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Balloonfest Made Cleveland A Laughingstock. Did It Deserve It?

Balloons, 1.5 million of them, curl around the Terminal Tower Building during Balloonfest '86 sponsored by the United Ways Services of Cleveland. The lift off will be entered into the Guinness World Book of Records.(Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

No city fits a punchline quite like Cleveland. “In every country, they make fun of city,” comedian Yakov Smirnoff once said. “In U.S., you make fun of Cleveland. In Russia, we make fun of Cleveland.”

It goes back even longer. Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In once claimed that Velveeta can be found in the gourmet section of Cleveland supermarkets. “What’s the difference between Cleveland and the Titanic?” Johnny Carson asked on The Tonight Show. “Cleveland has a better orchestra.”

Unfair? Cleveland can be a target-rich environment. The city’s sports teams vacillate between hilarious ineptitude (there’s a reason Major League was set there) and being just good enough to get fans’ hopes up. Fans got drunk and rioted on Ten-Cent Beer Night. In a ceremonial “ribbon-cutting” involving an acetylene torch and a bar of metal, Mayor Ralph Perk accidentally lit his hair on fire. His wife Lucille once declined an invitation to the White House, saying it was her bowling night. The city nearly defaulted on its loans in the late 1970s.

Cleveland became known as an industrial wasteland for frequent fires on the Cuyahoga River. That was a little unfair: In an 18-month span from 1968–69, the Rouge River in Detroit and the Buffalo River in New York also caught fire. But it was the Cuyahoga that Randy Newman wrote a song about.

In 1986, the Cleveland United Way, for its annual fundraiser, wanted to garner some positive publicity for the city, and planned a balloon launch on Public Square. Not just any balloon launch, either, but the biggest balloon launch in human history—they were shooting for a Guinness World Record.

If you’ve heard of Balloonfest ‘86, you’ve heard all about how terrible it was. A cold front blew in, keeping balloons from reaching their intended heights and destination, instead littering the city’s highways and lakefront. Some accounts even call it fatal for two boaters on Lake Erie. Neil Zurcher, a Cleveland journalist, included the balloon launch in his book Ten Ohio Disasters, right up there with the Who concert stampede in Cincinnati, the Xenia tornadoes, and the Silver Bridge collapse. Among the wares sold by Cleveland’s T-shirt–industrial complex is a shirt that boasts, “I survived Balloonfest.”

But has history done Balloonfest dirty? Was it really as bad as everyone says?

In the years immediately after World War II, Cleveland touted itself as “The Best Location in the Nation.” The city’s factories and mills hummed, and the city peaked in population in the 1950 census, with just under a million residents.

Like many industrial Great Lakes cities, there was fraying around the edges that turned dire in the 1970s. The city shed population by the tens of thousands as Cleveland became known as “The Mistake on the Lake.” (Or worse yet, “Bomb City, USA,” a nickname that sprung from a late-’70s mob war.) The city tried desperately to change its image, with ad campaigns noting “The Best Things In Life Are Here” and “New York is the Big Apple, but Cleveland’s a Plum.” But slogans only go so far. Events were needed.

In May 1986, the city was announced as the future home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a triumph for the area and a cause for mystification to others. (Cleveland claims to be home to the first rock concert, the Moondog Coronation Ball—which was just as disastrous as Ten-Cent Beer Night would be 22 years later—but the museum coming to Cleveland was due more to the local funds raised for its construction.)

Later that month, the United Way fundraiser was announced: a launch of two million helium balloons into the sky. “We really were trying to rehabilitate ourselves,” says John Grabowski, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University, vice president at the Western Reserve Historical Society, and the compiler and editor of The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

The project was twofold: First, a balloon launch that big would merit Cleveland’s inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records. Second—and possibly more importantly—it would encourage youths to engage in civic and philanthropic activities, particularly as Cleveland’s corporate base was in decline, and with it corporate giving. “As my generation begins to hang up our spurs, we need someone to follow us on,” said Jerry Jarrett, chairman of that year’s United Way campaign. Left unsaid but certainly felt was the idea that in an era when jobs were disappearing and residents were fleeing, people were looking for whatever might help tether kids to their hometown and prevent a brain drain.

Max Johnson was a fourth-grader at Brady Middle School, just east of Cleveland. He and many of his classmates were enlisted in the fundraising, and it appealed to their sense of adventure.

“We sold notes for a dollar, and they’d be attached to the balloons,” Johnson recalls. “They told us, ‘Maybe your note will end up in Saskatchewan, or we’ll see how far it goes!’ Some people were putting their phone numbers down.”

To handle the logistics of the record-breaking Balloonfest, they turned to Treb Heining, the man who’d set the standing Guinness record with a launch of a million balloons at Disneyland the year before. Heining’s career as a balloon artist started at the Anaheim theme park. An Orange County native and still too young to be a Disney cast member, he got hired as a balloon vendor. There, he discovered he had a gift.

“I knew how to tie balloons fast,” he says.

He went to college and worked for the Famous Amos cookie company, but balloons remained his calling. He expanded his role as a balloon vendor to other theme parks, and continued to innovate in the balloon space: If you’ve ever bought or held one of the Disney mouse-ear balloons, you’re familiar with Treb Heining’s work. He realized you could tie four balloons to a paper clip, as sort of a building block for balloon columns and then, in 1979, balloon arches. (The very first balloon arch was created for a birthday party for Elijah Blue Allman, the son of Gregg Allman and Cher.)

Balloons were mostly used as a marketing device, Heining says, but he saw them as a potential art form, and became the pre-eminent balloon artist in the world. He made balloon murals and sculptures, and engineered balloon drops for political conventions, and a balloon release for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. By the time he came to Cleveland, he’d gotten the art down to a science.

“It takes months of planning and coordination,” he says. “You have to get students involved and buses and food and port-a-johns. It requires an immense amount of organization.”

Heining’s need for people power dovetailed with what the United Way wanted to do. For the Cleveland launch, he enlisted the help of more than 3,000 students in his “Balloon Platoon,” working the day of the event. Also present were 150 “balloonatics,” workers at the Pioneer Balloon Co., the factory in Willard, Ohio, where the balloons were made from “the finest latex in the world,” Heining says. The launch was set for Sept. 27, 1986. 

The night before the Saturday launch, Heining was at a coffee shop in his hotel (at the time Stouffer’s, and now the Cleveland Renaissance on Public Square), preparing to call it a night—he had to be up and at ‘em at 2 a.m. the next day—when he saw trash bins blowing down the street. The side of the enormous bin on Public Square that would hold the balloons before launch was also flapping in the wind.

“We almost got wiped out the night before with hurricane-force winds,” Heining says. “I’m a California kid, so I’d never experienced anything like that before. I’d been doing events for almost 10 years, and I’d always had good luck, but I was afraid my luck ran out.”

The balloon launch was initially scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Max Johnson and his family came in from the East Side to watch the event. They arrived early and stopped for something to eat at the Silver Grille, a landmark restaurant on the 10th Higbee’s Department Store. (Higbee’s, known to many outside of Northeast Ohio for its role in A Christmas Story, actually was a real store—and in fact was a big reason the movie was filmed in Cleveland.)

“We’re sitting there eating and we’re just about done, and a whole bunch of people ran over to the windows,” he says. “We had no idea they’d moved the launch up. My dad picked me up and held me on his shoulders so I could see.”

The launch had been moved up to 2 p.m. in anticipation of a squall coming through. A wave of multicolored balloons went up into the sky, making the Terminal Tower—at the time, the city’s tallest building—disappear.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is no mistake on the lake anymore,” said Lil’ John Rinaldi, who was hosting festivities on site with his Channel 8 late-night partner, Big Chuck Schodowski.

“This is fantastic,” Schodowski replied.

