasn't seen that way at the time.
The balloons were still the novelty. The clown suit incidental. Most of the work after that was still balloons only in a performer's suit, not a clown suit. Dad pressed other agents with the idea he could do both the balloon magic and the clown outfit as a way for them to get both on the bill and for him to get some extra money.
In the end, they started hiring him more and more to do balloons in a clown suit but he never did see the extra money. After WWII what little remained of vaudeville died out and he got most of his work from county fairs and company holiday/picnic shows. The fact that he could do both balloon magic and clowning was what sustained him during the lean years when television took over.
He worked clubs all over. I've met with Burt Reynolds recently who recalls in the mid-50's bombing on his first night doing standup in New York and my dad was on the bill. My dad never mentioned it to me but according to Burt, who told me the story just a couple of years ago, my dad made him a poodle out of balloons (again, large sized). Burt said he held it under his arm all night like a real dog!
Burt was an unknown, was not yet an actor, so I'd doubt my dad would have recalled him but it was a bit strange for Burt Reynolds to remember him. He even knew the number of balloons (four) and the only color my dad ever used for a poodle. (red body, yellow ears/legs).
After a family issue with my mom about the family name being different from the show name, in 1951-52 Dad started using his real name "Hank Maar" and dropped the "Johnny Ford" stage title.
Also, there was little intrigue to a clown named "Johnny Ford" but "Hank the Clown" sort of had a ring to it.
Anyway, by the early 50's dad started going on television in local cities all over to promote the local county fairs he was doing -- he'd wear the clown suit and do a balloon animal on their local kid's show, then tell the TV audience: "If you come to the fair tomorrow before Noon, you'll get in free if you tell them 'Hank The Clown sent me!'"
Funny part is that most fairs always were free to anyone coming in before Noon on the opening day.. but most people didn't know that and fewer still knew the reach television would have for county fair attendance. To the amazement of fair management, the next day they'd have a block-long line of parents and kids showing up at the door saying "Hank The Clown sent me." Sometimes there was a block-long line waiting before the gate opened up.
By then, vaudeville was dead, TV was rising and the clown suit was requested by agents more often than the tuxedo. Dad's agents from the time who would book him as "The Original Balloon Man" and "The Sultan of Balloons" were Seymour Shapiro and Howard Shultz (Howard's son Marc still runs the talent agency in Chicago and can support this.. though he was a youngster at the time so his knowledge is a bit limited before the mid 1950s).
Dad worked state and county fairs all over the Midwest, south and eastern US. He was on a show with "Aaron" Presely before he was "Elvis"... and so on. The key is what happened next.
The county fair circuit was an odd home for the end of vaudeville which was based on an audience being not so far away. At fairs in the late 40's and 50's stages were usually across a horse track from a wide grandstand. The grandstands were built for watching horse, stock car or even dog races, not stage shows, so whatever you did, had to be big -- or no one saw it!
Since his shows were increasingly outdoor and in front of grandstands that were far away, dad started doing bigger and bigger balloon animals to wow crowds: reindeer, swan, rocking horse, giraffe, etc... Any given balloon animal was three or four feet tall. And making up each one was a story to the audience: "Bunny ears" become a "rocket ship" become an "airplane" become a "swan" every time you added two more balloons.
The swan was his crowning achievement and included 10 balloons, all but one blown up the full 36" length! It even laid an egg! Also, he started blowing balloons backward and shooting them into the audience. The former as another stage show stunt and the latter as a way to draw in the audience, stall for time and command a large area.
Indoors, he taught balloons to "boomerang" (return to him), to suspend on a ceiling and to pop when he wanted them to. Much of this was using old magic tricks where static electricity was part of how you did some of your tricks. Remember that for years this was considered a "magic" act more than a "clown" act.
Incidentally, the long/skinny balloons done by clowns of today were not my dad's invention--- they came along as a less elaborate way to do the same thing he was doing with.
By the 1970s he did make "skinny balloon" animals but my dad never felt he should claim credit for "inventing" those kinds of animals. They didn't exist in the performance world of the 20's-50's.. maybe even later than that. ]
A couple of other things of note. He did a lot of TV from the mid-50;s to the late 70's including many times on Bozo Circus and similar types of kids shows. A lot of people saw him do balloons there.
