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Columbus Dispatch Article - April 12, 2004

AN EXPANDING BUSINESS Balloon sculptor uses tips to pay college tuition
Published: Monday, April 12, 2004
FEATURES - ACCENT & ARTS 01B By Julie R. Bailey
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
* For more information on Matt the Balloon Guy, call 614-203-1191 or visit www.ProTwister.com.


A floral bouquet? No problem.

A 7 1/2 -foot replica of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle? No problem.

A compact cell phone? Well -- maybe.

With magician-like hands, Matt Tyson can twist inflated hot dog-shaped balloons into almost anything.

''I always make what the customer requests, within reason and depending on the amount of time I have,'' Tyson said. ''But sometimes kids don't realize what's going on and will ask, 'Can you make me a cell phone or a computer?'

''I'll just say, maybe that's not the best idea right now, and then I'll quickly suggest something else, or I'll give Mom or Dad a look and ask for help.''

Known in area restaurants as Matt the Balloon Guy, Tyson designs inflated ''sculptures'' to earn money for his tuition at Ohio State University.

''Being a mechanical-engineering major and having that mind-set, I can pretty much visualize anything that comes along and figure out how to make it out of balloons,'' said Tyson, an Akron native and a junior at OSU.

On weekends, while many college students are partying or studying, Tyson is hauling in the tips.

''It's not only profitable for me,'' said the 21-year-old, who maintains a full schedule of classes and has a 3.1 grade-point average. ''It's a job I thoroughly enjoy doing..

''Some of my roommates just don't understand why I would take 10 hours out of a Saturday to do this,'' he said. ''I don't look at it as work. It's kind of like hanging out with friends I don't know.''

Tyson has weekly gigs at Damon's Grill on Olentangy River Road, TGI Fridays on Polaris Parkway and the Spaghetti Warehouse just west of Downtown. He also works private parties and fund-raising events.

Restaurants pay only the cost of the balloons. Tyson does not receive a base salary.

''He does a great job for us,'' said Dianne Arehart, manager at the Spaghetti Warehouse, which seats up to 800 customers.

''We have kids come in here all the time asking for Matt the Balloon Guy,'' she said. ''I think he definitely enhances the experience.''

Although the money he makes from tips is good, Tyson said the perks are better.

''I get to do what I love, and I have ribs on Thursdays, French onion soup on Saturday afternoons and Italian food Saturday nights.''

Grasping the basics from craft books, Tyson began fashioning balloon sculptures for fun seven years ago, as a high-school freshman.

''You can learn balloons in an afternoon and make a dog or flower,'' he said. ''But getting the balloons symmetrical and making them to actually look like a dog . . . that was the real challenge.''

He practiced by sculpting the requests of neighborhood children. Eventually, an entertainment agency booked him at Akron restaurants, where he worked for tips only.

''It didn't take me long to find out that twisting balloons to make money was better than working as a pool boy at a country club,'' Tyson said.

Upon arriving at OSU in 2001, he contacted more than 25 restaurants about setting up shop.

''He's got a great sense of humor, he's very polite, and he greets and always acknowledges the children,'' said Sloane Swintek, a hostess and server at TGI Friday's. ''And he manages to stay out of our way, and that's important.''

He also can lighten tension for the staff.

''Matt even makes balloon figures for us and keeps us laughing when we might be having a stressful moment,'' Swintek said.

Wearing a colorful short-sleeve shirt with an orange badge that says ''Tips Buy Books'' and an apron stuffed with a rainbow of balloons, Tyson is a friendly distraction for customers.

''I'd heard he was making this motorcycle out of balloons, and I had to come out just to see it for myself,'' said Aimee Kaplan, who went to Biker Night at Quaker Steak and Lube to see Tyson at work.

''All the detail is incredible. I love the smiley-face headlight. It's just amazing,'' Kaplan said of the creation.

''I can't imagine ever doing anything like this. I can't even blow up a balloon.''

Whether it's a life-size sculpture for bikers or a hat or a flower for a kid, Tyson can captivate his audience.

''This is cool; I look like Dr. Seuss,'' said 10-year-old Chris Vinson from Richwood, wearing a 3-foot-high scarlet-and-gray hat while eating a hamburger and fries at TGI Friday's.

Marysville resident Marsha Dailey, whose family enjoyed Tyson's work while waiting for their meals at TGI Friday's recently, said, ''He's great, but I really like that idea that tips buy books.''

''I told my daughter she needs to watch Matt and take some notes, since she'll be going to college in the fall.''

Stephanie Dailey, 17, appreciated Tyson's talents.

''When I was in Mexico last summer to do missionary work,'' she said, holding a red-and-pink balloon flower, ''I made balloon sculptures for the kids, but they didn't look anything like this.''

jbailey@dispatch.com

Illustration: Photo appeared in newspaper, not in the archive.

Photo caption: (1) NEAL C. LAURON | DISPATCH PHOTOS
Matt Tyson creates a life-size replica of a Harley-Davidson V-Rod motorcycle during Bike Night at Quaker Steak and Lube Restaurant.
(2) Tyson puts finishing touches on his motorcycle ''sculpture,'' made of more than 200 twisted balloons.
(3) Right: Ten-year-old Ian Harlow of Lewis Center gazes at the colorful detail in the motorcycle created by Tyson.
(4) Above: Bob Wilson enjoys one of Tyson's creations.
(5) NEAL C. LAURON | DISPATCH
To have his supplies close at hand, Matt Tyson wears an apron packed with hundreds of colorful balloons.

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