It is shortly after 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon in a pleasant slice of suburban Papillion when fire first appears at the Fratelli house.
In the backyard, in order of age and rank (professional and patrilineal), are: the Amazing Arthur, 39-year-old husband, father of four and tireless magician-comedian; Joey, son of Arthur, eldest child, a few days shy of his 14th birthday and already an accomplished juggler; and Lauren, an inquisitive 10-year-old and nascent juggler herself, who now stands on a slope at the back of the yard wearing a black motorcycle helmet as her father and brother stand on opposite sides of her with torches at the ready.
This is what constitutes a game of catch at the Fratelli home. Instead of footballs, there is fire. No baseballs, but meat-cleavers.
“It's funny,” says the Amazing Arthur, as he and his son prepare to throw flames back and forth, “danger isn't a part of our show.”
These are good times to be Amazing. There are corporate events to be planned, festivals to be staffed, birthday parties to be thrown, holiday festivities to be celebrated and post-proms to be arranged. In a month-long span late this past summer, the Amazing Arthur worked the Kentucky State Fair, traveled back to Omaha for Septemberfest, drove north to Sioux City for ArtSplash, then made trips to Madera, Calif., and Holbrook, Ariz., for county fairs — with a total of six days off in the run.
He was born Arthur J. Silknitter Jr., but he's adopted the stage name of Arthur Fratelli, a hat tip to the goonish family from “The Goonies” and the Scottish rock band he loves. Being Amazing has been his full-time job for more than a decade now. He's promoted himself in a variety of ways, but none more effectively than the glossy, baseball-card-style business cards (“Occupation: Professional Showoff”) he hands out every chance he gets. These days, he leads an A-Team of entertainers called the “Balloon Brigade.” Joey, who rises at 5 a.m. most mornings to sharpen his skills, now performs publicly as a juggling comedian. Even Lauren has started to contribute at some shows, though hers is a clandestine role best left unsaid.
All three of them are in the backyard juggling — Arthur still with fire in his hands, Joey working his way up to seven balls in the air, Lauren catching three balls while skip-jumping over a sphere attached to her right foot and spinning in circles — when Mrs. Amazing arrives home with the two youngest kids.
At 9 years old, Madeleine is approaching the age when her older siblings learned to juggle. She is old enough to know her family is unlike most, whereas 3-year-old Molly remains under the delightful impression that growing up Amazing is perfectly normal. Every family throws fire and makes magic and keeps a plastic torso in the garage.
Everybody has an aunt like Poppin' Penelope, right?
* * *
Of everyone in the Balloon Brigade, no one is as recognizable — not even the Amazing Arthur, or Jered the Incredible — as Poppin' Penelope. No one else has so embraced their performance persona as to make it indistinguishable from how they look and behave in real life. Penelope does magic, stilt-walking, hypnosis, face-painting and, when need be, air brush tattooing. But balloon art is her specialty. She is crazy good at balloons.
Penelope lives in a Papillion town house with her 10-year-old son and husband, Troy. The phrase “opposites attract” is as cliché as it gets, but in Penelope and Troy's case, it is almost a motto. Troy considers himself someone who prefers to “hide in plain sight.” In making paint decisions for their new home together, he advocated for subdued earth tones. Penelope did the buying, though, giving them Cotton Candy Pink, Orange Sherbet and Mint Green.
Penelope's “office” is a room in the basement where she keeps a custom-built shelf loaded with bags and bags of balloons and stores her dozens of 1950s-era dresses (not so much costumes as everyday wear). “I always tell people, this is what happens when you don't let your kids play dress up when they're little,” she says.
This morning she wears a pink dress over a poofy underskirt, with her blond hair pulled into a ponytail and tied back with an electric pink ribbon. She wears saddle shoes, because she wears saddle shoes every single day.
She is practicing for a gig with Travis Newcombe, a fellow Balloon Brigadier and magician whose signature trick involves sticking a quarter into his right eye and pulling it out of his left. There is a comical bit they like — it revolves around “linking rings” that are really toilet seats — but feel it isn't quite ready banter-wise, so they perform it a few times to work out the kinks in delivery.
