STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — For the past year-and-a-half, Melba Remice has spent all of her weekends blowing up balloons. Hours of inflating and tying, months of designing and draping, the St. George resident has configured hundreds of elegant and extravagant latex installations during that 18-month span — brightening baby showers, rejuvenating birthday parties and even changing the landscape of a few weddings along the way. Her work, complex and labor-intensive, finger-numbing and perfection-inducing, she calls “a small piece of expensive indulgence” at functions that are finally once again occurring. And according to the balloon guru, Staten Islanders are sparing no expense.
“I’ve worked with balloons for many years, creating arrangements for friends and family and volunteering at my children’s school events,” noted Remice, owner of Melba’s Balloons. “I love the art of it, and it’s always been a hobby. But when balloons really started to pop during the [coronavirus] pandemic and suddenly everyone wanted 500 balloons cascading behind them during a birthday Zoom call, I felt like it was time to create a little side business. After all, balloons are for everybody.”
Her intricate designs serve as just a small example of how the simple balloon has invaded the borough’s social culture. Scroll through Instagram or search it up on Pinterest, and odds are you’ll find scores of pictures depicting our new obsession with the balloon’s graceful simplicity. Flowers have been replaced in centerpieces, streamers are so last decade. And these balloon creations are far from ordinary: There are hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pieces involved in each and every display.
“The sheer magnitude of it is amazing,” Remice said. “Typically an average installation would consist of 100 to 200 balloons, but now when I do a job I use no less than 400. Post-pandemic wishes are more elaborate. People now have this ‘go big or go home’ mentality about party planning. I did a white party in Todt Hill this past September that featured 6,000 balloons. It took me three days to install it.”
And this is not Remice’s main form of employment. Monday through Friday she works in administration at Fordham University and her weekends are now dominated by this business.
“I have a demanding full-time job,” she said. “So the maximum amount of events I can do is one to two from Friday to Sunday. The schedule is flexible, which is good, I’m not always booked up all three days. But the demand is so huge, the business just keeps getting bigger.”
Filled with condensed air, not helium — “helium is too expensive and it’s sourced”– Remice’s balloon installations are prepared partially in her home with the majority of inflating done on site. A small design takes about an hour to set up, a larger concept is two hours or more. She often hires a U-Haul to deliver the pieces to the event.
“An outside installation is complex, because you’re competing with Mother Nature,” Remice said, referencing recent Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s Day designs she constructed at Alfonso’s Bakery on Victory Blvd. “You have a concept in mind, but it could be too windy or too sunny — and then you always have to factor in the possibility of rain.”
But Remice said that her clients are willing to take the chance and foot the bill. Her projects begin at $500 — a number at which the majority of Staten Islanders don’t even flinch.
“Sweet 16′s have gone absolutely over-the-top once again, and there’s a sort of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ philosophy going on here too,” Remice said. “Parents and teens attend one party and see an installation, and they want to top it and make theirs even more extreme.”
Remice hand paints some balloons and can color-match others. Her unique style involves the addition of fresh flowers and the use of lots of different sizes to add dimension. She said there are no limits as to what a balloon installation can become. And they last too. If kept indoors, her creations can keep five months or more.
“It takes a lot of time, labor and coordinating, but the final product is so worth it,” she said. “My clients’ reactions are priceless. I love that this artistry can bring so much joy.”
And Remice is not the only one building arches and decking out dessert tables. Balloon culture is currently dominating the borough.
Hope Viggiani, owner of Hope Floats Balloons LLC in Westerleigh, has been designing elaborate structures since 2019.
“There were only a few of us on the Island who were doing this during the pandemic, and now the business has become so next-level,” she said. “The industry is so competitive at the moment, because clients here want to mirror what’s happening in L.A. and what they see on ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians.’ It’s become a pretty exclusive industry.”
Viggiani, who enjoyed a 20-year career in the beauty industry, working as a global beauty trainer for some major corporations, got involved in the balloon business after her boyfriend’s mother asked for help.
“She owned Artistic Balloons for two decades, a business which was legendary on Staten Island, and she needed a hand keeping up with the demand,” Viggiani said. “I was ready to change lanes career-wise, so I stepped in.”
Viggiani’s corporate background helped Artistic Balloons quickly modernize. She launched an Instagram page, set up a website and used marketing techniques to give the 20-year-old business a lift. And then the pandemic happened.
