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The Balloonatics

October 16, 2009 |  7:50 am
July 6, 2008, Kent Couch

Photograph by Jeff Barnard/Associated Press

July 6, 2008: Kent Couch prepares to lift off in a lawn chair from his gas station in Bend, Ore., in a balloon-suspended lawn chair at dawn. About nine hours later, he created a sensation in Cambridge, Idaho, across the Oregon desert about 235 miles away, as he touched down in a field by popping balloons with his Red Ryder BB gun. (He also had a blow gun with steel darts and a parachute, just in case.) It was his third flight, and the farthest. He was inspired by North Hollywood trucker Larry Walters, who flew from San Pedro to Long Beach in 1982.

July 3, 1982. Larry Walters, Balloon
July 3, 1982: Larry Walters goes up in a lawn chair tied to 42 weather balloons.

July 3, 1982, Larry Walters, Balloon

April 23, 1983, Larry Walters, Balloons

April 23, 1983: Larry Walters is fined $1,500. Below, 10 years later, he committed suicide.

Larry Walters; Soared to Fame on Lawn Chair

November 24, 1993


Larry Walters, who achieved dubious fame in 1982 when he piloted a lawn chair attached to helium balloons 16,000 feet above Long Beach, has committed suicide at the age of 44.

Walters died Oct. 6 after hiking to a remote spot in Angeles National Forest and shooting himself in the heart, his mother, Hazel Dunham, revealed Monday. She said relatives knew of no motive for the suicide.

"It was something I had to do," Walters told The Times after his flight from San Pedro to Long Beach on July 2, 1982. "I had this dream for 20 years, and if I hadn't done it, I would have ended up in the funny farm."

Walters rigged 42 weather balloons to an aluminum lawn chair, pumped them full of helium and had two friends untether the craft, which he had dubbed "Inspiration I."

He took along a large bottle of soda, a parachute and a portable CB radio to alert air traffic to his presence. He also took a camera but later admitted, "I was so amazed by the view I didn't even take one picture."

Walters, a North Hollywood truck driver with no pilot or balloon training, spent about two hours aloft and soared up to 16,000 feet -- three miles -- startling at least two airline pilots and causing one to radio the Federal Aviation Administration.

Shivering in the high altitude, he used a pellet gun to pop balloons to come back to earth. On the way down, his balloons draped over power lines, blacking out a Long Beach neighborhood for 20 minutes.

The stunt earned Walters a $1,500 fine from the FAA, the top prize from the Bonehead Club of Dallas, the altitude record for gas-filled clustered balloons (which could not be officially recorded because he was unlicensed and unsanctioned) and international admiration. He appeared on "The Tonight Show" and was flown to New York to be on "Late Night With David Letterman," which he later described as "the most fun I've ever had."

"I didn't think that by fulfilling my goal in life -- my dream -- that I would create such a stir," he later told The Times, "and make people laugh."

Walters abandoned his truck-driving job and went on the lecture circuit, remaining sporadically in demand at motivational seminars. But he said he never made much money from his innovative flight and was glad to keep his simple lifestyle.

He gave his "aircraft" -- the aluminum lawn chair -- to admiring neighborhood children after he landed, later regretting it.

In recent years, Walters hiked the San Gabriel Mountains and did volunteer work for the U.S. Forest Service.

"I love the peace and quiet," he told The Times in 1988. "Nature and I get along real well."

An Army veteran who served in Vietnam, Walters never married and had no children. He is survived by his mother and two sisters.

April 22, 2001, Lawnchair Man  

Photograph by Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times

Eddie Korbich in the lawn chair and Roger E. DeWitt as Leonardo DaVinci in the musical "The Flight of the Lawnchair Man" in an evening of three one-act musicals called 3hree at the Ahmanson Theater on April 14,2001.

A Feat as Unusual as Piloting a Chair

* 'Flight of the Lawnchair Man's' creators are both from Iowa, but it took a New York pro to pair them up.

April 22, 2001

By DIANE HAITHMAN, Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Robert Lindsey Nassif, who wrote the music and lyrics for "The Flight of the Lawnchair Man," and Peter Ullian, who wrote the book, had a history with Hal Prince before he tapped them for this musical.

Prince paired them up for their first collaboration, "Eliot Ness in Cleveland," performed in 1998 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, and in 2000 at the Cleveland Playhouse. The musical was produced under Prince's auspices and based on Ullian's play "In the Shadow of the Terminal Tower."

Musical theater aspirations brought both men to New York, but each has roots in Iowa. Nassif, 41, was born in Cedar Rapids; Ullian, 34, attended the Iowa Playwrights Workshop at the University of Iowa in nearby Iowa City. They were working independently when Prince suggested that Nassif set Ullian's play to music. "The odds against two guys from Cedar Rapids being put together in New York are astronomical," Nassif observes. "I like to think that means something."

Kind of like the odds against more than one person trying to fly by attaching balloons to his lawn chair -- and yet it happened.

The story has been variously reported, but according to his Times obituary, North Hollywood truck driver Larry Walters piloted a lawn chair attached to helium weather balloons 1,600 feet into the air on his way from Long Beach to San Pedro in 1982. (Walters committed suicide in 1993 at age 44.) In England, another man attempted a similar feat by tying hundreds of helium balloons, the birthday-party variety, to a piece of furniture and taking off. Both acts of gravity-defiance were spotted by the very surprised pilots of commercial jets.

Nassif came up with idea of a musical based on such a flier-fleshed out with the Lawnchair Man meeting the great aviators of the past as he climbs ever higher into the sky. He also added the subplot of a 747 pilot who sees this armchair pilot out his airplane window and suffers an identity crisis.

"Different teams work in different ways," Ullian says. "With Rob, I will write a first draft of the book as if it's just a play, without thinking: 'This is where the song goes.' And then Rob will take the play that I wrote, go off by himself, find where the songs are hidden, buried, and sort of excavate them. For instance, when the 747 pilot sees the Lawnchair Man, originally that was written as a scene. But Rob took the basic arc of the scene-the emotion-and replaced it with a song." Though they were used to collaborating, Nassif and Ullian say there's a big difference between working under the auspices of Prince and actually having him direct a show. Each found the experience to be a revelation.

"When you work with Hal as a mentor, you go out and work and rehearse, and then bring in what you've done. Here, you are working with Hal one-on-one; there was more of a sense of him as a colleague," says Ullian. "It was more of a hands-on experience, less theoretical and more practical."

Some reviewers have called "3hree" old-fashioned-in a nice way. "Hey, They Do Write 'Em Like They Used To," said the New York Times headline for the paper's review of the 2000 production at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. But Ullian says Prince never forced his hand on that matter, either.

"I think our approach was to write it as the material demanded, and I think what's gratifying about that headline is that I hope, in some way, all three shows have managed to tap into and honor what is great about the musical tradition," Ullian says.

"For instance, our show has a lot of musical underscoring [music composed for background] during the dialogue scenes, it's a musical architecture for the whole piece, and I think that's true of the other pieces as well. It's a little different from the tradition of shows like 'Guys and Dolls' that are song-scene-song.

"And there are moments when there's a song, then a little bit of a scene during a bridge, the songs and the book are integrated in a way that, while I wouldn't say it's radical, it's a little bit different. But we're not trying to do a sung-through musical like 'Evita' or some of those others, or a rock musical like 'Rent.' In that sense, we have definitely embraced the traditional book musical.

"I read a quote from Hal somewhere in which he says that actually a traditional musical is more difficult to write. There is nothing more difficult than writing the book to create a point where the song can come through as logical, where you've 'earned' the song. Earning the song is not an issue when you are singing all the time."

Nassif calls Prince the "invisible master hand" when it comes to directing. "He sets you in the right direction; a fine director doesn't tie your hands, he frees you.

"I think we really need brave producers, not just corporations," Nassif adds. "Musical theater has become so expensive-some wonderful shows like 'Lion King' can come out of it, but I think we also need brave producers of vision. It is the unique shows, I think, that last. Shows that a committee recognizes as 'produceable' do not necessarily have an enduring life. There has to be a vision."