But the biggest way he may have spread his creation was through school assembly programs from the 50's through the 80's. Remember that as vaudeville died out the bulk of the work was outdoor fairs, shows, picnics, etc... So in the winter time, some acts would close up shop and do little more than some Christmas shows.
Dad got on the school assembly circuit and would go to show kids how to put on clown makeup and make balloon animals. For nearly 25 years he crisscrossed about 30 states from Minnesota to Maine to Florida and showed kids the "art" of clowning and balloon making.
The last original invention that dad started was something that happened somewhat by accident: face painting. By the 1970s his health started to worsen and he sometimes had trouble with the summertime company picnics that paid so well but could go on for 4-5 hours or more. So he started to ask kids to come up to the stage (or grassy performance area) and he'd "make them up" like a clown.
It really was no different from what he did at school assembly programs -- but since by then balloons were more common and putting clown makeup on was less so, some picnic and company party managers started asking agents for "the clown who puts makeup on the kids." I remember in the late 1970s working a show with him (by then I did some performing) and seeing him sit on a folding chair for 4 hours and just put clown makeup on kids.
Dad passed away in 1991. I still have a lot of his things. I performed with him when I was small and often would get interviewed on television for being the little clown with the circus or at the local stage show. From the ages of 9-24 I was paid to perform with and sometimes without dad; I've done a lot of television, stage shows, picnics, parties, etc...
His balloons during the years I can recall came from Ashland Rubber Company in Ohio-- I think they were Pioneer Balloons before they were Ashland. I don't think they make the 3"x36" anymore -- nor do I think they make "alligator" balloons which were great fun for creating everything from alligators to elephants!
Recently, agent Marc Shultz (son of his old agent) and I have discussed getting my dad the recognition for being the original inventor of balloon animals and of face painting. Again, we make no claim on the typical long/skinny creations of today.
But before those, there was The Sultan of Balloons: Hank Maar. Sometimes called "The Balloon Man: Henry Maar," there's a picture of him in the earlier years at the Smithsonian's American History museum and on-line a shot from the late 40's in archives from the State of Iowa off an old brochure.
Sorry for the long missive but I hope you've found it interesting. Many old timers are now gone so there are few people around who still know the whole story.
Before it's all forgotten, I'm trying to spread the word. I'm sure there's some family ego in all of this as well, I am very proud of what my dad did ... feeling that way's inevitable I guess.
Feel free to pass this along or post on your site if you'd like. It's the honest history of how it all started and I'd love to get the word out.
If you have suggestions of others I could communicate this with, let me know. Again, I thought your site was great.. my dad would have liked it too.
Kindest personal regards,
About Joseph Maar
I performed ballons/magic from as early as I can recall until age 24. Performing as a kid with my dad and then later on my own included many stints on television; doing balloons or magic on shows like "Clubhouse 22," "Kidding Around" and "Bozo Circus" were a part of my daily life. I still have old tapes from the 70's and early 80's.
I grew up in an entertainment family with my dad's brother in the business as well ("The Lancasters." both a dog act and a husband/wife hand-balancing act). It was common for folks like the Walendas to come over for dinner when I was a kid.
I traveled briefly with my dad in the 70's while he was on tour with the Shrine Circus and got interviewed as 'the little clown' (age nine) by a local TV station in Dayton, Ohio. They were doing a feature on the circus being in town.
I caught the "TV production bug" with all the on-camera work and interviews. We bought a video camera in the mid-70s to practice the act and therein started a new, lifelong career. I've produced/directed thousands of national and local television shows -- living in California and now Connecticut where I'm a Coordinating Director for ESPN. My work is primarily on shows for ESPN's entertainment division "ESPN Original Entertainment," managing the directing side of the productions and directing TV shows.
I've drawn upon my entertainment background while helping launch a wide variety of shows on ESPN from "PTI (Pardon the Interruption)" to "Around The Horn" to "Cold Pizza" to "ESPN-25" and others. I've won two national Emmy awards for directing, have several more nominations, and have worked on coverage of most major sporting events from World Series pregame shows to Super Bowl week telecasts ....
But I've tried not to loose my roots.....
A few years back I hired a clown to do face painting of team logos on fans surrounding our stage during a "Road Show" ESPN Classic televised. The invoice later arrived from the performer and was simply addressed to: "Joseph Maar: Man Who Pays Clowns, ESPN"
Posted now on my wall at work next to one of dad's old brochures, it helps remind me of who I am!
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