Staying in tune with drums and balloons
Max Weinberg, Jon Bonham, Dave Grohl, Ringo Starr: These names should have a familiar ring to them and for good reason. Every one of them are famous drummers that we’ve grown to love and cherish in the legendary musician pantheon. These drummers deserve their respect, but what about the unsung talents who are small businessmen and women by day, but out jamming with the best of them in New York City by night? Rarely, do they get their deserved acclaim.
Let us introduce Mark Zettler of Hackensack, New Jersey. He’s a 42-year veteran in the balloon and entertainment world and a delivery partner with BalloonPlanet.com. Mark is a trained musician who studied music education and performance at New York’s Ithaca College. He started his balloon business, Life O’ the Party, in 1980 but has played music for most of his life.
Growing up with music.
“Music was always very important to me even as a little kid,” says Mark. “I actually taught myself how to play drums because my parents wanted me to play ‘a real instrument’.” That ‘real’ instrument ended up being the clarinet. He also learned the saxophone.
This decision may have made his parents happy, but he still wanted to learn the drums. Luckily, an opportunity dropped right on his block. A friend who played drums lived close by and he was the only one around with a color television.
“Batman, the original television show, was shot in color,” says Mark. “Not every show was back then, and he had the TV!” During the commercials, Mark’s neighbor would show him what he’d learned on the drums. By the time he got to junior high, he could play just as well, if not better, than the kids who had been taking lessons. When he made it to Ithaca College, he let go of the clarinet and chose to major in percussion instruments.
From drums to balloons.
Mark’s transition from music to the balloon world wasn’t a straight line progression. After college, he played music on and off in New York City. He also worked for a company DJing for parties and other events.
During a DJ gig at a singles dance, Mark met a young lady from New York who did bellygrams (trained belly dancers hired to perform at events). She was looking to hire someone to do costume deliveries dressed in a gorilla suit. Mark jumped on the opportunity. He did this for a while, but the constant back and forth from New Jersey to New York City had Mark thinking maybe he could do this himself in New Jersey.
“I figured, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll start this company and then after a couple of years it will run itself and then I’ll get back to music.” He pauses, ”And that didn’t happen!”
Mark’s business grew and grew. He went from buying a bag of balloons and renting a tank, to buying a business called Balloonacy and moving the operation into a large warehouse, which they still use to this day. Mark’s business, Life O’ the Party, continues to grow and evolve, with some of that growth credited to their great location.
The business is based in Hackensack, New Jersey, but they are just 8 miles away from New York City. Being able to service both New Jersey and New York has shown to be a great asset.
Meeting the right people.
Hard work, location, but more importantly, human connections in the burgeoning industry are what helped to secure Mark’s success. Back in the early 1980s there were no balloon conventions and hardly any tools like Hi-Float for latex balloons, and no instructional how-to videos.
David and Deborah Paulk were at the forefront of turning the balloon business into a certifiable industry. They had a magazine called Balloons and Parties, started a videotape series on balloons, started a convention, and their own certification program. The Paulk’s were two of the most important connections Mark could make for his forthcoming balloon business endeavors.
Mark subscribed to the Paulk’s magazine and mailed them a pile of photos because he thought they may need more for their magazine. They liked the photos and asked Mark if they could write an article about his business. This turned into an invitation to decorate their Jubilee Convention in Washington, D.C. in the early 90s.
Mark’s involvement in the conventions went from decorating and teaching to running the conventions himself. Eventually, David and Deborah Paulk began shifting their focus to gift baskets and then one day asked Mark if he wanted to buy the magazine. He thought they were kidding at first, but once he realized it was a true offer, he bought the magazine, Balloons and Parties, in 1998.
“People have absolutely no idea what it takes to put those [magazines] out. On some levels it’s not terribly hard, but on other levels it is terribly hard. Especially now, because everything we get is in an instant. Waiting around for a magazine is so yesterday. It’s very, very challenging and very costly so we eventually went to an online model. And even then it was hard to get sponsors.”
