The Great Cleveland Balloon Caper

Apparently as part of its fundraising efforts, in 1986 United Way decided to release over 1.5 million helium-filled balloons from the Cleveland city center, breaking the existing record for the Guinness book of records. Unfortunately, an impending thunderstorm required the premature release of the balloons and even then the weight of the rain resulted in the balloons being brought down within a limited area rather than rising up and being spread far and wide as originally intended.

From a colleague, I got a link to a report by Jordan Kushins who describes what happened, with pictures.

Thousands of volunteers worked a full night and morning in a fenced-in area covered with a loose net “ceiling” in the central Public Square. Before the big tah-dah, the scene had evolved to look like some kind of writhing, oversized ball-pit monster; when inclement weather threatened the timing, the decision was made to let ‘er rip.

For a while, it was an incredible display. Photographer Thom Sheridan captured the surreal event on film, and the images are unbelievable—somehow equal parts genuinely heart-lifting expression of wonder, horror-film urban infestation, and terrifying unidentifiable civic explosion.

You can see a video of the event here.

I moved to Cleveland in late 1988 but until last week I had never heard of the great Cleveland balloon release. I have been asking other people about it and so far no one has said they knew about it.

This is the kind of stunt that thankfully will not be repeated now because of the waste of precious helium and also the pollution and danger to wildlife and birds caused by so many pieces of balloon rubber lying around. But on the plus side, it does show an imaginative and wacky side to this city that I had not suspected existed.