Pop Culture

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"I heard $1,500," Dadow adds.

Weigt himself is a bit foggy on the amount, but vividly recalls the balloons he made and the wild time the ladies had with them.

"Let's just say it was a great day, dude! So much fuuuun!" he says, with a wicked laugh. "Believe me, balloons aren't just for kids!"

Clearly, Weigt is the life of the party at the jams, and a big part of why they're still going. Dadow says he's the guy responsible for e-mailing the monthly invites and a major reason people keep returning for the fun.

"No matter what kind of mood you're in," Dadow says, "he just lifts your spirits so much."

Everyone's spirits were dealt a crushing blow just six days before Christmas, when the news broke of a Peoria police officer who'd been shot, just above his bulletproof vest, during a drug raid. Twisters recognized Bill Weigt as J.P.'s son, a father of four who had joined the Peoria force just 18 months ago and was now, reports said, left paralyzed from the arms down.

The imagery of the sad clown lurks beneath the surface of the balloon twisters' happy-go-lucky world. But at no time does it come more to life than in listening to J.P.'s account of how he sat at his son's bedside the day after the shooting and twisted balloons for what marked Bill's 31st birthday.

"It was his birthday on the 20th," Weigt says two days later, speaking in a slightly shaky voice on a cell phone from the hospital. "So I made him up a big birthday cake out of balloons, and a big ol' Santa Claus and a bunch of crap that he likes. And it was kind of cool to watch him light up. It lights up everybody else who comes in the room, too, and kinda takes everybody's mind off the bad stuff, at least for a while."

Weigt says he's already sending out the invites for the coming week's IHOP jam, and insists the show will go on.

"It's a little bit of a stress relief, and it kinda feels good when you get pissed off to twist something around," he adds, letting loose with one of his trademark laughs.

"We're hanging right in there, and we're gonna keep positive," he says. "That's where the balloons really help."

At a late December photo shoot featuring what a consensus of the community agrees to be the best of the Valley's twisters, there's a palpable tension in the air that isn't detectable at the monthly jams.

While Jeremy Johnston and Marie Dadow put the finishing touches on the elegant balloon dress they spent nine hours creating for JoAnn Gray the day before, and Ed Chee and Dan Vincent decide which parts of Vincent's giant motorcycle design they each want to tackle, Vincent's girlfriend Jessica -- who, insiders say, is irked Gray has snatched the cover shot from her balloonesque beau -- keeps a disapproving eye fixed on Miss Ballooniverse.

Photos are everything in the twisters' world, where all great works of art shrivel within days. And exposure in any printed medium is seen as a major career-booster, if not a path to immortality for the doomed balloons. So it's probably only natural that the competition heats up whenever a few cameras are standing at the ready.

But there's an odd sense of abandonment after the photos have all been shot and the artists are left with the question of what to do with their masterpieces. Most opt to leave them behind, rather than squeeze them into their cars. A few of the smaller pieces are stuffed into a trash can, with a box cutter setting off deadly pops like a submachine gun.

Chee sees the brief shelf life of his art form as one of the main reasons people have trouble placing a high value on the twister's work.

"It's transitory art," he says sadly. "Let's face it: There are only so many days that the pieces will last."

For the twisters themselves, though, their art sometimes appears to be immediately disposable. After spending more than four hours teamed with Chee creating his elaborate giant motorcycle -- complete with a cool teardrop gas tank, a V-block engine and flaming exhaust pipes -- Vincent looks ready to simply walk out on the creation he's just given up a morning's work at his day job to complete.

"What do you want to do with this?" he's asked as he straps on his big balloon apron and turns to leave the studio.

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern