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'Balloon Boy' family back in the spotlight, this time for a musical

The cast of "American Chilly" rehearses in a Hudson warehouse Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. From left is Bradford Heene, 16, Greg Gebauer, Falcon Heene, 12, Johnny Vegaz, (Dressed as a sheriff), Dean Pskowski, Jennifer Pskowski and Madeline Smyth, 10. Behind the drums is Ryo Heene, 14. American Chilly is a musical performance that features heavy metal music, acting and audience participation.
Published Oct. 22, 2015

HUDSON — It's 5 p.m., and Richard Heene is getting ready for rehearsal in a row of commercial warehouses. He tests the lighting covered by colored gels, their bulbs from the Dollar Store and normally used to warm baby chickens.

His sons — Bradford, 16, Ryo, 14, and Falcon, 12 — mill the set they all built, a bar and a wall and a video screen. Richard Heene is the author and director of American Chilly, a "rockestra" musical performed by the Heene Boyz, billed as the "world's youngest heavy metal band." It premieres Wednesday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

Mayumi Heene, their mother, runs the sound board controlling massive speakers. A lamp shines on a binder containing the pages of a thick script, which she will turn in time with what is happening on stage.

Heene, 54, has pulled his graying long hair back in a pony tail. He navigates a lair of electrical cords, moving at top speed like a roadie 10 minutes before the concert.

Finally, he cups his hands and yells.

"Places."

• • •

Heene is a relentlessly energetic man who says he wants to make his sons a national touring event. They will be like the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Heene will make his sons famous.

The problem is, he already has.

In 2009, while living in Colorado, Heene served jail time after pleading guilty to staging the most notorious hoax in recent history.

The "Balloon Boy" scandal, basically a false report that Falcon, then 6, was trapped inside a helium balloon 7,000 feet up in the air, riveted the nation for a couple of hours.

As the world watched on live television, the Denver International Airport was shut down. The silver balloon soared as high as 7,000 feet and covered more than 50 miles flanked by National Guard helicopters.

In fact, Falcon was hiding in the attic, allegedly because his father had yelled at him. Heene pleaded guilty to felony charges for influencing a public official and spent 28 days in jail. His wife did community service for filing a false police report.

The Balloon Boy story, which began in fear, turned quickly to skepticism of Richard Heene, who was seen as a manipulative stage dad determined to get himself and his kids on a reality show. He and Mayumi had appeared on Wife Swap a couple of times, and show business is one of the dozen or so careers he has tried.

Instead, he became a symbol of everything that is wrong with our Cheetos culture.

• • •

Heene has rented the Mahaffey for the one-night performance at a cost of around $30,000, according to Joe Santiago, the theater's general manager. He bought insurance, submitted a marketing plan and supplied the technical specifications for the show, such as listing the props and equipment they would be using.

"They have met all of the requirements (to rent the theater)," Santiago said.

Heene has an investor, he said, who paid for the costs of the show, including equipment worth more than $120,000. A goal is Broadway.

The threshold is very high for taking a production to New York, says David Jenkins of Jobsite Theater in Tampa.

Can shows bloom out of the ground and go straight to the top? "In my understanding, I don't believe that has ever happened," Jenkins said.

That's not to say that shows can't incubate elsewhere, as some have through the Straz Center in Tampa or the Asolo in Sarasota before cracking the big leagues. The key is lining up producers, financial backers and theaters just to take a look, he said. "Since Broadway is a for-profit model, there are huge financial stakes involved."

American Chilly is based on a script Heene wrote in 1999. It starts with a 19th century gold prospector, Morgan Enright, who kills some Indians in the desert because he was high on peyote.

The Indians curse the land for six generations.

The action picks up again with Morgan Enright VI, who is running a gas station and restaurant at the edge of the desert. The rest of the play is almost impossible to follow.

There is something about a snake monster that comes out of the toilet and can only be seen under the influence of peyote. The boys play the sons of a television broadcaster for "Neg News," which broadcasts sensational stories.