They ended up pausing the magazine and focused on creating a convention of their own. This turned into the All Star Revue. This convention lasted for 8 or 9 years and was held in places like New York, New Jersey, and Nashville, Tennessee.
The success of Life O’ the Party.
These days, Mark runs his operation with his wife Andrea. She handles bookkeeping, custom centerpieces, and foam boards signage, while Mark focuses on everything else. They are a great team and will be celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary this year.
Having a partner like Andrea and the many years of conventions and education definitely adds to the longevity of Life O’ the Party. But what else does Mark think contributes to his success?
“With this industry and the special event industry in general you have to really, really want to succeed. It’s beyond giving it your all because people want stuff obviously at all different hours of the day and every day, 7 days a week and you have to be almost maniacally focused on getting this work done because it has to get done. This is an industry unlike others where there are no do-overs.”
Mark elaborates that in the balloon industry you are dealing with life events. There’s only one wedding, one Sweet 16 and you really have to focus on getting it right the first time because that’s all you’ve got. Mark credits his background in music and practicing as one reason he is so successful.
“Practicing in college, that’s all you do. You go to class. You practice. You eat. You go back and practice. You go to sleep. You get up. You do it all over again. Here and there you perform concerts or you go on little tours, and then you get back, and you practice and that’s kind of what we’re doing here, but we’re not really practicing. We’re putting the stuff together, and we’re getting it out the door.”
Persevering is a skill that is important to any industry, but especially in the wake of COVID and the ongoing changes to everyday life.
“Thankfully the work keeps coming in and in these difficult times,” says Mark, “shout out to Balloon Planet which has certainly been helpful to us and expanding us back to something we did a lot back in the 80s and 90s, which was just bouquet deliveries.”
Mark joined the Balloon Planet team in mid-2020. When asked if COVID was the main reason for joining, he says, “Absolutely. When COVID hit here, basically, we stopped working like everybody else. Everything cancelled. Everything. And again, because we’re right outside of New York, we have certain places that we worked with that just never opened again. And these were multi-million dollar businesses that didn’t open. It was kind of out of necessity and the folks there were kind enough to let us become part of it.”
Mark and his Life O’ the Party team service over 500 zip codes for Balloon Planet between New York and New Jersey. He acknowledges that the beauty of this online service is that even in times where people are not able to be around each other, Balloon Planet offers an alternative to send messages of ‘I Love You‘ or ‘I Miss You‘ even from states away. “Balloon Planet is a perfect spot to fill that void for these people and it’s worked out.”
Even though Balloon Planet is an online service, Mark understands how important the human connection is during these times. He’s noticed how grateful customers are when he calls them about their orders. The hybrid of the ease of ordering online, coupled with the element of the human touch is a winning combination in the COVID era.
The White House and The World Cup.
Mark has had a full career and continues today with Life O’ the Party and his partnership with Balloon Planet. There are a lot of things to be proud of over the years, but some of Mark’s favorite memories are of gigs for movies, tv shows, and big events.
They participated in the The White House Egg Roll in the mid-90s during the Clinton era.
“The White House Egg Roll is sponsored by all sorts of corporations. So we decorated the Jell-O brand Egg Jiggler tent. Why? Because we dealt with their PR company here in New York and they said ‘Would you go to the White House and decorate?’ Well, Hell yeah!” He describes the scene as kind of surreal. They were about 8 feet from the president. Gumby was walking around.
On top of the colorful corporate tents, the balloons were prepared for security purposes. The balloon bundles were wrapped in netting to prevent a balloon from flying away. If a balloon happened to escape, it would trigger a secret service defense system. Also, under the White House lawn is an expanse of wired security devices. Mark and his crew had to be careful to drive on the paved path only to avoid triggering the underground alarms.
Another big event was the 1994 FIFA World Cup opening ceremonies. There were 9 different stadiums in the United States where these events would be taking place. Mark and Life O’ the Party decorated for two of these ceremonies, one in New Jersey and the other in Massachusetts.
