The White House will be lit up on July Fourth with the glare of fireworks in the night sky, but brightening up the day will be the smiles East Meadow magician John Reid and his colorful balloon sculptures are sure to put on the faces of party guests.
"I've set a goal for myself, and that's to make 10 million smiles," said Reid.
And you never know what he might pop up with to earn those smiles when he entertains for the sixth Independence Day in a row. It could be anything from a replica of the American flag to a life-size balloon version of a DeLorean, inspired by the one he owns.
Reid, 36, was first invited to the White House in 2009 thanks to a recommendation from Todd Neufeld, a Manhattan-based magician who has also been a regular performer at the annual celebration for more than 1,000 of the Obamas' guests, who include veterans and their families.
"John's very personable and good at balloons, plus he's funny and kids like him," says Neufeld.
But Reid initially thought it was just a lot of hot air when he was asked to make balloons for the event.
"I got this call and they said they were the social director of the White House, and I said, 'Sure you are.' I almost hung up," recalled Reid, who owns and operates Tricky Business, a magic shop in East Meadow at 2590 Hempstead Tpke.
Wisely, he stayed on the line and has since become one of only two performers asked back each year (Neufeld is the other).
It's something Reid never could have imagined, especially since his original career path had been architecture, which he studied at New York Institute of Technology. He began flirting with magic when he was 6 and got a Fisher-Price magic kit from his grandmother. Magic books became his favorite things to get from the library, and Reid devoured them, so much so that he learned enough tricks to start doing magic shows as a way to work his way through college.
Balloon sculpting came about two years later when Reid began performing at birthday parties. He started by making dogs and other small animals before branching out into cartoon characters, including Daffy Duck, Road Runner and SpongeBob's crusty pal, Squidward.
Reid's first stab at becoming the Michael Kors of balloon dresses began 18 years ago, when he made one for his goddaughter, who was depressed after a playground accident left her with cuts and bruises on her face.
"I made her a little dress and it made her smile," he said. "It was a complete change in her personality."
Reid knew he would never get that same satisfaction as an architect.
After showing people pictures of his niece in the dress, Reid got requests for an adult-size version. Co-worker Tara McCauley found a dress form that Reid used to design a dress that she then wore to the White House. The creation got rave reviews, including kudos from first lady Michelle Obama. (Reid also got the president's fashion seal of approval for his signature look -- a curled-up Salvador Dali-like mustache and matching goatee.)
Since then, Reid's dresses have been featured on television ("The Martha Stewart Show") and at corporate events, Disney theme parks and charity affairs. He's also made dresses for proms and even weddings, selling them for anywhere from $700 to $2,600. And he's been told they're both comfortable and easy to sit in.
"Think of it like a bed of nails," Reid said. "Each balloon can take about five to eight pounds of pressure. Get 90 of those balloons in the business area [think derrière] and they're surprisingly durable. And they usually wear a leotard or bathing suit or light shorts underneath."
But there's more to Reid than just a balloon couturier. For a "Toy Story 3" movie premiere at AMC Loews Raceway in Westbury, he made life-size balloon versions of Woody and Buzz Lightyear. For Comic-Con in Salt Lake City in April, he built "Poptimus Prime," a balloon Transformer made up of 4,302 balloons. The sculpture, which took 41 hours to make, stood 44 feet, 4 inches tall.
"John's very talented," said Steve Rodman, a veteran magician from West Hempstead who was one of Reid's magic instructors. "His balloon work is far superior to that of anyone who does that."
Rodman, who has done lectures for other magicians at Tricky Business, also appreciates Reid's community spirit. Reid hosts classes from face painting to balloon sculpting at his shop for children, budding magicians and professionals.
"In this day and age, brick-and-mortar stores go by the wayside. Without that sense of community he's brought, that store wouldn't exist," Rodman says.
And Reid couldn't be happier about being able to share what he loves doing with everyone, whether it's at a children's party or performing for audiences in Australia.
"I've never gone into my job thinking this is going to make me a million dollars," he said. "I've always gone into it thinking this is going to be a lot of fun. I always think this is going to make people happy."
A LITTLE POP CULTURE
Though magician John Reid stretches his talents as a balloon sculptor each year he entertains at the Obamas' Fourth of July celebration at the White House, he still remembers the time his replica of the American flag literally fell flat.
"We asked some interns to hold it up to get a picture," Reid said. "I had my thumbs up and I was all excited, and I turned to the photographer and said, 'Did you get it?' and he said yes. Then I said, 'OK, cool,' and the interns thought 'OK, cool' meant we can let go."
The evening's fireworks had nothing on the noise of popping balloons hitting the sun-soaked ground. "It sounded like machine guns going off on the White House lawn with all of these Secret Service men around," Reid recalled. "Every head turned around and I thought I was going to get shot."
More pleasant was the year first lady Michelle Obama said yes to the balloon dress that Reid created.
"When Michelle saw my assistant Tara in the dress, she went, 'Shut up! You're in a bubble dress.' " Reid snapped his own picture of the first lady's reaction.