There are old men who come to the IHOP jams who've been twisting balloons for decades, and are confounded by the wild stuff the younger twisters are making today.
"These guys are way above me in the things that they do," admits an 82-year-old who goes by the name Feathers the Clown, and who still works weekend mornings at the same IHOP that hosts the jams. "I do enough just to get a smile out of 'em."
And then there are newcomers like Marie Dadow, a transplanted California girl who only picked up twisting a little more than a year ago and has already nabbed the coveted Ralph Dewey Balloon Excellence Award, one of the highest honors in the balloon-twisting world.
"A lot of the old-school people gave me flak when I started getting recognition, because they said I came along after all the twisting innovations," Dadow says. "Like, they didn't have all these colors to work with when they were starting out. Or there weren't all these established techniques. But hey, it's not my fault I got into this at the best possible time!"
More than most of the artists in the Valley twister community, which Chee numbers at about 60, Dadow is acutely tuned in to the weird politics and business dealings that go on among what appears on the surface to be a perpetually happy, easygoing bunch.
"Who gets credit for what is very big in these circles," she reveals, noting that artists will try to claim ownership of a design by being the first to include it in an instructional video or in a photo posted on BalloonHQ.com.
"I made a butterfly where I took Don Caldwell's basic design, and Jeanine [Von Essen]'s way that she makes her weave on the wings, and Patricia Bunnell's way that she crimps the wings," she says, dropping some notable names. "And a friend of mine came over and said, 'Oh, you're doing Wally's butterfly!'"
Dadow admits she usually starts a creation by copying something she's seen before. "I try it one or two times, and then I add something to make it my own." And she acknowledges that some innovations -- like Californian Ken Stillman's bright idea of using an overinflated heart-shaped balloon to create the dimpled chin of a cartoon superhero -- clearly bear the indelible mark of their creator.
"There are some things where we all know where it comes from," Dadow says. "But how far back do you have to go? I mean, there's only so many ways you can make something with balloons. If you get people all around the world trying to make the latest kids' movie character, you're gonna have some similarities. Right?"
Dadow takes a deep breath, and apologizes for exposing the dark underbelly of the shiny, happy balloon crowd.
"Really, I love the balloons," she insists. "I just hate all the other stuff that goes on around them -- having to give credit to the right person, and all the squabbles that go on. Sometimes I feel, 'Oh, you guys are killing me! Can't we just get back to playing with balloons?'"
"You gotta meet J.P.," Marie Dadow says, flagging down an older fellow with a loud Hawaiian shirt and an even louder laugh that's been resonating throughout the IHOP all night. "J.P.'s a hoot and a half."
Dadow admits that when she first met J.P. Weigt, a retiree who got into twisting to be "the cool grandpa" and soon discovered he loved hanging out with the balloon crowd, she was a bit taken aback by his boisterous, over-the-top manner and his decidedly un-PC way with the ladies.
"We're glad to have Marie with us," Weigt says, picking up on her intro. "She's a hell of a twister -- and kinda easy on the eyes, what do you think? I mean, is she hot or what!"
"When you first meet him," Dadow warns beforehand, "you're like, 'Whoa, buddy! Calm down a bit!' But then after that, you just have to love him."
Among the Valley's twisters, Weigt is the guy with all the wildest stories -- although sometimes the others in the group can't resist retelling his greatest exploits themselves.
"The story I heard was he was out golfing," says Ric Fout, a fellow twister, "ran into these ladies, got to talking, and they found out J.P. did balloons."
"Lady golfers," Dadow interjects, with a knowing smirk.
"Well, they hire him for a party, he gets there, and it's a lesbian party," Fout continues. "At the end of three hours of creating the lewdest, crudest balloons you can imagine, they pass around a brandy snifter, containing mostly $50s and $100s, and I heard by the end of the night he walked away with a little over $1,100."