On any given Thursday, Helen Fitzgerald's might get a call from a potential diner asking if "the balloon lady" will be there that evening.
The balloon lady, Jill "Silly Jilly" Schmidt, is there just about every Thursday, carrying an air pump and wearing an apron loaded with over 6 pounds of balloons, markers, nippers and business cards.
The Webster Groves resident is a professional clown and balloon artist. She is available for parties for all ages and occasions and has been making weekly appearances at Helen Fitzgerald's, the Sunset Hills bar and grill, on Thursdays for the past 12 years.
On May 15, starting at 5:30 p.m., Schmidt, as "Silly Jilly" less a clown costume she generally reserves for kids' parties, went table-to-table at the restaurant, entertaining diners and their children with her balloon-twisting artistry.
Sometimes, as she was leaving one table, someone would stop her and ask, "Could you come over here? "Could you make something for my child?"
Schmidt can twist balloons into more than 200 different animal shapes, but people often ask for Tweety Bird in a cage, monkey holding a banana, or a penguin.
Several years ago, kids wanted "Pokemon" characters, but now she hears that request maybe once a week.
"I think I'm the only St. Louis balloon artist that does 'Pokemon,'" Schmidt said. "I know how to make a lot of cartoon characters. Cartoon characters are my specialty, from Looney Tunes to Nickelodeon."
She gets reactions from kids, but also the adults.
"When they see me make the balloon animals, I hear people say, 'I wish I could do that.' Or they say, 'If I tried to do that the balloons would pop,'" she said.
As she inflated and twisted pale-blue balloons into a dog shape, she asked Timmy McNamara of Mehlville, "Do you know who this is?"
The young boy, strapped safely in a highchair, didn't answer, but an older boy at the next table yelled out: "That's Blue!"
That would be Blue, the dog character from Nickelodeon's "Blue's Clues."
Schmidt made a monkey for Timmy's sister, Nicole, 6, who said, "I'm going to put it in my bed."
Assistant manager Sharon Rainwater credits Schmidt for bringing in Thursday night business.
"She entertains the children," Rainwater said. "Everybody loves her, even the adults love her. She's fun, energetic and very talented. She gets along with everybody."
That includes the servers.
"They say, 'Could you make one for my niece?' I'm sure it's for them, but they don't want to admit that it's for them," Rainwater said.
Schmidt grew up in Webster Groves, lived in South County for a time and then returned to Webster with her husband, Ron, an engineer, about three years ago. When kids in the neighborhood found out about her alter ego, Silly Jilly, she became the most popular adult within walking distance. Kids come to her door, asking for balloon figures.
Schmidt said when people ask, "What do you do for a living?" and she answers, "I'm a clown," they immediately start asking questions. A typical one is: "How does one become a clown?"
Over a decade ago, she found out about a clown class at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley. The class taught her how to juggle, face paint, do magic tricks and how to apply her clown makeup.
About the same time, she read a want ad for a balloon artist to perform at a local restaurant.
"I thought the class would be fun. One night face painting, another night juggling, but I didn't think I'd do anything with it," Schmidt said. "It never occurred to me that this existed (as an occupation). It wasn't until I saw the want ad in the paper that I considered it."
She held unfulfilling jobs as an administrative assistant and as a sales representative when she realized she wanted a career change.
"I wanted a fun job, and being a clown sounded like fun; making people happy, talking with people," she said.
When the class ended, she furthered her clowning education by reading books and attending seminars and conventions. She still attends two conventions a year to keep her skills fresh.
Her career as a clown is a busy one.
"Most of my clients are kids. Besides the restaurants, I perform at about 100 parties a year," Schmidt said.
She shows up in the traditional clown costume, the big hot-pink wig and just as colorful clown costume and face paint, which means driving in uniform.
"It is fun driving and waving at people," she said. "I get some strange looks, but mostly happy looks."
At the party, kids are excited to see her.
"I'll walk into a party and the kids will usually come up and surround me," she said.
They give her hugs and say things like, "You know me from (so-and-so's) birthday party!"
When things get too crazy, as one would expect from children hopped up on cake and ice cream, she corrals them to a place where they can sit.
"I'll calmly introduce myself and explain what the event is for," she said.
Eventually, she'll pull out the magic tricks, something that keeps kids attentive.
"Magic is good for home parties, because kids will watch the show, not be running around," Schmidt said.
At adult functions, "If there is drinking going on, they're more willing to wear the balloon hats," Schmidt said. "The balloon hats are fun."
Silly Jilly has standing appearances from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays at Helen Fitzgerald's Grill, 3660 S. Lindbergh Blvd. in Sunset Hills, and from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays at Racanelli's Pizza, 8161 Big Bend Blvd. in Webster Groves.
She also performs on select Mondays at Serendipity Homemade Ice Cream, 8130 Big Bend Blvd. in Webster Groves.
For more information, call Schmidt at (314) 968-8597 or visit www.sillyjilly.com
"Twisted: A Balloonamentary"
Two Washington University graduates will present their film "Twisted: A Balloonamentary" May 23 through 29 at the Tivoli Theater, 6350 Delmar Blvd.
Critics are calling the documentary "hilarious and heartwarming."
The film is set at Twist and Shout, an annual balloon-twisting convention, and features characters such as: a 20-year-old woman who grew up in a trailer park and took up balloon twisting to get off welfare and pay for college; a former felon and substance abuser who found God through balloons and now works as a balloon-twisting Gospel minister; and a businesswoman who bought her home using money she earned while twisting provocative balloon shapes at adult parties.
The documentary includes an animated segment narrated by Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show," as well as pounds of latex blown up and twisted into shapes and sculptures like two 100-foot-tall soccer players, a flying octopus and a Trojan Horse.
Directors and Washington University graduates Sara Taksler and Naomi Greenfield will make appearances at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the film's run at the Tivoli.
Jill "Silly Jilly" Schmidt of Webster Groves, who makes nonspeaking cameo appearances in the film, will be there at 7 p.m. on opening night with some of her work on display.
For more information about the showing, call the Tivoli at (314) 862-1100 or visit the theater's Web site at www.landmarktheatres.com.
To learn more about the film and the filmmakers, visit www.twistedballoondoc.com.