When he was just a high school kid hawking balloons with Mickey Mouse's picture on them, Treb Heining never imagined that his affection for those little helium-filled orbs would blow up into anything more than a fun summertime job.
That was before Heining became The Balloon Man, the go-to guy for anyone who wanted to rain balloons by the millions on Super Bowls, presidential nominating conventions, Olympic Games or any other public event where such a sight invariably reduces thousands to spontaneously shouting "ohhhh" and "ahhhh."
"I guess you can say I didn't come very far. I'm still in balloons, the same thing I was when I was 15," Heining says while sitting amid the colorful spheroids in a windowless office on the backside of a sprawling shopping mall near Disneyland.
"But we've kind of pushed the boundaries a little bit," the 57-year-old adds with a mischievous chuckle.
Those bulbous, ear-shaped balloons of Mickey Mouse that bob magically for weeks inside the even bigger, round-shaped balloons? Those were Heining's idea.
So was the balloon that lights up at the touch of a switch placed near the knot. It took him years of waiting for the technology to develop so that he could fit the little bulb inside and keep it glowing for 48 hours without melting the balloon.
More recently he came up with pet balloons, those Mylar jobs you see kids proudly "walking" on leashes all over shopping malls.
Along the way, the friendly, bespectacled kid from Southern California's suburban Orange County also picked up a variety of odd skills, including the ability to inflate and tie more than 1,000 balloons an hour.
"It takes me awhile to warm up but I can still tie balloons faster than anybody in the world. And I don't make that claim lightly," Heining says, laughing.
Doubt that boast, will you?
Out comes a bag of balloons from one of numerous drawers lining a wall, each labeled by color, and suddenly a balloon is being inflated about every three seconds.
There's the familiar "thhhhfft" sound of helium being dispersed from tank to balloon, followed by that fingernails-on-blackboard noise of balloon being twisted and tied shut. All the while, Heining — dressed in suit and tie — is keeping up a running commentary on the fine points of balloon inflation.
"I'm not watching the balloon," he says at one point as he peers through brown horn-rimmed glasses at the pile of uninflated balloons. "I'm looking at the one I'm going to grab next."
While most inflaters use equipment that measures out set increments of helium, Heining controls the tank himself without ever checking the balloon to see if he's putting in too much or too little. He does so by counting out the amount in his head in 4-4 time, just as he once did when he played the trumpet in his high school band.
Music, after all, was going to be his real career when he landed that temporary balloon-hawking gig at Disneyland in the summer of 1969.
"I realized at a certain point, I think, that what I wanted to do, playing professionally, I probably wasn't good enough to do it," he says now.
Fortunately, he had a day job by then, putting on elaborate balloon displays for celebrity parties around Southern California. He was doing one for Cher's son, Elijah Blue Allman, in 1979 when he built a huge archway of balloons over the backyard tennis courts. She posed for a picture under it and suddenly everybody seemed to want one.
"That simple idea, that technology is what led to a multimillion-dollar business," says Heining, who works with a handful of people at his GlassHouse Balloon Company.
As the years went by, the events got more elaborate.
A million balloons were released over Disneyland on its 30th anniversary in 1985. A million and a half were rained on Cleveland a few months later for a charity event. He's brought balloons to 16 Super Bowls, the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics and every Republican National Convention since 1988.
"What really makes Treb stand out is his vision," says Bill Schafell, whose WJS Studios makes props for public events and who has worked with Heining on every Times Square New Year's Eve confetti drop since 1991. "He's not afraid to try something new. He gets an idea and he runs with it."
Heining also did the 2000 Democratic presidential convention, although it was the one he didn't do, in Boston in 2004, that may have brought him the most attention. After nearly all 100,000 balloons that had been tucked into the rafters stayed there while Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts accepted his party's nomination, reporters from around the world called to ask him what could have gone wrong.
"In a balloon drop, there are two things that can happen," he told The Associated Press at the time. "They fall or they don't."
As he sat in his office and flipped through a scrapbook of balloon events, Heining elaborated on that statement: Everything from minor wind gusts to room temperatures must be accounted for, he said, while tens of thousands of balloons are being tied by a crew trying to stay out of the way of thousands of conventioneers who don't want them there.
"Balloons are always the least important thing," he said. "Until you say, 'Go balloons," and they're supposed to."
He recalled how he nearly had his own disaster at the 200th anniversary celebration of the U.S. Constitution in 1989.
He had planned to release red, white and blue balloons in a pattern that formed a giant American flag over Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Just before he let them go it started to rain. Heining wasn't sure if the flag's stars, made of balloons attached to now-water-soaked pieces of polystyrene, would get off the ground.
They did, although very slowly.
But that only added to the wow factor, providing photographers with their perfect Kodak moment.
"Yeah, of course. We planned it that way," he told organizers afterward.