A Show as Light as the Air That Propels It

The New York Times

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 11, 1998

A SHOW AS LIGHT AS THE AIR THAT PROPELS IT

By CINDY MARVELL

SO, what does an inflatable man do when the chips are down on Wall Street?

We blow up everything in the garage and laugh at inflation,‘ proclaims Fred Garbo, the pneumatic vaudevillian who created the Inflatable Theater Company, coming to the Tilles Center on Saturday. Imagine a cross between Woody Allens flying machine in Sleeper‘ and the balloons in Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade, and you have some idea of inflatable theater.

Though capable of solo flight, Mr. Garbos inflatables more often than not have humans inside. And not just any humans. Mr. Garbos partner, Daielma Santos, is a Brazilian ballerina who trained at the Royal Academy of Dance in London. Together, they toss, dance and cavort inside and around creations ranging from giant cubes that unexpectedly sprout limbs to a full-length evening dress that adorns the elegant Ms. Santos. Then, of course, there is the beloved monstrosity Fred Zeplin, Mr. Garbos inflated alter ego.

The spectacle of an orange-and-purple man who looks as if he weighs 300 pounds attempting dive rolls and cartwheels, performing handstands on a chair and imitating break dancers, has been known to leave audiences gasping for air. Years of physical training render such side-splitting images effective.

People guess wrong if they think this is primarily for kids, Mr. Garbo (originally Garver) said in a telephone interview from his home in Norway, Me.

Weve performed everywhere from Montreals Just for Laughs festival to the Kennedy Center to opera houses.‘ Not to mention David Lettermans late-night television show and a sold-out run at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan last spring.

Mr. Garbo is planning a new piece commissioned by the Alabama Symphony, to be performed with full orchestra and, of course, inflatables of all shapes and sizes. My mother was a violinist, and I played trombone when I was a kid,‘ he said, explaining his numerous pieces involving musical themes. But I couldnt reach seventh position‘ — a point on the slide thats a long reach for a childs arms — so I had to throw it down and kick it up with my foot. That may have been my start as a juggler.

As a child, Mr. Garbo, 44, performed magic tricks and revered the Marx Brothers. His favorite was Harpo, the silent yet musical one. He was angelic and beautiful, but also highly skilled. After all the humor, people were surprised he played the harp so well. Thats why I continue to juggle in the show.

For Ms. Santos, a frequent guest principal dancer and choreographer with the Portland Ballet in Maine, the chance to work with inflatables offered comic relief. I was working in classical ballet only,‘ she said. Then I see Fred bouncing around in this inflatable suit and I thought: Forget this pas de bouree stuff. I want to do something fun.’

As one of the prime instigators of the new vaudeville movement in the United States, Mr. Garbo said he viewed the genres popularization with a mixture of pride and chagrin.

Its really blossomed,‘ he noted, so now everybody and their uncle can ride a unicycle, juggle and pick volunteers.‘ But Mr. Garbos all-around talents in juggling, magic and tumbling have landed him such diverse opportunities as a role in the Broadway musical Barnum’‘ and a guest spot in Moses Pendletons dance company, Momix.

As a teen-ager, he sought out the Celebration Mime Theater led by Tony Montanaro, the legendary teacher and author of the treatise Mime Spoken Here,” at his headquarters in South Paris, Me.

At Celebration they were doing magic without props, gymnastics without competing,‘ Mr. Garbo recalled. I came when I was 19 and never really left.

His commitment was rewarded by the chance to tour with Mr. Montanaro. It really was the old apprentice system, learning the craft from the master,‘ he said. Now, as a teacher himself, Mr. Garbo has seen many of his students go on to perform with troupes including Cirque du Soleil.

Through Celebration, he met the internationally acclaimed mime Bob Berky, with whom he taught and performed for nine years. In 1982 they were joined by Michael Mo schen and formed a trio, Foolsfire, which performed at Dance Theater Workshop in Manhattan, the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Mr. Garbo fondly remembers his solo, which involved a unicycle powered by a kazoo.

After six years of touring, Mr. Garbo left the trio to pursue other projects and landed a gig on Sesame Street,‘ playing Barkley the dog for eight years. One creation that never hit the airwaves was a juggling monster named Dexter.

Dexter tried to stop juggling, but it was like a drug: he couldnt give it up, Mr. Garbo said. He found himself in a similar position when his dog days came to an end.

I was still doing the unicycle, juggling a lot, and then, thank God, I thought of the inflatable man,‘ he said. The idea began as a stage set designed by the self– styled inflatalist George York for a performance at the Fools Fest in Montpelier, Vt. Mr. York, whose air galleries‘ include some of the lightest hot-air balloons in the world, reckons he has created about 50 inflatables for Mr. Garbo over the last 10 years.

Although Mr. Yorks inflatables have been used as scenery at festivals and on Ben & Jerrys Traveling Show, Mr. Garbo is his only client in the costume department. The prototype was made of white rip-stop nylon but eventually switched to hot-air balloon nylon. Its a real acting job to get the characters across in a big bag,‘ Mr. Garbo said. Its like a very large mask that transforms into a living cartoon.

Ms. Santos, who manipulates ribbons and bubbles and metamorphoses into an inflatable woman, toe shoes and all, said: We go from goofy inflatables to scary ones to classy, elegant ones like my dress.

Its nice to have the seasoning of Freds comedy,‘ she added. He has his own rhythm, but Im pretty much breaking it and taking it to another place.‘ Rehearsals tend to match perfomances in complexity, if not in comedy. In practice, the duo uses walking-talkies to direct the action, but onstage they are on their own.

By the end of the show, an entire household of inflatables has appeared, yet the audience invariably shouts, More!‘ Mr. Garbos ingenuity has inspired imitators, but none have pursued it with the same degree of passion, verve and sheer talent. He is negotiating with Kenneth Feld, director of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, who envisions an inflatable circus.

I always say were big people with a big show, but the circus is gigantic,‘ Mr. Garbo said. I might as well be in on the ground floor as a consultant.

Fred Garbos Inflatable Theater Company performs on Saturday at 2 P.M. at the Tilles Center, C. W. Post Campus, Long Island University, Brookville. The company is also scheduled to appear at the Staller Center in Stony Brook on March 28.