Diary of a confetti engineer

Times Square, New Yearís Eve, 1999. We saw it over and over again on TV. Lovers kissed, noisemakers bleeeeeped and confetti rained down from above.

Dallas artist Karen Blessen was above it all that night. Her title: Confetti and Airborne Materials Dispersal Engineer. Her mission: to stay awake for more than 24 hours and toss foam boomerangs, cherry blossoms, streamers, foam snowflakes, foam butterflies, paper leaves and more on the crowd below.

While in New York for this once-in-a-lifetime event, Karen wrote and illustrated a journal about her spewing experience. She is just now catching up on her sleep. The bruises on her hips from the confetti cannon are healing nicely.

Tuesday evening, Dec. 28, 1999

Finished the will, took it to the attorney, left for New York. Just kidding, but we did tell Cousin Bill in Yakima "in case of a terrorist strike" he gets the two chow chows. My husband, Kelly Nash, and I have volunteered to be a part of the confetti crew.

This yearís New Yearís Eve celebration will include 24 hourly events, intended to be joyful and respectful. As each time zone around the world approaches midnight, giant screens in Times Square will show live pictures of the celebrations in different countries. Dancers, music, puppets and other entertainment will fill the Square. There will be nine drops of various "Airborne Materials," starting with foam boomerangs, then pink-paper cherry blossoms, streamers shot from cannons, foam snowflakes, more streamers, silver Mylar confetti, foam butterflies and then "scent strips." The cost: Five to seven million dollars.

It's being produced by the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID) and Countdown Entertainment. The budget comes from BID funds and additional neighborhood donations, as well as corporate sponsorships, which were raised by Countdown Entertainment. The city of New York pays for city services.

For the past six years, Iíve done work for the Times Square BID. When I saw the sketches for the event, I knew that I wanted to experience it. But I didn't want to be stuck in the crowd, so I asked if there were any volunteer jobs that Kelly and I might do, and voila ... the confetti crew.

Shortly before we left Dallas, I got word that I was promoted to "crew chief" of a team of confetti engineers. This, despite the fact that I have absolutely no qualifications for any job in the confetti business in the first place. This annoys Kelly, but heís just jealous of the confetti cannon and walkie-talkie that come with the job.

Wednesday evening, Dec. 29, 1999

Today was our cram course on confetti. We met Treb Heining, the Confetti Master. He has an infectious passion about the tools of his trade: balloons and confetti.

Based in Newport Beach, Calif., Treb (his dadís name spelled backward) is in the celebration business. His first passion is balloons. His business on the West Coast is called Balloonart by Treb, but in New York, heís known as the Confetti Master.

Treb did his first confetti drop for the Persian Gulf War parade in New York and has done two events a year for the folks at Times Square for the past six years. He got his start at 15 tying balloons at Disneyland. He developed many of the balloon technologies used in events worldwide, including balloon drops and releases at the Los Angeles Olympics, nine Super Bowls, two presidential inaugurations, five Academy Award shows and three Republican conventions.

Heís got three Guinness world records to his name.

And one of his balloon inventions, the glass-house balloon (a balloon inside a balloon), so delighted a Saudi Arabian princeís children that Treb flies to Saudi Arabia six times a year to do balloons for the princeís parties.

I asked Treb about any concerns about security, and he summed it up pretty well. "If you donít celebrate because of the terrorists, then only the terrorists will celebrate."

Then we got down to the basics of confetti throwing:

  1. Remove all loose objects. That includes watches, rings, bracelets and eyeglasses.
  2. Fluff confetti before throwing. Each crew will have numerous boxes of different colors of confetti, which is still in compact piles. It's not part of the desired effect to have someone in the crowd hit on the head with a big clump of paper. Thus, we fluff.
  3. If we are throwing out of a window, close and lock all doors behind us. We donít want someone entering the room in the middle of a confetti throw ... it creates a wind force that sucks all the confetti right back in our faces. Not a good thing.
  4. All crew chiefs will have a walkie-talkie. There'll be a one-minute countdown every hour, on the hour, for whatever time zone we are celebrating. When the countdown ends, the crowd yells, "Happy New Year!" and Treb will give us the cue: "Go, confetti" or "Go, boomerangs," which will be our first throw at 9 a.m. on New Yearís Eve.
  5. There is a different technique for throwing each of the various "Airborne Materials." The boomerangs, snowflakes and butterflies are all made of a light foam and must be thrown in stacks of five or six, with a quick whipping-downward motion, to get them as far out in the air as we can. For the cherry blossoms, Mylar and midnight drops, we scoop with our hands and then aggressively extend and throw them out into the air.
  6. Donít let the untrained throw.
  7. Donít throw confetti that has fallen on the ground. We don't want the crowd to be showered in speckles of paper clips, tacks, hair and gravel.
  8. Donít get impatient and lift your box up off the ground and pour.
  9. Watch other people to make sure that they are being safe. Things shouldn't be set down on the edge of the roof or on windowsills.
  10. When weíre done, break down and remove all cardboard boxes.

Thursday, Dec. 30, 1999

Treb was serious, impatient with commotion in the group, and asked us all to settle down and focus. There are seven crews and seven locations from which airborne materials will be thrown. My crew is the only one that will be throwing from windows.

He handed us each the list of our crew and told us that we need to be in place by 8 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 31, to begin organizing for the rest of the day.

Trebís assistant, Bill Schaffell, demonstrated the confetti cannon, a clear plastic tube about 30 inches long and 3 inches wide. A CO2 cartridge powers the ejection of little streamer balls, which spurt out and unfurl into the air.

