Local Personalities

Derek the Balloon

by Dr. Iain Corness

When you are the son of a soap-maker, with a mother who made submachine guns, you probably have enough reason to end up in Pattaya, calling yourself Derek the Balloon. However, Derek is a genuine person, with great compassion for underprivileged children.

He has done many things, including being a lighting ‘spot boy’ for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Perhaps Derek has not reached that exalted level as a public entertainer himself, but I haven’t seen either of those two famous groups spending time making children laugh, as Derek has at the Pattaya Orphanage. Derek works a different stage, and perhaps at a more direct level.

Derek was born in East London, and his schooling finished when he was 15 years old. He left to become a trainee projectionist at the local movie house, and it was during this time that he was given the task of being the ‘spot boy’, which in retrospect might have stimulated Derek’s own desires to be a stage performer.

But it was a long way off before Derek would become a public entertainer. First he had a burning desire to see Japan, and decided to go overland. He worked for a few years as a camera assistant, clapper boy and projectionist to save the money, and when he was 22 set off for Japan.

He backpacked his way through local villages in Iran and Iraq, and eventually arrived in Bangkok, to be met with the news that his father was ill and he had to return to the UK.

One year later he set off again, this time catching the train to Japan. “It was 15 days and bloody cold and all,” said Derek. From there, the wanderlust took him all through SE Asia and Arabia, finally returning to London nine months later.

Back in the UK, he took a position in a business school as a technician in visual aids and photography, staying there for 14 years, and it would have been easy to stay there forever, but for one thing - Derek knew that he wanted to be a performer!

He had always been interested in magic, so he joined a magicians club, learning tricks, and how to be a stage performer. This in turn led him into balloon modeling as there was work for these performances in shopping centers.

He was doing well until one fateful day in 1989 he fell over and broke his leg, resulting in a plaster cast for six months and an enforced holiday. However, he used the time to watch magic shows on TV and learn a little more about stage craft and the art of deception. “I’ve seen David Copperfield four times,” said Derek.

Finally back on his feet, he combined his love of travel and his love of entertaining and went to New Zealand and Australia, followed by Hawaii and the US. Like many travelers to the US, he also went to Las Vegas, where he found a new casino was looking for a balloon modeler, and in no time he was working the streets of Vegas making dogs and birds and human figures out of balloons.

He continued on his world tour, arriving back in the UK where he found he could make a reasonable living ‘busking’ on the streets, and then entertaining the crowds by making models out of balloons. But life like that cannot carry on, and when he saw a job in Saudi Arabia being offered for a technician, he took it.

In retrospect, that was not such a smart move. He began to demonstrate his magic tricks, to then find out that magic is banned in Saudi Arabia. “I had to leave quietly,” said Derek, with a grin.

One year later, he was back off overseas again. This time to balloon conventions and then, after making some contacts, he began teaching balloon modeling in Chicago and Texas.

Just as a balloon flies hither and yon when you let one go, Derek, the balloon man, was doing the same, returning to a job in the UK, offering travel to Europe, and return. This read better than it really was. He was employed to entertain the travelers on a ferry going from England to France and return. “I spent 90 minutes in France every day for two years,” said Derek. He was also raising money for various charities, including the Black Cab charity. They nominated him for an MBE and he proudly showed me the photograph of himself holding his MBE medallion, presented to him at Buckingham Palace.

By now it was 2004, and Derek needed to go further afield than just France, “I cashed in me shares and bought a round the world trip again.” He took with him some 10,000 balloons, and all the paraphernalia that magicians need. His fare (converted to) 14,000 baht, but the excess baggage came to 21,000 baht. The price some people have to pay to take their tools of trade overseas with them!

He arrived in Bangkok and decided to do a Wat Po physical massage course, and met a Frenchman going to Cambodia, so Derek went along as well. There he did magic shows for an American charity, keeping young Cambodian children spell-bound as he produced animals out of balloons in front of their eyes. Magic and illusion know no boundaries, especially with children.

And so to Pattaya and our orphanage. “People are fascinated,” said Derek. “I show the kids how to make a dog, and it just goes on from there.”

Derek the Balloon will be here with us until the feet start to itch again, and he is thinking the next stop might be Japan. “Balloon modeling is very big over there.”

Our interview ended with Derek leaving me Elvis, Harry Potter, an alien, a dog, a mouse hat and more, all of which were gladly scooped up by local children. I almost had as much fun distributing them, as Derek the Balloon had in making them!