It wasn't two million balloons. However, the scaled-back launch of 1,429,643 balloons (according to Guinness) was still enough to make the record book. Heining notes that the decision to reduce the number of balloons came earlier that summer, a matter of logistics; it was not a last-minute decision, as became part of the story.

Afterward, Heining says they took a boat ride on Lake Erie. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

“There’s not one thing that went wrong,” he says. “The students showed up on time. Breakfast was served. The sound system was there. We had backups on everything. Everything went off flawlessly.”

Getty Images

As the balloons sailed upward, Lil’ John said, “I bet those balloons are up over West 150th Street right now.”

That might have been the plan, but the storm system Heining was concerned about did blow through, and the wind not only kept some balloons from ascending, it pushed them eastward. (Heining notes that “some” balloons in the context of 1.4 million is still thousands.) 

Following the launch, Johnson and his family were driving east, heading back home. “We’re trying to drive out of town—and this is 10 minutes after the launch—and balloons are already raining down from the sky,” he says. “And people were stopping in the middle of Interstate 90 to get out of their car and pick balloons up! The fact that nobody got run over was incredible. People were acting like these balloons were full of gold doubloons.”

Balloons forced the closure of the runways at Burke Lakefront Airport—the city’s smaller airport, located near downtown on the Lake Erie shore—for about half an hour. 

The previous evening, two Cleveland men had gone fishing. Bernard Sulzer, 39, and Raymond Broderick, 38, had left around 7 p.m., and hadn’t returned by midnight. Their boat was found the next day, with signs that it had likely capsized before righting itself. But the two anglers weren’t found. The search for them was suspended briefly around the time of the balloon launch and then resumed for the rest of the day. A Coast Guard spokesman told the Plain Dealer that balloons in the lake made the search for the men more difficult. Their bodies were recovered the following month. Broderick’s widow sued the United Way—as did a Medina County woman who alleged that balloons that dropped onto her property spooked a horse and led to its injury. Both cases were settled out of court.

Ultimately, Balloonfest was the last holder of the Guinness World Record. The category was discontinued due to environmental concerns about that much latex. Heining says that balloon releases in general started to fall out of favor. He still plans balloon drops for political conventions—he was back in Cleveland for the 2016 Republican convention—and has become the “confetti master” in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Balloonfest mostly drifted into obscurity. At least until 2011.

That year, for the 25th anniversary, the Plain Dealer wrote a retrospective. The story painted a picture of the event that wasn’t quite as disastrous as later chronicles would have it, but definitely not full of the warm feelings of that September day in 1986. That opened the floodgates. In 2018, The Atlantic produced its own short video, “as a sobering reminder of the shortsightedness of mankind.” Eleven million views later, the narrative was set.

Aggregators have seized on this vision of Balloonfest, declaring it a debacle with no new reporting, but citing each other in an ouroboros of lazy jokes. “This has been made into a disaster that never was,” Heining says.

Ironically, the now-notorious reputation of Balloonfest has led to a counter-reappraisal. Earlier this year, Chris Quinn, an editor at the Plain Dealer and, wrote a column saying that Balloonfest was a lot of things, but not a disaster. (Quinn says the column was prompted by a documentary filmmaker who is challenging Balloonfest’s poor reputation.) “How did the event go from being a civic celebration and point of pride 37 years ago,” Quinn wrote, “to the horrible, embarrassing disaster that is the perception today?”

John Grabowski, the city’s pre-eminent historian, was also contacted for the documentary. He lived in Cleveland when Balloonfest happened, but didn’t remember much about it. “When I was contacted about it, I actually had to go look it up,” he says.

Grabowski says the reassessment on the 25th anniversary is an important part of the event’s history—as is the re-reassessment it’s undergoing today. He says that sometimes it seems like “there is no truth to history,” echoing Indiana Jones’s words that truth and fact are two different things. “Our contemporary feelings and attitudes reflect how we see the past.”

So, then, perhaps Balloonfest did end up representing the spirit of Cleveland: some good, some bad, and some easy punchlines.

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