Treb was seated between Bill and me, and I was very glad that we had this little demonstration. The cannon popped a pretty impressive POW. Escaping gas squirted directly into my face. Needless to say, this surprised me. But I quickly thanked him. Without this demonstration, I myself would probably become airborne ... along with the streamers.

Treb reminded us about the scent strips, our final throw. It will take place at approximately 12:07 a.m. Created by artist Gayil Nalls, they are square pieces of paper, about 4" inches in diameter, with a scent strip along one side, much like the perfume strips in magazines. The explanation on the back of the scent strip says the artist consulted with officials from 230 nations to help identify a scent ... from tree, flower, grass or herb ... that is significant to each land. She then gathered the natural plant oils and combined them, in proportion to each countryís population in the year 2000.

Treb told us to do the midnight confetti drop, hug each other and say, ďHappy New Year,Ē and then, at seven minutes after midnight, throw the scent strips. We should throw them in stacks about an inch thick, and theyíll disperse into the air.

My team will be throwing out of Bob's office. Bob is Bob Esposito, the vice president of operations for the BID. Bob said not to worry about anything ... not to clean up at all. All he asked is that we take care of his tropical fish in a small aquarium. Make sure it stays warm enough, he said, and make sure the tank doesn't get jammed with confetti.

5:15 a.m. Dec. 31, 1999

The hotel still uses steam radiators. It hissed and clanked all night. Peter Jennings is on ABC, looking much too peppy. Boris Yeltsin has resigned. It's raining outside.

Saturday, Jan. 1, 2000, 9 p.m.

Was I in a train wreck? I was supposed to be throwing confetti, right? Then whatís the deal with all these bruises all over my arms and on my hip? And why am I so stiff?

We got through all our confetti drops successfully, except for that one giant box of foam boomerangs that I misplaced. Someoneís going to have a lifetime supply of odd coasters.

Letís see, what were the highlights of the day?

  1. My crew.
  2. No one got hurt, unless you count my bifocals. Right after I warned the crew to be careful of their glasses falling off, my $300 bifocals fell off my face, onto the windowsill and split in two.
  3. Bob's fish was still breathing when we left.
  4. Oh yes, and there was an absolutely amazing event going on below us.

There were 11 of us, so space was pretty tight. All were New Yorkers, except for Kelly and me. Dorothy Bukantz is a writer and editor of children's school books. She works seven months of the year and spends the rest of the time doing volunteer projects. Things like construction work in Puerto Rico.

Billy Lope lives in Tribeca and manages a champagne bar called the Bubble Lounge. Danny Velasco is a hair and makeup artist who does work for fashion magazines and videos. He has traveled with Sheena Easton and Dolly Parton.

Dorothy, Billy, and Danny are all here tonight because of their friend Marilyn Horan, who is also volunteering. She is a nightclub singer and journalist, clown and copywriter who has done confetti throwing since 1997.

She scared the bejeezus out of me when she walked toward the open window of our office and dived into it. All I could see were her legs dangling in the air. When I yelped, she assured me that she was just taking a picture and that she had her center of gravity all figured out.

Cindy Wong and Scott Pulizzi are a young married couple. Cindy is a research analyst for a health care company, and Scott works in international development for a nonprofit organization.

Ellen Goldstein is the director of community development for the BID. Her husband, Hamilton Cain, is a free-lance book editor.

Rina Messler speaks five languages and works at the Times Square Visitors Center. If Rina were placed in front of me right now, I wouldn't recognize her unless she was wearing the same Mylar wig she had on all of New Yearís Eve.

There were only two windows to throw out of, so I tried to organize things so everyone would have a chance at the window.

And there was always confetti to mix and fluff.

For that we used the conference room. Seven boxes of compact confetti turned into 13 boxes of mixed and fluffed confetti. In the process, the entire conference room got carpeted in about 4 inches of confetti, which we couldn't pick up, because Treb said not to. You know, the tacks and hair and stuff.

The confetti cannons were a big hit with the crew. Unfortunately, only five of us had the opportunity to fire them. We couldíve used about three times as many.

The rain stopped early and it turned into a beautiful, sunny day. I'm not sure why the 2 million revelers came. I guess just to celebrate at the "Crossroads of the World."

We could lean out the window and see people as far to the left and right as we could crane our necks. Many wore party hats and wigs and waved their flags and pom-poms. It was a spectacle I'll certainly not forget.

At 7 p.m., just as the Beatlesí "All You Need is Love" started playing, a glittering blizzard of Mylar confetti mirrors wafted through the air, reflecting neon rainbows. People roared and sang along. At that moment, it really was like a big family affair.

Kelly and I stayed until about 1:30 a.m., drinking champagne, breaking down our cardboard boxes and wishing all our new and old friends a "Happy New Year." A big "thank you" to the heavens ... no one was hurt, the spirit of the event was full of love, and Y2K was yet another phantom menace.

Back home in Dallas

I have to admit that Iíve never really thought that much about confetti before. But now, after experiencing it, I ask Treb what's really going on with this confetti business.

Youíve got a crowd waiting below, looking up, their mouths open in awe and anticipation, almost like baby birds. We threw confetti into the air, and they went absolutely nuts.

Treb says he sees the confetti ... or the balloons ... in their quantity and in the way they fill the air, as something that taps into a childlike euphoria. The sky is filled with something larger than us, and itís something that holds no danger ... just delight.

ALL STORIES

:: One By One By One
:: One Bullet
:: In Mom's Eyes
:: Luck
:: A Sea of Sound
:: Diary of a Confetti Engineer
:: What Did He See From the Mountaintop?
:: Faces of a Plague
:: What turns compassion into action?
:: Today Marks the Beginning

If you are interested in scheduling Karen Blessen for a speaking engagement or workshop, please call 214-827-3257 or e-mail kblessen@aol.com


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