I first discovered Van Nuys kite maker Gary Dromgold on a bump in the sod in Balboa Park. It was a sunny, breezy afternoon, perfect for kite flying. Perfect for anyone, that is, except me.
My son's plastic B-52 bomber kite refused to budge. Nearby, with a skill and precision that was as impressive as it was irritating, Dromgold maneuvered two broad silken triangular kites, launching them with supple flicks of his wrists. They moved like birds of prey, tracing out graceful arcs and acrobatic moves in the blue sky.
The performance wasn't lost on my son, who observed bluntly, as only a 6-year-old boy can, that his mom was a real klutz with a kite.
Finally, I swallowed my pride and approached Dromgold for help. What happened next explains why in the past five years this lanky, ponytailed 50-year-old free spirit has earned a reputation among kite enthusiasts from Long Beach to Playa Vista as the "guru of kite fliers."
Dromgold carefully examined the B-52 for a few moments, then shook his head.
"No stability," he said, pointing to an overstretched section of plastic where the string was tied to the kite.
Sensing my disappointment, he said: "But a tail might help." Within minutes, he had rigged the B-52 with a tail and relaunched it. My son was impressed. So was I.
"Look," he said, setting the B-52 down. "Here's an old kite I made." He handed me a beautiful, sleek kite of silky rainbow fabric.
When it lifted into the air, I understood Dromgold's disgust with the B-52. The rainbow kite had power. It soared and swooped effortlessly. My son laughed so hard, I felt a surge of parental gratitude.
For Dromgold, a kite maker by day and a country music guitarist and keyboardist by night, it was just another day's work. In the past five years, he has crafted more than 200 custom kites on his mother's old Singer 600 sewing machine. He drafts the designs on a computer, creates patterns of cardboard, constructs them, then fine-tunes them.
His fascination with kites--their speed, their capacity to harness the power of the wind, their stained-glass reflections of the sun--is as old as civilization itself. Kites have served many masters, from warriors to children, engineers to artists.
First emerging in China more than 2,000 years ago, they fascinated Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci for their aerodynamic maneuverability. They have been used as weapons of war and tools for bridge engineers.
As a kid, Ben Franklin used a kite to perform a 1700s version of water skiing. As an adult, every school kid knows that Franklin used a kite to discover that lightning was a manifestation of electricity. Buddhists flew them to ensure good harvests or other good fortune.
The Japanese consider kite-making a cultural craft, with families and communities handing down kite designs carrying sacred significance through the generations.
Dromgold represents a Southern California permutation of kite craft. In this car culture, it's only natural that the kite that is most appealing is one that has the power and deft maneuverability of a sports car.
This is Dromgold's specialty. It's called the "two-line stunt kite." It has two strings attached to handles held in each hand. It is not dragged into flight so much as it is launched with a sharp downward tug of the wrists.
The kite's shape recalls the original name the Japanese had for kites 1,000 years ago: "paper hawks." It's the "delta" shape, which can move well because its nose can point into the wind, and its broad wingspan channels enough air to give it power and motion.
Using light, colorful spinnaker cloth and some engineering know-how, Dromgold rises early each morning to create kites that specialize in dives, cartwheel turns, pinpoint landings and wind-defying hovers. In kite-flying parlance, they perform "axles," "coin tosses," "tip landings," "turtles," "squares," "steps" and countless other moves.
For stunt kite flyers, control is the goal. Figure-eights and spins are for novices. The professional can make a kite appear to climb stairs and draw perfect squares. The 90-degree angle is a joy.
Dromgold also makes three-tiered kites that harness enough wind-power to drag a 220-pound man across the beach in a buggy--or lift him right into the air. In the days before airplanes, there was plenty of war folklore about heroes being lifted into the air by kites, terrifying their enemies.
Dromgold tests his creations on the hillock in Balboa Park, but he shows off his wares where the wind blows best, down by the beach. He sells his work in local beach shops, but also takes custom orders. The names he gives his kites reflect his fascination with light and speed: the Skylight, Mystique, Rainbow Cyclops, the Jewel, the Mach I, the X7, the Mach II.
Although Dromgold makes kites for kids, mostly he makes kites for adults--particularly men. What's the appeal? He's not really sure. "It's a physical thing. They have power. They can lift you into the air."
Also, the price tag--usually around $100, but sometimes as much as $500.
Just as artwork on kites has long fascinated the Japanese, Dromgold's kites also serve as airborne semaphores of So Cal dreams. He and his clients prefer a mix of pop imagery and individual visions. One man wanted the image of a South African tree frog on a kite for his son: "Red frog. Black spots." Another wanted a favorite musical score.
Often Dromgold will get ideas for visual images from signs on the street. One of his kites features a hazardous waste symbol dolled up in royal red and gold. His most common art request reflects the narcissism of L.A. culture: the Superman logo. (He begs off because of copyright concerns.)
His most popular design echoes a time-honored kite motif: two blue eyes with black irises. "People like 'em. They're lookin' at you. They're above."
Dromgold prefers not to read too much into men's fascination with stunt kites. "It's something to do at the beach," he says. But the car connection keeps coming back. Dromgold admits that he got hooked on two-line stunt kites because he "liked the way they performed. They have sensitivity, speed and smoothness. I like the precision of the turn."
Sounds like a fabric version of a GT car.
Dromgold nodded and grinned: "I'll have a BMW when I sell enough kites."