Camden venue marks 120th year

Inflatable fun at the opera house

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jul 16, 2014
Fred Garbo brings his Inflatable Theater back to the Camden Opera House Saturday night, July 19.

Camden — Civic celebrations sometimes bring out the windbags, but that phenomenon will get a colorful twist Saturday, July 19, at the Camden Opera House.

July 19 is the date the building celebrates its 120th year, and the occasion will be marked by an afternoon party across Main Street on the Village Green; and an early evening performance by the Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Co. Both will feature colorful, compelling visions thanks to Garbo’s way with ripstop nylon, air and the imagination.

Fred Garbo, stage name for Fred Garver, came to Maine to study with the late physical theater muse Tony Montanaro, and he lives nears near the Celebration Barn in South Paris. He was part of the late-20th-century New Vaudevillian movement and his show has the comedy and amazing feats to warrant the “pneumatic vaudeville” label it got from The Glasgow Herald. But it also draws on the magic of illusion and its ability to provoke emotion. This takes acting and artistry, as well as acrobatic skills. Garbo has the chops and the credits to prove it including being the chief juggler in the Broadway musical “Barnum”; performing with dance-illusion troupe MOMIX; touring the world with the Obie Award-winning show “Foolsfire” with co-creators and -performers Michael Moschen and Bob Berky; and performing on “Sesame Street” as the guy inside Barkley the Dog.

One fateful day in 1988, Garbo went skydiving … and the parachute material intrigued him. It was strong, colorful, playful and, of utmost importance to a traveling prop performer, lightweight. Working with a hot air balloon artist, he began to explore innovative ways to capture air in the fabric. The result is a series of imaginative constructions that, combined with movement and narrative, have proven popular with all ages, all around the world.

“I’ve always thought of it as a Special Attraction. It’s visual and fun and not too serious, but clever and unique. Part of the show is showing people how these work,” Garbo said a week before the Camden Opera House show.

The “Co.” for many years was Brazilian-born ballerina Daielma Santos, Garbo’s creative partner who is currently healing a broken foot, and raising a daughter, in Chicago. During her convalescence, a few other dancers have been performing with Garbo. Two of them are from the Midcoast and will be in the July 19 performance.

“Molly is the ‘Co.’ for this show, and she’ll also perform some of her solos. I asked Kristi, whom I’ve worked with in the past, to be a special guest,” Garbo said of Molly Gawler and Kristi Williamson.

Williamson of Camden was the first to step in to replace Santos and she will perform with Freedom’s Shana Bloomstein; both women are part of the upcoming Women’s Works Dance Festival at the Rockport Opera House. Gawler has recently moved to Waldo County, living in Montville near her sisters Edith and Elsie. They perform music as a string and vocal trio and also as part of the Gawler Family Band.

Her primary muse, however, is dance; growing up in the Belgrade Lakes region, Gawler studied Vaganova ballet method with Russian teacher and choreographer Andrei Bossov. She earned a BFA in Dance Performance at SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance and went on to dance with contemporary/modern companies CorbinDances, Nøa Dance and Pilobolus, with whom she dances in the leading “dog girl” role of the popular “Shadowland” production.

“I’m looking forward to returning; it’s rainy and cold here,” she said last week from wintery Australia, where she was performing with Pilobolus.

Gawler performs the pieces Santos originated, including the memorable inflatable dress segment, and also some of her own work.

“It’s great to be in his show! It’s a nice opportunity to do some choreography that fits in with his. I do one on roller skates and one with a big metal hoop, a piece of circus apparatus,” she said.

Gawler has created her own dance company, Droplet Dance, to contain her solo work. She will be teaching a circus camp in Belfast this summer and taking part in the Maine Fiddle Camp. She also will be performing music around the state with members of her talented extended family including a July 27 concert at the Seven Lakes Music Festival. That gig ties in with a growing focus she has on creating awareness of and celebrating fresh water around the world.

Garbo also has found an away-from-stage focus, in sustainable energy. He has converted his home to a solar voltaic system and, when he does not have to cover as many miles as he will to get to the opera house, he drives an electric car.

“I don’t have an electric bill anymore,” he said.

Garbo presents his stage show about once a month these days, as he is putting a lot of his time and energy into timber framing. He currently is building cabins with Outward Bound’s Maine Land Program at the Newry Mountain Center.

“They’re sending a bus to the show, and there are people coming from the Hurricane Island program too,” he said.

And while the batteries that blow up his inflatables are charged by the sun these days, Garbo is keeping his vivacious show message-free.

“I’ve always thought of the show as pure entertainment,” he said.

The all-ages show runs about 75 minutes, sans intermission. Tickets are $12, available at; by calling 470-7066; or weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Camden Town Office (for no additional fee).

The performance is a return engagement, one of several the opera house is planning in coming weeks as it presents some of its Best of the Best of the Past. Upcoming performers include Iris Dement (Aug. 1), Barnaby Bright (Aug. 9), The Mallett Brothers (Aug. 21) and Noel Paul Stookey (Aug. 30); Stookey has made an appearance at the PopTech conference, but this will be his first time presenting a public concert at the opera house. For details on these shows, visit the website.

A taste of Fred Garbo Inflatable Theater Co. (with Daielma Santos)
Molly Gawler performs with the Cyr Wheel
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