It is as typical a day of work as there is in a business specializing in atypical behavior. Theirs is an unpredictable profession, where the only certainty is you don't get paid if you don't work. That means no calling in sick, no paid vacations. Which is fine by Penelope, who prefers to be working anyway. Her family took a recent trip to Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, and she spent part of it thinking about the gigs she missed. (“Sometimes it's hard to have sympathy when she's been working hard,” says Troy, “because you know she likes it.”)
It is difficult to imagine Penelope in any other role, but she's had her share. She's worked at a cafe, pizza parlor, bagel shop and, for a brief period, had an errand-running business. She considered her brother's “Amazing Arthur” routine something of a joke until she tagged along for one of his shows.
“I remember thinking, 'I can do that,' ” she says. “I was working 10 to 12 hours a day to make ends meet, and he was out having a blast.”
At the time, Arthur had more requests for balloon art than he could handle and brought Penelope on board. She started with the basics (dogs, swords, hats, flowers). Before her first gig, she pulled over a block from the house and threw up. It took her three years to take her balloon game to another level. Now she prides herself on being able to make just about anything out of balloons, and to adapt to any situation. Getting booked to entertain toddlers only to find teenagers when she arrives. Having to compete with Santa Claus. Being stuck in a room with a freaky clown.
“I've seen a clown clear an event once,” she says.
It's a job that became a lifestyle that became her life. She keeps a potty-trained rabbit named Butterscotch Cheesecake Julie McBunnins that runs free through the house.
She has a gigantic stuffed elephant named Gaius whose birthday the family celebrates. He's been around for six years, “but we say he's three because we don't want him to grow up.” Invitations go out. This year, she rented a bounce house.
“Kids don't think it's weird at all,” Penelope says.
“Just your typical house,” says Troy, laughing. “I do feel like I live in a sitcom.”
* * *
The Brigadiers are accustomed to going into other people's homes. They have an instinct, born of experience, that can detect a room's energy the moment they enter. They can hear an attitude coming. They can see when parents are fighting, which is never good, because if the parents aren't having fun, no one's having fun. Let that be a lesson.
They perform, collect their pay, pack up. Then they return to homes of their own, and in the case of the Amazing Arthur, if you squint just so and ignore the scent of lighter fluid, home seems almost normal.
Rain has driven the jugglers inside, and now the family gathers in a spacious kitchen. Mom, dad, big brother and his three sisters. Toys are scattered about the floor. A backpack sits next to a computer desk piled high with papers. They talk about their interests, their hopes, their dreams. Joey mentions how he can juggle while playing the trombone. He thinks he'd like to add a unicycle to the mix.
“He's the innovator of trombone juggling,” says the Amazing Arthur.
A few minutes later, Joey stands in the garage, juggling and tromboning. Arthur, meanwhile, digs through a packed shelf, pulling out a sign for his agricultural-themed magic act (“The Farmer Phil Show”) before finding what he really wants: a foam head and plaid sash that turn an ordinary white plastic torso into a character he calls Franklin.
Father and son are dressed almost identically, each wearing buttoned vests over dress shirts with the sleeves rolled up. They speak in an entertaining sort of patter, as if everything said by the one serves the additional purpose of setting up a retort by the other. When a ball hits the ground, Joey says, “this is where things pick up,” and Arthur, in a stage whisper, explains with amused pride that it's the line his son uses when he's dropped a ball. When Arthur grabs a step ladder, he says, “I never knew my real ladder,” and the implied groan in the garage is deafening.
Every so often, the door swings open from the kitchen, and Lauren reminds her dad he needs to drive her to dance practice, but then the door closes and the antics continue.
The week ahead is another busy one. Arthur will head out of town for a job. Joey, in addition to soccer and band practice, will prepare for a gig as the opening act for a concert in Benson. Lauren has rehearsals for a production of “The Nutcracker” at Creighton University, not to mention the dance practice starting right now.
“We need to go,” she says.
But first, as though conjured out of thin air, a full double-rainbow appears across the sky, and for a moment they all stand together at the edge of the garage, looking out, amazed.