The same actor, Dean Pskowski, plays the broadcaster and Enright, who according to the Heenes wants to stay on peyote in order to catch the monster.

Several incomprehensible characters in a row eat laxative-spiked chili served by Enright or his wife, which sends them to the restroom and to their deaths. The loud audio of digestive tracts in distress repeats with each new victim. For adolescent boys, this is great stuff.

As Falcon Heene said, "It still makes us laugh."

Between scenes, the boys play original songs. Falcon's voice has not changed yet, and his vocals hang a layer above the driving sound of Ryo's drums and Bradford's guitar. Aside from the mess that is this production, the kids are capable musicians.

According to Heene, more than 1,100 tickets have been sold.

• • •

In 2010, the family moved from Colorado to Florida; first to Bradenton, then Spring Hill.

Their rented home feels scattered and a bit sloppy, but there is enough room for everything. A couch faces a big-screen television where the kids play video games. On a back porch stand a bunch of bicycles, near cages for chickens and rabbits.

The whole place smells a bit like dog, thanks to Zoomer, an arthritic Plott hound mutt.

Mementoes of past achievements hang on the wall, such as an article Heene co-authored for the National Weather Digest, a publication of the National Weather Association, about electromagnetic fields. For a couple of years Heene, an amateur meteorologist, teamed up with a former television weatherman, shooting rockets into nimbus clouds to measure the electromagnetic fields in storms.

There are also photos of cities — places the Heene Boyz want to turn into tour stops.

Heene believes in the power of visualization.

The boys do normal kid stuff, pretty much whatever they want.

"I said, 'Okay, no more climbing trees and jumping off buildings,' " Heene said. "Have they listened to me? No."

At first, other kids teased them about their long hair.

"They'd say, 'You look like a girl,' " said Bradford, the oldest. "We say, 'We're in a band.' They say, 'That's cool.' "

• • •

Richard Heene does not have a job. In the past, he has worked in sales, as a carpentry contractor and a stand-up comedian. He designed a board game that never went anywhere and wrote and illustrated a manual on "offensive driving."

Born in Virginia, he moved with his mother and stepfather 13 times. "All I have ever wanted since I was a small child was to live in one place," he said.

Today, the Heenes homeschool their boys, and each picked up musical instruments from a young age. Bradford learned guitar and Ryo played drums. Falcon followed suit on bass guitar and also stood out with his voice. It is a haunting wail, bell clear and with an unforced vibrato.

They didn't even have to think about forming a band. It had already happened.

It's hard to say if the Heene Boyz, who have now played in Daytona Beach and a few other clubs around the state, are the world's youngest heavy metal band. But they might be. Their daily routine revolves around music. Bradford, the most talkative of the three, said he is usually up by 7 a.m. Ryo and Falcon are already keeping rock star hours, in bed until 9 or 10 a.m.

Heene has taught his sons video and audio editing, Photoshop and song writing. He told them to start with something they were passionate about. Their first song was about the video game World of Warcraft. They wrote more songs and uploaded them to YouTube.

In 2014 Heene organized a rock festival in Gainesville, which he said drew 65 bands, including the Heene Boyz. The boys played other gigs, including a hookah lounge in Hernando County or opening for other bands in Tampa.

• • •

In recent months, CNN and NBC — two networks that aired disastrous interviews with the Heene family after the Balloon Boy incident (on Today, Falcon threw up) — invited them back to talk about their music.

For Heene, it was sweet revenge.

He wanted to meet Matt Lauer, who had given him a tough interview on Today in 2009, but had to be content to stand outside his office.

While in New York, the family visited Times Square. They took selfies and got strangers to shout "American Chilly" to their phones.

They want to return as performers.

"I just kind of want to do this theater stuff and bring it to Broadway," Bradford said.

There are obstacles. The original plans for a 10-city tour have not panned out. So Heene, who has always preached positive thinking, is banking on the Mahaffey production to start a national momentum.

"If you don't cast your line out, like in a pond — if you don't make that splash — the ripples won't come back to you," he said.

"You have to think big."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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