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kottke.org posts about Nathan Truesdell

The comic tragedy of Balloonfest ‘86

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 13, 2018

In September 1986, as part of a United Way fundraiser, the city of Cleveland released 1.5 million balloons simultaneously in a bid to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. As this short documentary by Nathan Truesdell shows, things didn’t really go according to plan.

Nathan Truesdell’s short documentary, Balloonfest, depicts the helium-filled spectacle using archival news footage from local television stations. When the balloons are first released, they form a mass of colorful orbs that wraps around Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, by turns resembling a meteorological phenomenon, a mushroom cloud, or a locust infestation. The image is both awe-inspiring and haunting.

The local news footage is kind of amazing. One of the news reporters inexplicably kisses a woman goodbye he’d just interviewed on-air. When the balloons are released, another commentator screams that America doesn’t have crappy ol’ Cleveland to kick around anymore because baaaallllllloooooooooooons!!

I remember seeing this stunt when I was a kid, probably on Tom Brokaw on NBC’s Nightly News broadcast. This kind of ballooning was big in the mid-80s. Right around the same time, we did a balloon release at school. Each student tied a card with their name and the school’s address on it onto a helium balloon in the hope that whoever found the balloon would write back with their location, which locations would collectively be plotted on a map for unspecified learning purposes. I never heard back about my balloon, and I don’t think anyone else did either.

Balloon messaging turns out to be a very low bandwidth communications medium — and not very good for the environment either. Sometime after Balloonfest ‘86, mass balloon releases began to be discouraged as people realized it was actually just littering on a massive scale and harmful to wildlife. Fun while it lasted though, I guess.