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The Air of His Ways

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After eight years in a dog suit, Fred Garbo was ready for a new look.

The guy who used to frolic under 45 pounds of foam and fake fur as Barkley the Dog on “Sesame Street” found a lighter wardrobe in Fred Garbo’s Inflatable Theater Co. and, in the process, soared to the top of an all-ages entertainment style that is jammed with atmosphere.

That’s atmosphere as in air, the invisible stuff so handy for breathing and filling whoopee cushions. Garbo uses it lavishly in his acts, inflating yards and yards of vividly colored nylon to create oversized shapes that somersault, wiggle, slip and slide across the stage like pumped-up Jell-O Jigglers.

To hear Garbo tell it, the 70-minute show, which returns to the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts on Sunday after playing to capacity crowds there in 1995, has three stars. They are Garbo, Brazilian ballerina Daielma Santos and more than 20 “dramatic pneumatics,” the inflatables Garbo and Santos manipulate and often occupy.

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The props “have a personality of their own,” Garbo said from Seattle, one of the 120 international stops his show will make this year.

“You watch them, and they just put a bunch of feelings out there. . . . They can make you laugh and cry and get scared. They do the unexpected.”

Like, say, fall in love. Note Garbo’s descriptions of one of his opening acts:

“The curtain flies open; the music goes up, and this huge cylinder thing . . . goes end over end across the stage,” said Garbo, a showman whose words rush out like air from a punctured balloon. “It’s like you’re seeing this big red-and-yellow striped snake and you can’t figure out how it’s moving.

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“Then,” he paused for effect, “here comes this other snake thing, and you can tell that this first big blob wants to be with that second blob. He takes off after her and then . . . he implodes. Just boom! It’s a complete shock.”

Garbo seems to thrive on that kind of action adventure. A trained gymnast and magician, he has juggled on Broadway (in “Barnum,” not on the street corner), taught clowns for Ringling Bros. and toured with the Momix dance theater company. On those rare days he has off (he and Santos have toured year ‘round since they joined forces in 1991), he heads home to Norway, Maine, for snowboarding or skydiving.

Skydiving--or, more specifically, skydiving without dying--is what got him thinking about using inflatables in performance.

“It’s always been fantastic to me that if you pack this rip-stop nylon canopy the right way, you can jump out of an airplane and it will save your life.”

In 1987, while touring a one-man variety show, he met Maine designer George York and took the first step toward using inflatables in performance. York, who created hot-air balloons and inflatable arches and set pieces of outdoor music festivals, was commissioned to build a set piece for Garbo’s show to replace heavy plywood flats.

Before long, the pair began developing dozens of prototypes that eventually become onstage playmates for Garbo and Santos.

Puff the Air-dale (get it?) is one of the performers’ windy pals. A bigger-than-Barkley dog, Puff caps off its scene by playing dead when Garbo unzips its stomach.

“He just goes flat--whoosh--like he’s been squashed by a steamroller,” said Garbo, not sounding terribly sympathetic.

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Red cubes are recurring characters in the show. Smaller cubes are tossed and juggled, sometimes with the audience; another sprouts “arms” and cartwheels across the stage, while the largest--10 feet square and occupied by Garbo--careens off the stage and swipes a shoe from an audience member.

“It’s like the Blob Who Ate New York,” said Garbo with a laugh, “only he likes shoes.”

BE THERE

Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Co. performs at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. $8. (714) 994-6310 or (562) 944-9801.

* CHILDREN’S LISTINGS, Page 39


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