Incredible inflatables

Fred Garbo always gets asked the same question: Where did he ever get the idea for the Inflatable Theater Co. The short answer is, he made it up.

"It's our own fault," he says.

It is something you definitely won't see every day. The Inflatable Theater Co. takes an audience into a world of oddball objects that glide, tumble, quake, bulge, bounce, implode and sometimes float into the audience.

A colorful 10-foot cylinder wriggles onto the stage and implodes. Or a ballerina's skirt grows, becoming first a ball gown and then a balloon, until it engulfs her and spirits her away. Or a big red cube tumbles to the edge of the stage in time to music, teeters, makes an unusual exit.

The show has enjoyed sold-out runs on Broadway and around the world, and it is coming to the Craterian in Medford Saturday, Oct. 20.

Garbo says he got paid for doing a card trick in 1974, and he's been a professional performer ever since. He was the acrobat inside Barkley the Dog on "Sesame Street." He was the chief juggler in the musical "Barnum" on Broadway, and he toured the world with the Obie Award-winning clown, dance, mime and juggling show "Foolsfire." For the last 16 years he has been taking on the road the unique inflatable objects he comes up with along with designer George York.

Garbo says he grew up surrounded by family members and friends who watched cartoons and Marx Brothers movies and loved the gags. He studied gymnastics in addition to theater and developed a repertoire of Vaudeville skills.

One day in 1988 he took a breather from showbiz in the form of skydiving. He was doing his Vaudeville act at the time. He was packing his parachute when he was struck by its bright colors, its strength, and most of all, its compressibility.

Working with pal and hot air balloon artist York, he devised a stage set that turned into a couch and a self-inflating body suit, sealed at the neck, wrists and ankles. Thus he became Fred Zeplin, a human beach ball. That was in 1990, but Fred lives.

"I enjoy playing the character because he gives me license to go crazy," Garbo says.

In the show the Z-man lip-synchs to the Blues Brothers' "Do ya love me?"

Garbo says the means by which he and York pressurize the suits is a closely guarded secret.

The show comprises 18 different pieces.

"Each has been tinkered with for ages," Garbo says, "pressed down to its most essential.

"I have to fit juggling into it and make it look as if it's happening for the first time."

One of Garbo's challenges was to figure out how he could hide the performance of a gymnast's cartwheel inside a costume.

"I came up with a prop called Alien," he says. "It's finally about cartwheels, but it's the getting there that's exciting.

"People have seen that we inhabit these costumes, but the Alien comes out as a box. How it animates is quite magical.

"You're left questioning, 'How are they doing this?' And in three minutes and 12 seconds, I'm exhausted."

Garbo will be joined by dancer Krista Paulsen, a native of South Korea who grew up in Iowa and has danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theater and Chicago's Luna Negra Dance Theater.

The show is accompanied by recorded music &

ambient, New Age, disco beats, some lyrics, old Blues Brothers tunes. The pieces move toward increased complexity as they progress.

Garbo says there's no deep themes or hidden meanings.

"It's entertainment," he says. "It's to displace people's belief and have them forget."

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