Whatever happened to the Balloon Man, who would sell balloons on Saturday nights in Georgetown? I remember seeing him in the ’70s in front of the Little Tavern on Wisconsin Avenue NW, just up from M Street.
— Rick Thoensen, Clifton, Va.
Some passersby thought he was blind. Why else would he wear sunglasses after dark? Some thought he sold illicit substances. Could he really make a living selling balloons at just a buck a pop? Some thought the opposite: “Got to be with the cops,” muttered a pedestrian who spied him in 1984.
He was the Balloon Man of Washington, and from the 1960s to the 1980s he was a fixture along Wisconsin Avenue. He dressed in a suit and carried an explosion of brightly colored balloons, sometimes tied to a long helium tank he’d mounted on a wheeled hand truck.
His cry could go in an instant from a deep basso to an attention-grabbing falsetto: “Balloons, big beautiful balloons! Buy one for the ladies, make the ladies happy! Buy one for the little ones, make the little ones happy! When the little ones are happy, evvverrrybody’s happy!”
His name was Marcus Johnson.
In 1984, Johnson told a Post reporter that he was a Memphis native, a Korean War veteran and was married with a 12-year-old son named Greg. Johnson also said he’d hawked concessions in the stands at D.C. Stadium, the original name for RFK Stadium.
Ross Dembling of Bethesda, Md., and Andy Moursund of Kensington, Md., recall seeing Johnson even before that. In the 1950s at Griffith Stadium, Johnson was “just as famous as the ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ man,” Moursund wrote.
At Griffith Stadium, where Howard University Hospital is now, Johnson walked through the stands bellowing: “Now is the time to eat, drink and be merry! Get your ice cold drinks from me. Make the ladies happy, make the children happy, get your ice cold drinks from me. There is still time to eat, drink and be merry!”
Johnson had such a memorable cadence that in 1973, the then-new Georgetown flea market at Wisconsin and Q streets NW hired him to drum up business. He also recorded station IDs for WHFS, the alternative radio station. In 1980, Johnson did his shtick on the Mall as part of the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, which that year celebrated “American Talkers.”
In 1984, Johnson told a Post reporter: “I’m one of the lively things in this town.” By then, he’d included the intersection of 19th and M streets NW in his territory, where Michael Peacock of Reston, Va., remembers seeing him.
Wrote Peacock: “He made the night that much more magical back in those days, when that corner was filled with musicians playing trumpets and kids banging out percussive rhythms on plastic cans turned upside down. All the while, bustling crowds hit not only Rumors, but Flaps, Sign of the Whale, Mad Hatter’s, Union Street, Mr. Day’s, Beowulf’s, Runyon’s and whole lot of other bars and restaurants. What a great era in the history of the D.C. bar scene!”
The District’s Vin Rocque has special affection for Johnson. “My wife Emily and I have been together for 52-plus years, since we were 20-year-old kids at Georgetown University,” Vin wrote. “I used many of the Balloon Man’s balloons to float into Emily’s heart.”
If Johnson was 20 when the Korean War ended, he would be in his mid-80s now. Answer Man could find no obituary for Johnson, but it is likely that he is no longer with us.
Among the newspaper references to the Balloon Man that Answer Man found was one from November 1967. A television crew had gathered at Dent Place NW in Georgetown to shoot a party scene for a TV movie called “The Princess and Me.” It starred Barbara Hershey as a European princess studying democracy in the United States who gets a crush on a young State Department officer played by Jeremy Slate. Johnson was among the extras in the background.
“The Princess and Me” was shot by Screen Gems as a pilot for ABC. It apparently was not picked up and never broadcast. But it leaves the tantalizing possibility that deep in some Hollywood vault is footage of Marcus Johnson, the Balloon Man of Washington, making everybody happy.
You know what would make Answer Man happy? If you made a donation of any amount to The Washington Post Helping Hand. That’s our annual fundraising campaign for worthy charities in our area. This year, our partners are Bright Beginnings, N Street Village and So Others Might Eat. The three nonprofit groups work with homeless families and adults.
To give, just visit posthelpinghand.com and look for the word “Donate.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.