Lived Through This

My Dad Helped Bring Inflatable Flailing Tube Men to Life

He engineered these dudes, but most people don’t even know his name

Photo: mrtom-uk/Getty Images

On Father’s Day 2019, I found myself driving home in tears. Father’s Day and Mother’s Day have always been difficult for me since I lost my parents, but this made it harder. As I waited at a stoplight, I saw it.

It’s almost impossible to ignore: a wacky inflatable tube man, bobbing up and down and flailing with a stupid grin on his face. I couldn’t help but smile — not because it was goofy or fascinating (though it totally was), but because I know how these things were invented. My dad had a hand in bringing these funny, campy, wacky inflatable tube dudes to life.

Some people may be familiar with the “Tube Men” episode of the podcast 99% Invisible. My dad’s involvement was completely omitted from that story, which focused primarily on Doron Gazit and Peter Minshall and a disagreement over a patent.

So, after running into one of these tube dudes at a stoplight, I decided to tweet about my dad’s involvement. I dug up some photos and tweeted about my dad, LouLou (short for Leon, which was short for Arieh Leon Dranger). The tweet went viral, and replies poured in about the tube dude’s joyous impact on people’s lives. It helped take the edge off my grief.

But, as with most things on Twitter, the pitchforks came next. Soon, an avalanche of tweets questioned my dad’s role in the invention.

I was gutted.

I felt like my LouLou came to life for a mere moment only to die all over again. I could see why people were angry. Peter Minshall, a Trinidadian artist, is widely credited with inventing the tube men, and it’s not new for white people to steal ideas from people of color. U.S. culture has a long and shameful history of sucking creative marrow out of the bones of black culture. I felt there was no way I could explain this to the droves of people coming after me.

But most people don’t know the whole story. My story is, of course, not the only one, but I do have a perspective on the tube man’s creation that hasn’t been told.

The year was 1995.

It was the year that gave us Babe and Toy Story. Everyone was glued to their TVs to watch the O.J. Simpson trial. It was also the year this girl named Amanda drew a dick on my face at a slumber party, and the year my mom was diagnosed (again) with stage 2 breast cancer.

My mother had just started working for an event design company called Air Dimensional Design (AirDD), headed by Israeli environmental artist Doron Gazit. Doron was born and raised on a small farm in Israel, where he first started using air-filled tubes as an artistic medium. Later, he developed air tubes as a way to decorate any space — from trade shows to birthday parties to amusement parks. His shirttail always hung out, he was often sweaty, and he never wore a suit (not even at his wedding). Though friendly and goofy, Doron was persistent and unrelenting in trying to sell “his babies” — the air tubes.

As a child, I got a kick out of Doron. He was every kid’s dream. He always carried balloons in his pockets and could create funky animals and sculptures with them in seconds. He’d begun his career as a balloon artist on the streets of Jerusalem. When he moved out to L.A. in the ’80s, he created balloon artistry on Venice Beach. He was like a fun uncle.

My parents were friendly with Doron. My mother, born in Israel herself, liked having a boss who spoke her native language. LouLou, a Belgian aeronautical engineer, was struggling to start his own business and keep our family afloat. Doron let LouLou have an office in AirDD’s building. That way, LouLou could start his business in close proximity to my mom, who braved each workday despite her chemo side effects and never allowed herself to show any signs of fatigue.

Left: My dad on the left, Doron on the right. Right: LouLou bringing our family dog to the AirDD office. Doron is the not-balding guy with glasses, and my mom is next to him.

Doron’s air tube design company had attracted the attention of Peter Minshall, a designer and the artistic director of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games closing ceremonies. LouLou learned about an “impossible art installation idea” that Minshall had for the closing ceremony — massive inflatable tube dancers that could reach up to the sky and dance. Minshall happened to be in L.A. at the time, and my dad knew he had to meet with him.

Minshall showed Doron and LouLou a sketch of what he had in mind. Gloria Estefan was scheduled to perform. The Olympic committee wanted a vibe that would make everyone get up and dance. Minshall’s sketch, which he shared with Doron and my dad, was a design called the Tall Boy, and it was reminiscent of tall Trinidadian Carnival puppets. Minshall asked if there was any way to make it so they’d be over 60 feet tall and able to dance on their own (no puppeteers). Minshall had tried to achieve this on his own, but his attempts had failed.

Truth was, Doron had no idea if he could pull it off, either. He’d created numerous vertical air tubes, but vertical tubes with humanoid bodies weren’t something he’d done. LouLou also didn’t know if it could work, but without hesitation, LouLou told Minshall, “We can do it!”

LouLou was a stubborn man. As a kid, I’d show him seemingly impossible math problems, and he wouldn’t let me go until I’d solved them. Maybe it was his engineering background, but to my dad, everything had a solution. When Minshall came to him with a tricky idea, LouLou believed that with tireless work and experimentation, it could be done.

So LouLou and Doron got to work.

My dad making sure the measurement checks out or some shit like that.

For nearly a year, they sewed, measured, tinkered, failed, and tried again. They worked relentlessly. My mother and other employees around the office were skeptical. LouLou and Doron continued to develop countless prototypes — some more promising than others.

When they finally found a fabric durable enough to withstand the wind, it was so expensive that keeping it on hand was nearly impossible. Eventually, with the help of appropriate wind velocity, rare fabric, and some physics jargon my dad would be better at explaining, AirDD created the figures Minshall had requested.

LouLou and Doron headed to Atlanta for six weeks of prep. My dad trained hundreds of Olympic ceremony employees to property install the tubes — and to troubleshoot if something went wrong.

The tube dudes’ big debut.

The Fly Guys, as LouLou called them, were the highlight of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics closing ceremonies.

After the games, Doron was asked to provide Fly Guys for other national events, like the 1998 Super Bowl, where they danced and flailed along with Ricky Martin. Doron’s business and personal life began to change. He married an Israeli lawyer, and his company grew busier than ever. As Doron’s company evolved, many employees left.

In the meantime, the inflatable men began showing up in unexpected places: car dealerships, mattress outlets, even on giant farms as scarecrows to shoo away birds. Although these knockoffs were similar to the ones at the Olympics, Doron scoffed at them; they looked cheap. Air Dimensional Designs applied for a patent, listing Doron and LouLou as inventors of the apparatus and the method they had pioneered.

My dad, however, was not an artist. He wanted to use his engineering background to keep solving problems — not to design more inflatable dancing men. Helping Doron build inflatable tube men was never his dream, it was just an example of his determination to find solutions.

As mother’s cancer progressed, expenses mounted. My father soon sold his portion of the patent to Doron, and after my mother passed in 2000, LouLou rarely mentioned Doron again.

In truth, I don’t know how everything went down between LouLou and Doron and Peter Minshall and the patent. As far as I can tell, they each went their separate ways, and that was that.

Yes, my dad looked like a first draft of Steve Carell.

As you can see from my Twitter replies and endless comments on the subject on Reddit, the definition of “original” is blurry. We live in an innovation-obsessed society. Everyone is striving to stand out. Yet nothing we say or do derives from a purely original place. Everything is recycled, remixed, repackaged — and nobody admits to it for fear of being called a hack.

In 2014, DJ Mark Ronson (a European Jew like LouLou) gave a TED Talk titled “The Exhilarating Creativity of Remixing.” In it, he discussed the evolution of “La Di Da Di,” Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s 1984 hit that made its way into dozens of songs, from Biggie’s “Hypnotize” to Miley Cyrus’ “We Like to Party.” It’s the fifth most sampled track of all time and has appeared in 547 known samples.

Ronson says, “We live in a post-sampling era. When we add something really original, then we have a chance to be a part of the evolution of the music we love.” As Ronson explains, musicians aren’t sampling records because they’re lazy or unoriginal; they hear something in the music that speaks to them and want to give it their own spin. “We take something we love and build on it,” he says.

And that’s what LouLou did. Minshall had a brilliant vision, Doron brought his knowledge of air tube design and structure, and my dad contributed his knowledge of aeronautical engineering and physics. From that trifecta came the inflatable tube man, sky dancer, Tall Boy, Fly Guy, Tube Dude, or whatever you want to call those things.

Our unique experiences have value. We can each take something we love and interpret it differently, using our life experience and point of view to transform it into something else.

To me, the inflatable tube guy is a remix. It’s not as cool-sounding as anything Ronson remixes (this is me hinting that I have a huge crush on Mark Ronson. Call me, Mark!), but it’s definitely in a league of its own. So, next time you pass one of those inflatable flailing men flopping up and down with a stupid smile, remember that it is the manifestation of three wildly different creative minds coming together.

TV and screenwriter, underdog, hotdog.

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