Astoria Characters: Nick The Balloonatic

Once you’ve learned how to make a balloon dog, you can make everything else your hands and your eyes can imagine.

Allow the great Nick The Balloonatic Rotondo to demonstrate.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Check out Nick’s balloon earrings.

From his black pack, he plucks a straw-thin canary-yellow balloon and puts the end of it on what he calls “the Cadillac” of all pumps.

Before you can blink an eye, he’s twisting and turning the long yellow tube, forming the body, head and wagging tail of the pooch.

Now, he takes a second balloon and does the same twists and turns (but at different intervals) and voila! the yellow dog becomes a yellow giraffe.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nick at the pump.

If you turn it so the neck is horizontal, you have a dog, this time a sausage-long Dachshund.

Why, it’s so easy even a child can do it.

Nick should know. He made his first dog when he was but a boy. His repertoire, pumped up over nearly four decades one dog at a time, numbers more than 100 incredible inflatable characters and creatures.

Nick, who always carries a supply of balloons in his pocket so he can entertain even when he’s not center stage, has made a no-calorie balloon turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, a couch and chairs (yes, he sat and lounged on them without a single pop) and even jewelry (his chrome-color earrings and brassy bracelets are a real hit with little girls).

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
It’s a pink unicorn!

For the holidays, he displays his balloon creations on his front lawn.

He twists a balloon into a pink unicorn and adds a corkscrew purple tail.

Then he makes a balloon squeak, squeak, my ears are bleeding SQUEAK, to make a kid in a passing stroller smile. He hands the curly-headed boy the dog and like magic, the child’s little brown eyes light up in delight.

And that makes Nick’s morning.

Look, now he’s taking a red balloon and launching it into the air like a rocket. He runs into the street to retrieve it – “I don’t ever litter,” he explains, as he rolls a balloon cigarette, complete with a black tip that represents ashes, and hands it to me.

Nick’s creations, which last six to eight weeks unless purposely popped, are a big hit with kids, who are his main audience. (He loves doing his routine for his grandchildren, who are 8, 6 and 2.)

That’s not surprising because Nick is the ultimate entertainer.  Part stand-up comic, part clown, part Vegas showman, he inflates his personality as he blows up his balloons, telling corny, you-crack-me-up jokes. To break the ice, when he’s asked his name, he says, “I’m Brad Pitt’s brother, Arm Pitt.”

Nick, who grew up in Long Island City, got on the balloon bandwagon when he was 7. It is a story that started with tragedy (the death of his beloved gerbil, Gilligan) and ends in triumph (he made his first balloon dog on the way to get a pet replacement but got free tickets to a circus and ended up there instead).

“A clown showed me how to do it,” says Nick. “Balloons have been my calling ever since.”

But they haven’t always been his business. Nick’s first job was with the NYC DOT, and he spent the bulk of this decades there driving an MTA bus. At the same time, he played bass in the band Armonia.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
What a perky purple tail!

“I noticed at wedding receptions I was playing at that the kids were running around, so during my dinner breaks, I started making balloon animals for them,” he says. “And people started asking me for my card.”

In short order, he became The Balloonatic, a play on the word “lunatic,” which people already were calling him, and officially made balloons his business in 2003.

 These days, he books 150 shows a year and has performed for a cache of celebrities, including Martha Stewart, Brooke Shields, the New York Islanders and Shaquille O’Neal.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Nick made his first balloon dog when he was 7.

It was he, by the way who executive produced the 2008 PBS documentary Twisted: A Balloonamentary.

During the pandemic, when he couldn’t be on stage, he wrote the children’s book, I Am a First Responder, which recounts his experiences during 9/11 as he shuttled medical personnel, police officers and firefighters back and forth to Ground Zero.

At 61, Nick’s slowing down the blowing ups; instead of three to four 45-minute shows a day, he typically does one. But mention the R-word and his eyes bug out in horror.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Just thinking about balloons makes Nick smile.

You’ll have to drag him and his pump off the stage.

“In a sad world, I’m just trying to make people smile,” he says as he heads up the street, the pink unicorn tucked protectively under his arm.

 Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling