Bob Kemp's balloons get around.
Mighty Mouse, all 55 feet of him,enjoyed the relative comfort of a huge Glen Burnie warehouse yesterday, taking a breather before his trip to Syracuse, N.Y., for a St. Patrick's Day Parade.
Next to him sat Tom and Jerry, just returned from a week of MardiGras in the New Orleans Hyatt Regency Atrium -- one balloon, two characters, once imitated by two kids named Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
Tom and Jerry just returned the favor, sailing high above a Richmond parade in their rock-video debut, to a song from Simon's latest album, "Rhythm of the Saints."
An upstart Dover the Turtle got hisfirst big break at Toronto's Skydome. With no strings attached, Dover is among the latest of breakthroughs for Kemp Balloons Inc. -- a remote-controlled helium balloon.
Meantime, some old-timers like Popeye and a few of his buddies have toured parts of Israel, while otherKemp creations have traveled throughout America and parts of Canada,Japan and Puerto Rico. Popeye and Olive Oyl even sailed aboard a yacht from Detroit to Canada to celebrate a Canadian raceway's opening.
These are the dreams, exaggerated, bigger-than-life childhood fantasies, that consume Bob Kemp's days.
The 60-year-old Kemp, who hasrun Kemp Balloons Inc. since starting it with $1,500 in the early 1970s, claims 90 percent of the rental market for big helium balloons and grosses more than $1 million a year.
He's not one to worry muchabout the economy or a recession or anything else bursting the bubble on his ever-soaring enterprise.
"Even in rough times, even in a recession," he says, "people want to feel good, people want to dream a little bit. It's my business. I make people feel good for a living."
Certainly, there are worse ways to make a living.
Kemp spendshis days in a drafty Penrod Court warehouse with paint splattered onthe floor or in the paneled office with worn brown carpet upstairs. He works with a staff of 10 full-timers, including his son, Bob Jr., who designs the balloons, and about 40 part-timers.
Actually, the designing's done at a secret location, off the premises.
"Confidential," Kemp explains. "We can't let all our best secrets out."
Allthe rest happens here.
Great black sheets of rubber -- after some exquisitely precise pattern-tracing, cutting, painting and sewing --become oversized cartoon characters like Popeye and Olive Oyl, Felix the Cat, Woody Woodpecker, some 75 in all.
Kemp's company can also make you dolphins, crabs, a giant peanut like the one that floated above Jimmy Carter when he walked to the White House during his inauguration, Liberty Bells, even a mountain range.
That last one brings up the time Kemp decided to create the Canadian Rockies out of thinair, rubber, paint and some stitches.
He did it. You could spot the 110-foot-long range from every seat in the house at the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. Balloons floated from the mountain tops, and dinosaurs danced on the sidelines.
Then the wind began to howl. Kemp's mountain range became the first ever to die to desperate workers' knives.
"The place went nuts," he says now, laughing. "Everybody loved it. They stood up and cheered."
Kemp started his balloon company in the early 1970s, after he dreamed up a parade to usher inthe Preakness while working as Baltimore's tourism director.
To this day, the balloon-maker extraordinaire laughs when he tells the story.
He applied for a small-business loan. For collateral, he wrote on some form, he would put up Chicken Licken, Goosy Loosy and DuckyLucky. He would build his company starting with these three balloons, he said, leaving a man in a suit thoroughly perplexed.
Kemp got his money from the Small Business Administration. A good risk, as it turned out.
If he occasionally sounds a bit like Norman Vincent Peale on the power of positive thinking -- "There is no such thing as failure, only temporary setbacks you overcome by envisioning and believing" -- it's understandable.
"You can't underestimate the power of dreams," says the quintessential dreamer never forced to surrender the fantasy of childhood. "Money? If you have the right idea, and you'll work to make it real, money falls in from all over the place."
The money does indeed fall in from all over the place these days.
Balloons, which fit inside a 3-foot by 3-foot box when deflated, rent for up to $11,000 apiece. A major parade like Philadelphia's Thanksgiving Day extravaganza, the nation's oldest, can gross Kemp's company $100,000. (Macy's now creates its own balloons for the New York version, by the way, though some of Kemp's still float in that parade too.)
In the past few years, Kemp has not only added an advertising arm, making and selling advertising balloons similar to miniblimps, but also pioneered breakthroughs in the helium-balloon industry.
His remote-controlled balloons can fly indoors, as in the Skydome or other arenas, unimpeded, without all those strings. And his company made parades with big cartoon characters possible in some cities by creating technology that enables workers to lower the balloons, inflated,to duck below utility wires and traffic signals and such.
Kemp recalls crowds' fascination with seeing their oversized childhood heroes that close.
"It was like the highlight of parades," Kemp says. "People just rushed up and gathered around. They were so amazed to be able to look Popeye right in the eye."
Crews of about 10 people, mostly part-timers who have other jobs during the week, travel about with the balloons, making sure they do as they're supposed to at each stop. Some 40 "free-lance balloon-lovers" work the circuit for Kemp'scompany.
"They just love parades, with all those balloons flying above people," he says. "But then everybody loves parades and childhood heroes, don't they?"
Bob Kemp keeps dreaming, of course.
Next, he wants to create a place that now exists only in his mind: Balloon World. There, in a gigantic museum of sorts, everybody could come see their favorites.
And, of course, poke the oversize belly of Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Dough Boy.