There are balloon animals – the cute little doggies and twisty giraffes that clowns make at festivals.
Then there are Chris Conner’s balloon creations – intricate sculptures fashioned into sky-high hats, motorcycles with wheels and handlebars, and jet packs that would make Buzz Lightyear jealous.
Conner, a lifelong magician and comedian, has a few animals in his arsenal, but his are complex, multiballoon sharks, monkeys and frogs crafted into hats bigger than the kids who wear them.
Now, Conner is becoming a popular weeknight attraction at several local restaurants’ children’s nights. He has a regular schedule at Mooyah, 352 S. West St.; Bud E. Rooster’s, 8918 W. 21st St. North; and Pacific Coast Pizza, 7713 E. 37th St. North. He’s also developing a regular following of little fans, who don’t mind waiting to get one of Conner’s whimsical and complicated balloon creations.
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“One thing that’s fun about balloons is that they allow whatever your imagination lets you think,” he said. “You’re only limited by your imagination.”
Conner started practicing magic tricks when he was 5 years old, inspired by a grandpa that was a master at making coins appear behind ears. In his late teens, Conner started doing shows in comedy clubs and performed in several around Wichita.
He became interested in balloons when his wife, Julie, got a job with Pioneer Balloon Company, which has corporate offices in Wichita and supplies balloons to “twisters” all over the world.
Julie, who also edits Balloon Magic magazine, introduced him to some of the nation’s best balloon artists, and Conner was fascinated. He taught himself how to work with balloons.
Today, Conner has a full-time job as the head of the behavior program at Dodge Literacy Magnet Elementary School. But he’s just as busy after-hours with his Conner Creative Productions. Over the years, he’s put on balloon and magic shows at the Wichita River Festival, at birthday parties and at corporate events. He knows how to make everything from costumes to decor. For Halloween, he said, he made “Ghostbusters” balloon costumes for his entire family, which includes 9- and 13-year-old daughters. They spent most of the evening posing for pictures, he said with a laugh.
Conner started appearing at kids’ nights at Mooyah about six months ago, and as word has spread, more restaurants have requested his presence on kids’ nights.
The restaurants pay him to be there, and he doesn’t put out a tip jar (even though he happily accepts tips).
“I want to make sure everyone understands they can get a balloon,” he said.
Conner’s balloons take longer to craft than typical balloon animals. Each sculpture contains between three and eight balloons and can take a full five minutes to complete.
He tries to keep track of the children who come in to the restaurants and distributes sculptures one at a time. But he doesn’t accept requests.
“I’d rather surprise them,” he said. “I feel like life doesn’t have enough surprises. While I’m doing them, people are sitting there trying to guess what I’m making.”
On a recent kids’ night at Pacific Coast Pizza, Conner was crowded by a group of fascinated customers, most of whom weren’t as tall as his balloon cart.
A pair of little girls dining with their parents got balloon hats fashioned to look like Disney princesses Belle and Ariel. Nearby, a small boy proudly modeled a backpack-style jet pack, complete with yellow and red fire coming out of the bottom. Everyone was jealous of the nearly life-sized gray shark hat Conner carefully crafted for another boy.
Across the restaurant, another little girl got a pair of Minnie Mouse ears attached to a red headband. And one posed cheesily for the camera as her parents took pictures of her wearing a layered pink and green crown. When she accidentally popped part of it, her bottom lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears.
“I can fix it,” Conner told her. “Don’t worry. Easy fix.”
Rusty Law, who owns Pacific Coast Pizza, said that Conner proposed appearing at kids’ night several months ago, and Law decided to give him a shot.
Now he has a steady group of customers who come in on Monday nights just to see the balloon man.
“People like the creativity of the balloons,” Law said. “And he pretty much can create anything.”