Images from the 1994 World Cup Opening Ceremonies
Decorating for big budget films.
Movies are also a major benefit to servicing the New York City area. They’ve decorated for major films like the Ron Howard directed Ransom (1996), Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006), and the Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man 3 (2007). He explains that not only are these films fun to work on, but they’re also very important for the balloon industry. Movies are a world-wide platform. It’s necessary to put out quality work. Mark has definitely succeeded on that front, but that’s not to say there weren’t any obstacles in working for these large productions.
For example, in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Mark filled two 24 foot trucks full of balloons. They had everything from balloon arches to columns piled in the back. Filming took place along the Hudson River in the Palisades Park System, and the balloons had to be set up by 6am. They drove the trucks in the dark of the early morning when an “unbelievable fog came in. You couldn’t see in front of your face,” says Mark. The drive should have taken 18 minutes. But the fog was so thick, they had to drive very slowly. It took at least an hour to get there. At one point on the drive, they had to go under the huge George Washington Bridge. They couldn’t even see the bridge when they drove underneath it!
When they finally arrived to the filming location, one of the crew told the drivers to “hold”. They waited another hour, only to be told that the shoot was off for the day because of the fog. They were asked if they could come back next week, with the caveat, “Don’t worry, we’ll pay you and we’ll pay you next week too.”
For Spider-Man 3, the balloon order called for connected spider-webs to be printed on 1,000 latex balloons. Unfortunately, with the way balloon printing works, the webs couldn’t be connected in the way they specifically wanted. The production crew told them that was no problem. They ordered the balloons any way and hired artists to sit in the park all day and hand draw spiderwebs on every single balloon.
Mark’s take on these experiences: “That’s why movies cost so much! It’s unbelievable how much gets spent on stuff!”
Insights on the balloon industry.
From revelations about the movie industry to revelations about the balloon industry, one thing that might surprise those not too familiar with balloons is that, “Anybody can blow up a balloon. Not anybody can inflate a balloon.” What he means is that there is a lot of skill and training that goes into this business. More so than what most people expect.
“I always say, and when I teach this and speak at different types of balloon events is, this is an industry where it’s very easy to get in, it’s very easy to get out, it’s tough to stay in.”
Mark says it’s difficult to keep this type of business going for the long term and there are a lot less people out there doing so than most people realize.
For Mark, no two days are the same because the events are always different and that keeps things fresh rather than it being the same thing over and over again.
Mark has done association work with the ILEA (International Live Events Association). He was president of the New York Metro chapter 15 yrs ago. He met a lot of great people while with them and he got to teach and be a guest speaker. Stuff like this helps him to hone the craft.
“I do want to do the best I can and make people understand that there are a lot of people who work in the business that work really hard at this. Let the pros do what they do best and you’ll be glad that they did.”
Getting back to the music.
Mark certainly is a pro, and for many years his musical passions had to take a backseat. It wasn’t until 2009 that he received a phone call from an old college friend. At this time, Mark’s balloon extracurriculars had died down and his children were grown up and out of the house. He was invited to play in a concert band and Mark said yes!
From 2009 to the present Mark plays on and off with his friends in orchestras, concert bands, marimba bands, and more. The COVID era has made playing less frequent, but he gets out to play as much as he can. He even played in the historic Carnegie Hall. When asked how how it feels to play music again, Mark says simply, “It’s been great!”
Signing off with Maceo Parker.
At the end of our conversation I was put on a brief hold while he attended to some balloon business. During my wait, I heard some of the most stylish hold music. It was a nice, jazzy sounding tune. Reminiscent of Ray Charles, maybe? When Mark got back on the line, I asked him who it was. He checked the song and said I was close, sort of. Before he could tell me the name of the artist, he explained that James Brown used to always yell his player’s names when it was their time to play a solo. Maceo Parker was Brown’s saxophonist and it was Maceo Parker’s song that I heard playing. Not surprisingly, Mark has a wealth of music knowledge and lucky for Balloon Planet and for the balloon industry, he’s got 42 years worth of balloon knowledge as well.