Blowing up traditional theater

F red Garbo’s Inflatable Theater draws on many different styles and originality

By Rusty Pate

The world of theater might be viewed by the casual fan as a rather stuffy affair. Those not already in love with the stage might fret more about getting dressed up, dealing with parking and missing their favorite sports team or “CSI” episode than look forward to a night of culture.

Fred Garbo’s Inflatable Theater might just change the way these folks view the theater.

Upon first glance, it may seem like a kid’s show, with giant inflatable creations floating across the stage, melding into different shapes and forms. However, the result tends to make children out of everyone in the audience, rather than just catering to toddlers.

“I always just call it a special attraction and don’t try to pigeonhole it,” said artistic director Fred Garbo. “We wrote this material and have performed it for almost 25 years and it’s just visual. It works for people from 10 to 110. We play it to anyone that will buy it.”

The elegant Victoria Theatre might seem like the last place to expect giant inflatable shapes bouncing across the stage or through the audience, but this marks the show’s fifth trip to Dayton. The vibe harkens back to a foregone era of staged performance where elements of Vaudeville and street magic mix with more traditional theater staples like ballet and drama to create a surreal, yet familiar, experience for the audience.

Garbo, along with dancer Daielma Santos, creates the magic onstage. Garbo met Santos in Brazil where she served as the principle dancer for Opera Paulista Company of Sao Paulo. While ballet may at first appear strange in Garbo’s world of self-described “popular entertainment,” the duo finds a way to balance the many divergent styles at play.

“It’s an interesting kind of conundrum to mix all these things together, but that’s also the creative side and the fun of it,” Garbo said. “Dialma and I have very different backgrounds but we’ve welded ourselves together over the last 25 years and made this package show.”

Garbo has virtually been a performer since childhood when he watched Marx Brothers movies with his family. He began doing magic in high school, where he also excelled at gymnastics. The concept of the Inflatable Theatre hatched in 1988 when he was packing a parachute to go skydiving. He realized the strong material could be inflated to huge sizes, and then packed away in very small suitcases.

He took the idea to George York, a hot air balloon artist, and began inventing the props that would evolve into a full-fledged show. Fast forward nearly 25 years, and the show has traveled the world and been featured on national TV shows such as “Late Night with David Letterman” and “America’s Got Talent.”

“It has all these moods and resonates many different ways,” Garbo said. “Some of it is yuck-it-up humor, other parts are very beautiful.”

The show also encourages and incorporates elements of audience participation. Where traditional theater typically erects a “fourth wall” that separates the audience from the performance, Garbo plays off the audience, as well as to them.

It was a concept that took Santos some getting used to after years of the rigors of the ballet world.

“We are playing the show in real time,” Garbo said. “I think that’s what makes it very appealing for me. We can change and improvise inside the skeleton we have and make it unique for whomever comes.”

Garbo’s sense of the whimsical was honed during an eight-year stint on “Sesame Street” playing Barkley the dog, which has now been included in the Inflatable Theater. He trained and studied with illusionist Tony Montanaro, who fostered creativity and originality.

“He was a movement guy and he was a pure illusionist,” Garbo said. “He always encouraged us to have things originate from our guts, psyche and funny bones.”

Garbo said that when people ask what he does, his response is “illusions.” That inevitably leads people to assume he’s talking about big magic tricks.

While that certainly inhabits a portion of the show, he allows for a much broader scope. The audience will try to figure out how things are happening one minute, watch beautiful dancing the next and find comedy peppered in between. For Garbo, it serves as the culmination of a career in an array of roles as a performing artist. The Inflatable Theater allows him to use his talents while placing a premium on creative freedom.

The things that occur to me as hysterical, I get to do them on stage,” Garbo said. “It’s a great life.”

Fred Garbo’s Inflatable Theater comes to the Victoria Theater on Nov. 3-4 at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Cost is $15. A “hands-on workshop” will also be offered at 2:30 p.m. both days for $5 and allows children of all ages to learn about juggling, miming and more from the Victoria Theatre Association teaching artists (not affiliated with Fred Garbo’s Inflatable Theater). For more information, visit or

Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at

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Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at

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