Friday, November 13, 2009

Out of Breath

This story will always hold a special place in my heart, I've written better ones since, but as far as capturing the whole of a person, I still love this one. It was featured on boingboing (I bow to Cory's headline-writing skills on this one) and Playboy even did a quick blurb about Shawn after this story ran in the paper.

Published Nov. 18, 2005, in the Keizertimes

Belly up to the bar, Shawn Lortie whips out two long balloons, pink and blue, inflates them and goes to work.

A few seconds later, he's finishing up and calls out, "Hey Setiva."

Setiva, dressed only in lingerie, sidles up to Lortie. He presents her with a balloon flower.

"Awwwww," she fawns.

Setiva says thanks and returns to the other side of the bar with two other dancers. Before she gets there, the other dancers say, nearly in unison, "Awwww."

"It spreads like that. That's what I love about it. Within five minutes of meeting someone I can make them laugh, give them something special and change their entire day," said Lortie.

Lortie, 35, of Keizer took up balloon sculpting 20 years ago, but on Sunday, Nov. 13, he added a new notch to his belt.

He set a new world record for inflating and tying the most balloons in a single hour. The previous record, held by Great Britain's Andy Simpson, was 370, 60 cm balloons. Lortie inflated and tied 520 slightly shorter balloons, still more than enough to shatter the record.

Monday morning, Lortie couldn't tie his own shoes.

"My fingers were swollen from tying balloons," he said.

Unfortunately, Lortie never got the chance to see what 520 balloons look like all piled up.

"We were letting the kids take them as I blew them up. The pile never seemed to get any bigger," he said.

The feat was performed at Mo's Seafood Restaurant in Lincoln City, where he moonlights as "Sir Chocolate Milk" from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

"While I was blowing up balloons another guy sat down at one of their tables and ate 200 crackers. He kept yelling out, 'You're inspiring me, man,'" said Lortie.

While attempting the new record, he collected donations for the Court Appointed Special Advocate program, which taps volunteers to speak for children or their parents in court proceedings.

"If even one person picked up a flier and helps a kid somewhere down he line it will have all been worth it," he said.

Lortie is an entertainer. As much as he blends in with the other performers in the din of the adult club where he is a day manager/deejay/bouncer in North Salem, he also stands out. And not just because of his 6-foot-2 stature.

His charisma flows so easily that once he gets rolling, the ladies dancing behind him are all but forgotten. Lortie is part clown and part magician. He can make balloon sculptures, but given time, most people could learn the skills to do it.

He knows the secret to impressing even the most dour audience is misdirection. His magic lies in his ability to keep you talking, laughing or crying because your laughing so hard that by the time you come up for air, he's handing you a balloon shaped like a poodle, a cactus, a spouting-whale hat, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing – like magic.

Lortie was juggling by the age of 15, but soon discovered it was a spectator sport.

"People might slip you a buck or two, but there definitely wasn't anywhere to go with it. So my friend and I started making balloon figures," he said.

Over time he's used the skill to work for the likes of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus organization.

While he's able to make a living at it during tourist season, he pays the bills the rest of the year by working at the club. He's there six days a week.

"Sunday is my church day," he said.

His skills come in handy at the club. When couples come in he keeps the females happy with balloon flowers and other creations. The only problem is when someone starts trouble. If it escalates, he risks hurting his hands.

"I don't want to do that. I'm like a straight Liberace," he jokes.

When he's not busy working he can be found volunteering his time as either an entertainer or, when the season is right, as one of Santa's helpers.

Lortie prides himself on the time he's given to others. But breaking the world record was a gift to the special girl in his life – his daughter, Chelsi, 9.

"I wasn't there for her during the early years. I am now and this is my way of leaving her a legacy. Years from now she'll be able to open the 2007 Guinness book and say, 'That was my Dad,'" he said.

Aside from staples of the art form, such as dogs and fish, most of Lortie's creations are of his own design. His Schwarzenegger is a Lortie original.

"People who come up with their own designs are secretive. One guy wouldn't tell me how he made a sculpture until he found out that I live in Oregon and he lived in New York," he said.

Lortie also finds new twists on old standbys. His fish often come attached to a rod and reel.

"I make money from it, but it's also a way to express myself as an artist," he said.

Of course, that doesn't stop people from attempting to confound him. "The worst are the combinations. Someone will ask for a heart with a monkey in a palm tree," Lortie said.

Another person might roll his eyes at such a challenge, but that's when Lortie tuns on the charm and turns them into a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle with a couple of twists and pulls of rubber.

Over the years, Lortie has found the best compensation comes in forms other than money.

"The positive energy I spend doing this always seems to come back to me in some way. I'm thankful God has given me the ability to do this and I want to share it," he said.

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