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The night typically starts out slow, with the twisters sitting around the back tables, comparing notes on how to craft the latest in-demand animated hero ("How do you make that one stray hair on Mr. Incredible?").

But by midnight, the back room is a battlefield of inflated body parts and popped latex, with the women stuffing their tops with instant implants and the guys challenging one another to see who can blow up the most balloons simultaneously through their noses. To up the gross-out factor, the guys choose various shades of yellowish-green.

Dan Vincent, the organizer of the monthly "jams," as they're called, says he started holding the gatherings at this restaurant two years ago as a way to bring the community together between the sporadic conventions.

"I figured, 'Why wait 'til once a year to get together?'" Vincent says, greeting the regulars as they arrive with their arsenals of balloons, ordering rounds of coffee and soda. "'Why not do it every month?'"

What started out as just four people hanging around the back of the IHOP making balloons has been multiplying steadily, Vincent says. "Now when you come to the jams, there's maybe 20 or 30 people here. And the manager says this is the best night their IHOP has all month. People bring their kids in to get free balloons."

With an ample belly built low to the ground -- a physique practically designed for hanging a heavy latex-stuffed apron around -- Vincent personifies the nickname on his calling card and Web site, Dan the Balloon Man.

He's got the attitude you'd want in a balloon man, too: "I try to meet every request that comes in," he says. "You name it, I'll make it."

At work at his regular gig, the Sunday morning shift at another IHOP in Chandler, Vincent says he never looks at his tips, even though tips are all you get working the restaurants, still the twister's primary venue.

"When someone gives me something, I just put it in my pocket, and I won't even know what I've made until I leave," he says. "That way I'm not thinking about the money."

Vincent is all about the "shock and awe" factor in making every odd request take wondrous shape in twisted latex. "Little girl was having her 10th birthday, and wanted a platypus," he says, by way of example. "So I made her one. And her grandpa told me, 'Every year since she was 1, the balloon guy would come to her table and she'd always ask for a platypus. On her 10th year, she finally got one.' Those are the kinds of things you do this for."

When he started his monthly jams, Vincent envisioned his role as a kind of "pop" culture homeroom teacher, leading the crew through whatever cool technique he may have picked up over the last few weeks.

"I say, 'Okay, everyone, gather 'round. We're gonna learn this new octopus.' Or, 'Okay, guys, what are we doing for porcupines?'"

Lately, though, Vincent's been losing some control over the group, as the talent showing up for the jams is beginning to eclipse his own.

Jeremy Johnston, a young hotshot known for making huge, elaborate balloon sculptures always off the top of his head, has become the main attraction at most jams, tonight whipping up a giant sleigh and reindeer while Vincent toils away quietly at an eight-foot Santa.

"Jeremy likes the big stuff," says Vincent, who obviously does, too. "And he's kind of the draw now. People come in and watch him."

Johnston, the son of veteran clown and caricature artist Roger Johnston, has always had the unique gift of "thinking in balloons," his dad says.

"I'd ask him to draw something, and he'd say, 'Dad, I can't draw it, but I can make it with balloons.'"

The younger Johnston is a quiet genius, tossing in a clever quip only occasionally between the clatter of the rest of the group. But his creations -- big, crazy improvisations like a Frankenstein monster with Elvis hair and guitar, and life-size superheroes with rippling balloon six-packs -- speak loudly enough to set him apart from the crowd.

Vincent claims he has no problems sharing the spotlight with wunderkinds like Johnston.

"I don't wanna be overlooked," he says. "But I wanna showcase everybody. That's why we have the jams in public, instead of at someone's house. It's all about networking and sharing, and also getting exposure."

And, of course, having fun. "Oh, yeah. Sometimes we'll go 'til 2 in the morning," he says, getting back to his balloons. "It can be hard to stop, when a bunch of us get together."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern