Thursday, January 03, 2008

Strip Festival Again!

The Red, White and Blue Polo and Balloon Festival takes flight

Judith Salkin • Desert Post Weekly • January 3, 2008

If Mother Nature is in a cooperative mood this weekend, the skies above Indio will be filled with hot air - balloons, that is.

Tony the Tiger looks "Grrrreat!" floating in mid-air, the Energizer Bunny with its 98 EEEEE running shoes, Aeronut the gigundo squirrel, the United Van Lines truck that's big enough to move the Empire State Building, and a pirate that could easily blow Jack Sparrow right off the deck of the Black Pearl. These and dozens of other balloons will fill the skies of the east end of the Coachella Valley.

The 17 speciality balloons are part of the Ford Trucks Red, White & Blue Polo and Balloon Festival at the Eldorado Polo Grounds and Fantasy Springs Resort Casino.

"The way it works this year, you start out at the field next to the casino on Friday afternoon," says Randy Russell, owner of Polo America and the organizer of the weekend event. "The balloons take off in the morning at the casino, then you move to the polo grounds for the games and mid-afternoon it's back to the casino for entertainment and the balloon glow."
Winds of fortune

For Russell, the one thing he's fervently hoping is that Mother Nature is in a better mood than she was last year.

"Those high winds aren't safe for the balloons," he says from his Indio office. "We felt really bad last year, it was a 'worse case scenario;' hopefully that won't happen this year."

According to the weather forecast from late last week, the temps will be slightly higher than the previous weekend with good ballooning winds.

Good flying weather, Russell hopes, will also turn into lots of donations for the families of the Marines from the Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms.

A donation of $10 is suggested for admission to the event, "but there are young families who can't afford more than a buck or two; we don't turn anyone away."

All the money collected is used to help the soldiers, Russell says.

"Over the past couple of years the money we've raised has made a difference," Russell says. "The stories of the people we've helped, and it hasn't been tremendous sums, are really touching."

From house payments for the family of a Marine "now on the road to recovery" from wounds received in Iraq, to a paying for the return of a soldier's body for burial, "They're all stories that touch your heart," he says.

Russell is also grateful for the young Marines who come down as volunteers. "I've heard their sergeant tell them (the young Marines), 'We fight so that people can come out and enjoy an event like this one and the people do appreciate what we do'," Russell says. "The people who attend are all really generous; everyone gives what they can."
Riding high

Glo Kehoe pilots the Energizer Bunny, while Roy Caton is the man behind the United Van Line truck balloon.

Both Kehoe and Caton are pros who make their living flying corporate balloons in events like the Ford Trucks festival this weekend. It's a profession neither would give up for a desk job even though it means being on the road (Caton racks up up to 45,000 miles a year crisscrossing the country) most of the time.

"When I'm not traveling, I'm filling out applications and certifications for upcoming events," says Kehoe, whose balloon is based in St. Louis while she actually lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

Caton is also based in St. Louis, and lives in the area too.

"It's pretty much the center of the county and that makes it easier for me," he says.
Big bunny

When he's inflated with hot air, the Energizer Bunny is 166 feet tall. Flying him is the easy part.

"You need a lot of room to land a balloon with size 98 EEEEE shoes," Kehoe says with a laugh.

On a standard hot air balloon, the air bag, basket, burners and gondola generally weight somewhere between 350-450 pounds, Caton says.

Because of their size, the speciality balloons can weigh considerably more. "The bunny weighs nearly 1,200 pounds," Kehoe says. "You need a pretty large spot to land a balloon that's as big as a 16-story building."

"The preparation's not all that glamorous," says Kehoe, who has been working and flying balloons for 25 years. "But the flying time is what you live for. It's really pretty amazing being up in the air in a balloon."

From the Indio, both Caton and Kehoe will follow Russell to his next balloon event in Las Vegas.

"I love Randy's events," Kehoe says. "They're really well organized and this one especially because of where the money goes."
More than hot air

In addition to the morning balloons flights and the evening balloon glows, there's also the polo matches at the Eldorado Polo Grounds and live entertainment and vendor's village at the Fantasy Springs Casino site.

While Sunday's polo match is pretty straight forward, Saturday's may be a bit more revealing.

"It's a strip polo game," Russell says. Boys against the girls, when one team scores the other strips.

"The first time I saw it was in South Carolina in September," he recalls. "It was pretty funny."

Some of the guys have said they're planning on loading up on clothing.

But how far will they strip down? "I'm not telling," Russell says mischievously. "You'll have to come out and watch."

To close out the three-day event, there's a red-white-and-blue fireworks display at 6:15 p.m. on Sunday.

"Fireworks are patriotic," Russell says. "It's another way for us to say thank you to our troops and all they do for us."

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