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It’s a huge fad

Times Staff Writer

If the inflatable Three Wise Men hope to worship an inflatable baby Jesus this Christmas, they’re out of luck (the air-filled Savior won’t reach stores until 2004). But they can pay homage to a blow-up Bart Simpson, Scooby-Doo or giant penguin.

These and other 8-foot-tall, electric-powered balloons are sprouting up on lawns and roofs nationwide. The perpetrator of the trend is Gemmy Industries of Texas, whose previous cultural triumphs include Big Mouth Billy Bass, a Dick Vitale alarm clock and a line of animatronic dancing hamster dolls.

The lawn inflatables debuted two years ago as a domesticated version of those blimp-sized gorillas tethered to car dealerships and other businesses.

“We started with two styles -- a Santa and a snowman,” says Jason McCann, Gemmy’s vice president of marketing. Today, the number of designs has soared past 400, including a Winnie-the-Pooh vampire for Halloween, a goofy turkey for Thanksgiving, assorted Disney and Dr. Seuss characters, NFL players and two dozen college mascots. On tap for 2004: a Shrek Valentine’s Day balloon, a Nativity set and a giant pink flamingo. Prices range from about $38 to $100 for 12-foot-high models.

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Powered by a small fan and illuminated by seven internal lights, the standard Airblown Inflatable guzzles less electricity than a string of Christmas bulbs, McCann says. And the setup takes just a few minutes.

Some owners put the balloons on timers. During the day, they look like puddles of plastic on the lawn, “then at dusk, they start rising out of the ground,” McCann says.

A few inflatables live indoors. A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, which has sold out of the product at some stores, says she’s heard about customers displaying the balloons in their family rooms.

Although officials at Gemmy (pronounced “jemmy”) won’t reveal precise sales figures, McCann says hundreds of thousands of the inflatable creatures are now lurking in American yards.

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The vast majority seem to be camped out at the home of Sharla and Greg Gerhardt in Sparks, Nev. The couple displays so many Christmas inflatables -- 35 and counting -- that they had to haul in a diesel generator to power them. The menagerie includes seven polar bears huddled around a homemade campfire, a row of snowmen, a rooftop Santa and a Grinch in the family’s treehouse.

“We’re a little crazy,” Sharla Gerhardt concedes. In addition to the inflatables, she and her husband host a holiday hayride, string up hundreds of lights and dress their live, noninflatable goat in a Santa hat.

“If someone says I’ve gone overboard, I’d tell them to look at the faces of the kids who come by,” Gerhardt says. “Their eyes are huge. That’s what Christmas is all about. That’s why we do it.”

After shelling out $400 for a quartet of hard-to-find inflatables on EBay, Gerhardt promised her husband she was done for the year. But the blow-up binge will likely resume next Christmas.

Gemmy will be ready with plenty of new models. The product has also inspired spinoffs. At a recent company brainstorming session, an employee wondered: “What else can we inflate?” Result: a line of blow-up Halloween costumes. Wearers climb inside a sumo wrestler, bee or ballerina outfit, flip on the battery-powered fan and inflate.

Like any fad, the blow-up boom has its critics.

“I don’t want to sound like a Grinch, but I think they [inflatable lawn decorations] are a little silly,” says Giselle Richards of Long Beach. “What happened to classy lights and candles at Christmas?”

And when Conrad Tafoya inflated an actual Grinch balloon in front of his Hancock Park apartment, a little boy ran away screaming in terror at the suddenly towering sight. But everyone else loves it, Tafoya says.

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Newspaper writers have also lampooned the trend. The Reno Gazette-Journal says the proliferation of inflatables has turned northern Nevada into what appears to be a retirement community for Macy’s parade floats.

And a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune in Minnesota says the decorations are so large that “your yard is not only visible from space, but can actually be recognized as tacky by Russian cosmonauts.”

Even theologians are weighing in on the fad. When told about the inflatable creche due out next August, Stephen Miletic of the Franciscan University of Steubenville offers mixed reviews. “The Nativity represents one of the major mysteries of Christianity,” he says, noting that Francis of Assisi pioneered the first creche scene 800 years ago. “Some might feel this is trivializing the mystery.”

On the other hand, an inflatable Nativity could be used as an evangelistic tool to proclaim the birth of Christ, Miletic says: “Now we can do it in a giant-size, 8-foot-tall version.”

Mike Grace of Lathrop, Calif., proposes a more down-to-earth defense of yuletide blow-ups. “I have the inflatable snowman and a neighbor has the Homer Simpson Santa,” he says. “In California, these are necessities. Without gaudy decorations and lights, no one would know it’s Christmas.”


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