Written by Catherine Ramirez, Photos Provided by Treb Heining (unless otherwise noted)
Nat Lewis Teaches Treb About the Balloon Garland
In 1969 Treb Heining was cast as a Disneyland Balloon Boy in one of the greatest shows of all time and his stage was Disneyland. Lucky for Treb, he worked for Nat Lewis, whose career prior to working at Disneyland was to put on a show under the Big Top. For 22 years, Nat was the #1 Go To producer for Shrine Circuses. A fact Treb never knew about him until many years later while in the process of co-writing his biography. I find it interesting that Nat worked for the circus most of his life and yet, curiously, never shared with the balloon boys the very important role he once played.
Nat was certainly an interesting man, who described himself as a “cold blooded pro.” By others, he has been described as a short man with droopy eyelids that always wore a Mickey Mouse watch. While Treb describes Nat as someone who always had a cigar in his hand, well spoken, gruff, and yet possessed a heart of gold.
Treb said, “You could go to him and say you were down on your luck and Nat would immediately ask us what do you need to borrow? When are you gonna pay it back? And he’d then take out his wallet and hand us the money.”
Nat would have a lot of people from the circus come by and visit him in the balloon room (at Disneyland) and he would often do things for the circus industry parties. It’s at one of these parties that Treb learned a basic balloon garland formation. Treb explains, “At one of these parties, we started putting 4 round balloons on a paper clip and putting it on a line, the same kind of line used at Disneyland, and then you would pack those clusters of 4 very tightly and that formed a garland of balloons. I remember doing that at the Newporter Inn in Newport Beach (California). After going home that night and talking to Gordan, (a fellow balloon vendor coworker) I remember saying to him that I thought this could be done on a large scale bases.”
To which Gordan replied, “Treb, you’re never going to get anyone to pay for this. Nat does this right now for a living and it’s just too expensive.”
Treb continues by saying, “They always poo pooed the idea.”
After being exposed to the basic balloon garland design showed to him by Nat Lewis, Treb saw the potential in the use of balloons that others hadn’t yet seen. At the age of 18, a spark of an idea was now formulating in Treb’s mind, and his idea would continue to grow with him, even after leaving Disneyland in 1972.
Good Bye Disneyland…For Now
Although Treb had left the balloon department at Disneyland, he would continue to experiment with his own ideas while creating beautiful balloon garland for his family and friends on special occasions.
Treb said, “Whenever someone I knew had a birthday, I’d blow up 9 inch and 11 inch balloons. It always required hundreds and hundreds of balloons. But that was never a problem because I learned how to tie balloons (from the best at Disneyland), so that part was easy. I always noticed the reaction when I did this for family and friends. It was a huge deal seeing air inflated garland that would be hung around the house.”
As you read this today, you’ll need to understand that balloon garlands are commonplace now, but they weren’t back in the early ’70’s, at least not the type and certainly not the scale Treb was designing, they simply didn’t exist.
Now a Music Major student at Golden West College, Treb had no income. He didn’t come from a lot of money and learned at a very young age that if he wanted something, he’d have to pay for it. Still in need of a job, that was flexible with his classes at school, Treb’s father, a purchasing agent for the Southland Corporation, which included all the 7-11 stores and a dairy-for-home delivery service at the time, encouraged Treb to take on a milk delivery route.
His father told Treb that all the milkmen were independent contractors and if they needed the day off, they would need someone to run the route in their place and they were paid cash money. That sounded perfect for Treb. Now there were two routes out of the Glendale office, where his father was working. One, which started at 3:00 AM, delivered the milk to the front porch and they would be done by 9:00 AM in the morning. The second route, which is what Treb did, was the Beverly Hills Route. He didn’t have to start until 5:30 or 6:00 AM because for this route, he had to go into people’s homes.
The Milkman and Lucille Ball???
Treb tells me, “On this route you went into the kitchens and talked to the cook or butler and you would fill the refrigerator with everything they needed, like bacon, butter, eggs, yogurt, milk, orange juice, and cottage cheese. I’d rearrange the refrigerator until it was all done. On this job I got to meet people like Lucille Ball, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, IN THEIR KITCHENS!” Treb exclaims. He continues, “Johnny Mathis I would see a couple times a week, Jerry Lewis… for an Orange County kid, this was an eye popping and an amazing experience. I could go on and on.”
Oh, how I wanted Treb to go on and on, but somethings must be left for the book he’s currently writing, so I let it go, though secretly, yearned for more. While Treb did not go on, he did point out that his milk route opened his eyes to a whole new lifestyle than what he was used to.
Treb said, “As I would leave one of these homes, Abbey Rentals would be out there covering a pool with a wooden structure to make a dance floor or put up big tenting for parties. That was the impetus for me as I moved on from that job.”
Treb Gets Sidetracked By a Chocolate Chip Cookie Made By Wally Amos
Treb says to me, “I was living in Glendale at the time. Wally had a cookie shop on Sunset Boulevard. The first chocolate chip cookie shop in the country. He was an entrepreneur. He was the first black booking agent at William Morris Agency. He used to bake these cookies at home and used them as his calling card and that was the start of his Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies. I stopped into his store a few times and liked them so much that I started working there as a cashier on the weekends. Back in those days I was practicing my horn 8 hours a day, going to school, working my milk routes and working at Famous Amos Friday, Saturday and Sundays. Eventually Wally and Sid Ross, who ran it, came to me and told me they’d like me to manage the store on the weekends, so I became a manager. Then Wally said that we were going to start producing wholesale cookies out of a plant in Van Nuys and I want you to run the plant.”
Treb continues to explain that he told Wally that he didn’t know anything about running a plant, to which Wally replied, “You’ll learn, you’ll learn.” So Treb worked with Wally Amos as Wally’s Famous Amos Cookies went nationwide. Treb says they were making 3000 lbs of handmade cookies a day!
One day, Wally Amos had a display at some sort of a promotional event and had Treb help him out. Still, with the love of balloons coursing through his veins, Treb immediately began to creatively add balloons to this display. Treb recollects that Wally turned to him in amazement at the balloon décor and questioned how he could have possibly learned how to do this. So amazed by this, Wally gave Treb some great advice by telling him that he should contact some caterers, further emphasizing that his balloon designing could be a business.
Dave Klein AKA Mr. Jelly Belly
While working for Wally Amos, there was this guy that would deliver the pecans for the cookies. Treb states, “We used quality ingredients and there was this guy that ran a company called Garby Nut House in Los Angeles and he was our pecan supplier. His name is Dave Klein. Dave was an absolute character and I would always look forward to when he would come by. One hot summer day in Van Nuys, in comes Dave’s truck, but before he starts unloading he tells me that he made People Magazine this week and throws it to me. I told him, yeah right, just unload the pecans. I went back to my office to look through the magazine and sure enough, there’s a full picture of Dave in a vat of Jelly Bellys.”
“This is what I’ve been talking to you about.” Dave told Treb.
Dave Klein, the inventor of Jelly Belly jelly beans back in 1976, was a huge supporter of Treb. He would often tell Treb, while he was working at Famous Amos, how sharp he was, that he could run a Fortune 500 Company, and that he really could do anything he wanted, including starting his own business.
Treb Finds His Way
Treb left Wally Amos but continued his friendship with Dave Klein. The year after Treb left Wally was a tough year for him, but during that year, Dave continued to encourage him. Treb would often spend time at Dave’s house with his family and on one of those nights, Dave brought up Treb’s idea of starting his own balloon business. He told Treb that he really ought to try out this idea.
Treb said, “I told him fine, I’m going to try it out for one year and see if I can do it.”
Dave and Treb continued to talk that night about this business Treb would create. Dave asked him about what he thought a business like that would need to start. Treb didn’t really know what he would need, maybe a thousand dollars to start. But what Treb did know were the specifics of what he wanted his company to be. He was adamant that he only wanted to do balloon décor, that’s it, not delivering it, no centerpieces, just massive balloon décor. Now all Treb needed was the name of his company. Who better to come up with the name than Mr. Jelly Belly himself? Treb told me that Dave Klein is a master with names, and it was Dave who actually thought up the name of his company, BalloonArt By Treb. It was an encouraging night. Treb now had a vision of what his company would be and he had a name for it. The seed that was planted back in 1972 was now beginning to grow.
Treb tells me he went back another night to visit Dave and his family, which was a usual thing for him to do. Though, this one night in particular was different.
Treb said, “Dave came out with $1,000.00 cash and he said…” Treb hesitates momentarily; I can see tears begin to well up in his eyes during our Zoom interview, and with a crackling in his voice Treb continues, “He said pay me back when you can and I did. I did pay him back.”
It’s been 41 years since Dave Klein loaned his friend Treb Heining $1,000.00 to start his balloon business. Yet, in that moment talking to Treb, I could instantly feel the gratitude Treb still feels for his friend and the generous decision Dave made that night. Dave had an unwavering belief in his friend it seems. He never stopped encouraging him, and now it was up to Treb to make his way.
BalloonArt By Treb Is Born
In 1979, now at the age of 25, Treb Heining started his business, BalloonArt By Treb out of an apartment on Vantage Avenue in North Hollywood. It was the first and only company in the world that was doing balloon décor and effects for parties and events. Treb remembered Wally Amos’ advice and reached out to a few caterers in Los Angeles. One of which was “Renta Yenta,” a successful catering business that was owned by two women, Lila Greene and Toby Brown. They were kind to Treb, and hired him based solely on the ideas that he shared with them, as he had no proof of concept photos.
Treb explains that in those days, balloons were only used for birthday parties, or circus events. Treb always accepted the small project, but always brought extra supplies and would ask the caterer if he could decorate an area with what he wanted to do. It would be in those areas that would always involve creating what he called “balloon columns.”
Cher Witnesses the Birth of Treb’s Balloon Arch
The caterers at Renta Yenta asked Treb to help out with balloons for a birthday party for Cher and Greg Allman’s son Elijia Blue who was turning three years old.
Treb said, “Back in those days, caterers had like $50.00 for balloons. They’d say just a few 5 inch balloons here on this table. In this case I asked if I could do what I wanted on the tennis court, the caterer said sure. We ended up doing this large column over the tennis court. I then thought, hey Elijia “Blue,” he was 3 years old at that time in 1979, and we had a bunch of blue balloons, why don’t we put helium in these? And so we put helium in the 4 balloon clusters and I made an archway of balloons that connected these columns that went over the tennis court, and that was the very first balloon arch ever done in the entire world. Just came by happenstance. Cher then came out onto the tennis court and took a picture with us, the stuff we were doing was so spectacular back then because no one had ever seen anything like it. So we had a picture with Cher in front of the arch and we rode balloon arches for many, many years before there was any company that even came close.
The pictures below show Treb’s team at Elijah’s 3rd birthday party. If you’ll notice, the balloons that are on the tables behind them are what the caterer requested. The other pictures of Cher’s tennis court, was Treb’s improvisation. He was always finding ways to be creative and introduce the world to see what balloon art could be. He was paid $50.00 for this job, but after seeing the tennis court design was tipped an extra $50.00!
Treb said, “We were so proficient. As we went on we developed systems. I would always work shoulder to shoulder with my crew, so pretty soon people were tying balloons just as fast as me. We had crews up to 10 – 20 people that were just monsters. We would go into a ball room and transfer it just like a snap of a finger. I remember the busboys that would be putting up tables and chairs would sometimes just sit and watch the balloons going up, the columns, the arches, the work was spectacular. Did we have to market? Did we have to solicit? NO. Every event we did we got 4 or 5 calls. It was all I could do to keep up with the ringing phone and making appointments.”
BalloonArt By Treb is Going Hollywood
This was a passion for Treb, he was doing things that were just off the charts now and was written into the Hollywood scene very quickly.
Treb says, “Hollywood caught on to it, the film companies, the premiers, after parties, L.A. was our oyster. We owned the town. There wasn’t a big event in town that we were not involved with. We were on a roll. We eventually had our first office on Melrose across from Pacific Design Center.
Through the 1970’s and into the early 1980’s, Treb was the first to pioneer balloon designs in the form of arches, columns, letters, logos, spiral designs and sculpture. We’ve all seen balloon designs like these before, they seem commonplace now, but they wouldn’t be common today, if it weren’t for Treb Heining who first dreamt them.
Treb Meets Tommy Walker
Tommy Walker, the son of Disneyland bandleader Vesey Walker, was also a musician and served as the band director at the University of Southern California. Walt Disney attended one of the football games at USC and saw the band perform their halftime show in 1955. After seeing the show, Walt asked Tommy to plan the day’s events for the July 17, 1955 grand opening of Disneyland.
After the momentous grand opening, Tommy was hired as Disneyland’s very first Entertainment Director. Walker would introduce many firsts to Disneyland’s stage, like the Candlelight Procession, but what he is most remembered for were the nighttime firework spectaculars that he brought to Disneyland’s night sky.
After many years at Disneyland, Tommy had a falling out with Walt Disney which ultimately led to his dismissal. After he was let go, Tommy went on to create his own special event company called Tommy Walker Spectaculars.
In the early 1980’s, Tommy started calling Treb, wanting his balloon art for half time shows for the NFL. This then led Treb into work with the Super Bowls, and the Rams, when they first moved from L.A. to Anaheim. Tommy and Treb had a great working relationship and the two would work together at the World’s Fair in 1984 in New Orleans and then they both came together again to work on the 1984 Olympics Opening Ceremony, which Treb says, “Put BalloonArt By Treb on the map.”
By 1984, 5 years after Treb first started BalloonArt By Treb, and now at the age of 29, his company was grossing $1 million a year in sales.
It’s around this time that the Disney organization began to notice Treb. Disneyland’s Art Director Clare Graham wanted to start trying him out. First Treb was utilized for projects at locations outside of the park, like at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.
Treb Shares, “Clare was not going to let BalloonArt By Treb come in and do their first deal inside the park, he was going to test us out just to see how we worked. We did our first event at the Children’s Museum in Los Angeles and a couple other events before he finally scheduled an event for us inside the park.”
Treb was excited with the prospect of being able to design and share his balloon art with a company he revered. Stepping back into the place where he first started as a balloon boy back in 1969 was Treb’s goal. By this time, Treb was already known as a proven pioneer in an industry he created. There was no competition. BalloonArt By Treb was the best and Disney was now calling. Soon the gates would open for Treb to return, not knowing then of course, that the best was yet to come.