In 2007, Mark Byrne was settling in for a plane ride to China. As usual, Byrne, a professional balloon artist, had brought along a handful of balloons to help keep the flight crew in good spirits. After he whipped up a few balloon animals and other creations, the flight attendants were so delighted that they displayed his work in the plane's galley. One by one, the passengers filed through to take in the makeshift art show. • "They're looking at it like it's fine art. It was hysterical," says Byrne, 47, of Clearwater, who was then upgraded to first class — a big deal on a 20-hour plane ride — and given a bottle of wine. "I get first-class treatment just for doing balloons." • Entertainment matters. And the holidays are your opportunity to take things to the next level. Whether you're hosting a sing-along, cookie exchange, toy drive or some other get-together, these party entertainers can make your celebration extra-merry. — Dalia Colón [email protected]
The entertainer: Mark "The Balloon Guy" Byrne. In his early 20s, Byrne tended bar and did magic tricks to entertain his customers. At the advice of a mentor, he added balloon art to his repertoire. Today, Byrne is a full-time balloon artist who incorporates improv comedy and magic into his art. A graduate of New York's City's Parsons design school, Byrne has created balloon masterpieces like comic book characters or a tequila bottle with a worm inside; he keeps his iPhone handy to Google photos. But Byrne's biggest showstoppers are balloon fashions: elaborate dresses and other "clothing" that take five to 10 hours to make. The balloon dresses are especially popular at fundraiser parties; at the end of the night, guests pop a balloon to discover what they've won. Byrne also performs weekly at Chili's in Largo and Pinellas Park, Lenny's Restaurant in Clearwater and Jackson's Bistro in Tampa, where he's been known to climb inside an oversized balloon and place LED lights in balloon hats so partiers glow on the dance floor.
When hiring a balloon artist: Remember, you get what you pay for. "My obstacle that I have is explaining that you're not just hiring Dorko the Clown. You're hiring somebody with entertainment experience," Byrne says. "I could entertain people with a rubber band if I have to. And I have. … It takes a lot of skill to do that."
Price of fun: $200 an hour. For balloon fashion, Byrne prefers clients to supply the model.
Get the party started: (727) 742-6713; balloonguy.net.
The entertainer: Red suit, white beard, rosy cheeks. You know the one. Palm Tree Santas provides a database of 67 mostly Caucasian Santas throughout Florida (13 in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Polk counties) who are available for hire. Some work solo, but others are accompanied by their wife, a.k.a. Mrs. Claus. Their beards may or may not be real, but they're always convincing, says "Santa Bob" Elkin of Lutz. "Generally speaking, somewhere around 8 inches from the lower lip is considered the standard Santa length, if you will," says Elkin, 68. ("That's 368 in Santa years," he adds.)
When hiring a Santa: Because Santas work with children, make sure your Kris Kringle has passed a criminal background check. Also, make sure there are other adults around to keep an eye on the kids. Saint Nick is not a babysitter. And don't freak out if your little one sees you scrolling through dozens of Santa photos in the database. "Children are a lot smarter than we give them credit for sometimes," says Elkin, who in the offseason works as Waki the Wizard, a clown for hire. "Even though they may not voice it, they realize that they see a Santa here or a Santa there. They realize that Santa has some helpers during the season."
Price of fun: Rates vary, but Elkin charges $150 to $300 for the first hour and a sliding fee after that.
Get the party started: (813) 230-9254; palmtreesantas.com.
The entertainer: Cat Camp, 53, of Lutz, who owns Fine Art Body Paint. The self-taught artist got her start 26 years ago painting roses and "Eat More Turkey Legs" memos on performers at a Renaissance festival in Minnesota. Today, Camp paints leopard spots, faux blue jeans, liquid metal and other masterpieces onto models wearing only underwear and pasties. She works private parties, fashion shows and other events to wow the crowd. "Everybody's got their cell phones out, and all you see is click, click, click, click," says Camp, who by day works at in the University of South Florida's interlibrary loan department. Camp also runs a child-friendly face-painting business, Fine Art Face Paint.
When hiring a body painter: Make sure the artist uses cosmetic-grade, not craft-grade, paint and glitter with a Food and Drug Administration compliance notice on the packaging. Also, find out if there's an additional fee for the models. For instance, if the artist needs only an hour to complete her work but you expect the model to stay all night, it'll cost you. Camp gets her "canvases" from modelmayhem.com; the models set their own additional rates. To save money — or just for the sake of being an exhibitionist — hosts can model at their own party. "They don't have to look like Heidi Klum," Camp says, but potential paintees should have a clean bikini line. Additionally, women should shave their legs, and men should trim excessive body hair.
Price of fun: Camp charges about $100 an hour for full body painting. As an example, it takes about three hours to paint full-length blue jeans. For face painting at children's parties, the cost is $150 for up to two hours.
Get the party started: (813) 454-2626; fineartbodypaint.com.
The entertainer: Antwan Towner, 27, of Brandon, who runs Antwan Towner Enterprises. The Portland, Ore., native got into magic as a boy growing up in foster care. After seeing magicians on his foster mom's TV, he checked out some library books on the subject. Engrossed, he never returned the books. "Magic was my way of expressing that there was more to life than what I was observing. It helped me connect with people," says Towner, now a full-time magician. He does "strolling atmosphere" tricks at Jackson's Bistro on Harbour Island every Friday and Saturday night to help partiers break the ice. "It makes it easier for the guys to talk to the girls," says Towner, whose most popular tricks include "mind reading" and hypnotism. Although he does not do children's birthday parties, Towner performs a family-friendly magic and comedy show Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays at Disney World. But his bread and butter is the corporate scene; Towner tailors his act to demonstrate company talking points.
When hiring a magician: Iron out your expectations before calling for a price quote.
Price of fun: Towner's rate starts at $500 and varies depending on crowd size and other specifics.
Get the party started: (503) 807-1244; townerenterprises.com.
The entertainer: A moving, talking, built-to-scale replica of the famed Star Wars droid. In 2003, Temple Terrace resident Doug Poston, a former machinist and I.T. guy, set out to build a robot. Two years and $3,000 later, he had created his "R2," as he calls it, to the exact specifications of the R2 Builders Club Yahoo Group. Made from a motorized wheelchair and various aluminum parts, the remote-controlled robot is 42 inches tall, weighs 200 pounds and has a maximum speed of 4 mph. Poston, 52, also added an MP3 player loaded with R2's wonky robot sounds and a candy dispenser from the mouth. Poston, who is unemployed, occasionally dresses as a Jedi and takes R2 to Channelside, First Friday in downtown St. Petersburg and other spots so the public can take photos; he keeps a tip jar on the robot's arm. But don't quiz him about George Lucas. "I don't know everything about Star Wars. People go, 'You must be a huge fan.' Yes and no." Of course Poston has seen all the movies — the 1977 original is his fave — but he doesn't collect the figurines and he's never been to a convention. Still, don't touch his robot. Once, when a passerby kicked and tried to body-slam R2, Poston nearly went intergalactic on the guy. "I had my lightsaber and swung it around near his head," Poston says.
When building a robot: Be patient.
Price of fun: Negotiable.
Get the party started: (727) 460-9180; robots2000.com.