“We were growing and thriving at such a fast rate, we had the whole entire season booked for 2020, and it all got cancelled,” Viggiani said. “We were dormant for about three weeks, no work, no money, and then people started calling asking for these over-the-top designs and deliveries.”
Word of her work began to spread like “verbal wildfire,” she recalled, and all of the sudden there were massive amounts of orders.
“It was like balloon boot camp, we were working from 5 a.m. to midnight,” Viggiani said. “I created amazing contacts, partnered with Langdon Florist, and started making arches for businesses and restaurants.”
Burnt out, her boyfriend’s mother retired and Viggiani launched Hope Floats.
“I changed the business a little, began to focus primarily on organic, sustainable balloons, because I’m a Gen-X hippie girl and I’ve always been so concerned about the balloons’ effects on the environment,” Viggiani said. “I’ve done the research — we only use latex balloons that are a derivative of rubber made from tree sap, so they compost very well and are biodegradable. My focus for this business is to be extremely environmentally smart.”
Viggiani has become well-known throughout Staten Island for her balloon walls and clusters, and she’s made more than a few life-size princess castles for some Disney-themed events. The addition of marquee lights and letters and big, beautiful bounce houses are perhaps her signature style.
“These are not for kids,” she laughed. “They’re sleek, matte black, and adults go crazy for them,” she said.
And they’re expensive.
“There are no limits,” Viggiani concluded. “People are willing to spend whatever. I think we’ve all been cooped up for so long. For one day people want to live like nothing else matters.”
Victoria Elwell, owner of Woodrow-based Talk Looney to Me, said she agrees.
“Bridal showers and baby showers, even small birthday parties, have become so elaborate,” Elwell said. “And balloons are the perfect backdrop. They’re colorful, and they just seem to make everyone very happy and upbeat.”
It’s an art form that Elwell always experimented with, creating cute centerpieces for family parties and special events. When her husband posted a picture of her New Year’s Eve backdrop this past year, she suddenly was inundated with requests.
“I started making banister garlands and got hired for a few showers,” she said. “Playa Bowls in Woodrow used my work for their grand opening, which led to a job with the franchise on the Upper East Side. I’ve done work that is extremely elaborate, and jobs that are very simple and subdued.”
Basketball senior nights at grammar schools across the Island seem to be her niche.
“People love them and can’t seem to get enough,” she said. “I love doing this. Just the reactions alone are worth all the work.”
And the balloon business boom is not limited to small one-man shops. Brick-and-mortar stores, like Egger’s Ice Cream Parlor, have even joined the game.
“We always offered balloon arrangements at our parties, but over the years they became so elaborate and popular that we had to open an additional storefront on Forest Avenue where we could build them,” noted Danielle Raleigh, owner of Eggers, which has three locations on Staten Island. “Eventually it morphed into an entire party-planning business of its own, and during the pandemic it just exploded.”
Identifying the ballooning trend about four years ago, Raleigh launched a party-planning leg of her business called Chocolates and Balloons by Eggers in fall 2018. During the pandemic, when the only way to celebrate a birthday was with those outdoor drive-bys, Raleigh started getting an abundance of requests for giant balloon arches that spiraled front porches and extended down the banister. She had to go to Home Depot and buy two 12-foot ladders because she was installing dozens of them each week.
In the past two years, Raleigh said she has seen a huge demand from brides and prom-goers who want a colorful and elegant backdrop when they’re taking photos at their house; she’s even been hired to “pretty up” the poles of a tent at an outdoor event. Her balloon arches also come in shapes now.
“We’ve built a circle, a hexagon and even a tombstone-shaped arch that is rounded at the top and flat on the sides. People use arches to decorate a party space and make it fancier. They really just want something elegant to take pictures in front of, so we hang a curtain and frame it with 10 feet of balloon garland. The next day it’s all over Instagram.”
Draped on dessert tables, rimmed around a Christmas fireplace, wrapped around three-foot poles and formed into centerpieces to create depth in a catering hall, Raleigh said balloons are now just a part of every single party she throws.
“We do birthday clusters and back-to-school bunches,” she concluded. “There really is no limit lately as to what people will spend. And when others see it on social, they want bigger and better. It feels like this trend will never end.”