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Inflatables help give yards that holiday air

Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like an oversize Santa on a blow-up Harley.

Unless, of course, Santa is accompanied by a hulking Frosty the Snowman, a gigantic Grinch and an 8-foot Homer Simpson toting a box marked "D'oh-nuts."

Welcome to the world of inflatable-decoration collectors, where almost no display can be considered, um, overblown.

Inflatables have been looming over American yards for five Christmases now, ever since the first super-sized Santas and snowmen rose from the landscape on drafts of fan-driven air. And some people just can't get enough of them.

Take the Holders, for example. Each Christmas the Jackson Township, Ohio, family fills its yard with inflatables -- 18 this year, to be exact. The Holder kids, Ashley and Alyssa, are known among their schoolmates as "the ones with all the blow-ups," their father, Charlie Holder, said. When the school bus pulls up on the first day the display is in place, "you can hear the decibel level go up."

It started innocently enough, Holder insisted. He and his wife, Christine, bought a couple of inflatables about four years ago, when the yard decorations were the new thing. Now they can't stop.

"We see a different one and decide, well, that would look good in the yard," he said.

Interest in inflatables has ballooned -- sorry -- to such an extent that there's even a collectors club. Muskogee, Okla., resident Jason Jones, the self-anointed King of Holiday Inflatables, started the Airblown Inflatable Collectors Club in July with another devotee, Joe Neve of suburban New York. The club has about 150 members already, and "we're getting more daily," Jones said.

Members of the club specialize in the nylon inflatables made by Gemmy Industries, the Texas toymaker that originated the genre. The company's product-development and creative team had seen giant blow-up characters tethered to the roofs of car dealerships, and it decided to translate the idea to consumer scale, said Sharlene Jenner, Gemmy's marketing manager.

"We're a toy company," she explained, "so we're just a crazy bunch of people."

Gemmy's first inflatables were an 8-foot Santa and an 8-foot snowman, which hit the market in 2001. Now the company introduces 150 to 200 new designs a year, Jenner said. This season's big sellers are the snow globes, which have a mechanism to suck up plastic pellets and shoot them out the top of a transparent inflatable ball, showering the characters inside.

Whatever Gemmy makes, Jones wants it. His collection currently comprises more than 400 Christmas inflatables -- he refers to them by Gemmy's trade name, "Airblowns" -- as well as inflatables for other holidays and occasions. In fact, his collection has grown so massive that this year he had to move his Christmas display from his yard to a local event site, where visitors can drive through his hundreds of Santas, reindeer, cartoon characters and other decorations.

The club has made it easier for Jones and connoisseurs like him to feed their habit. Some of Gemmy's inflatables are made exclusively for specific retail chains, he explained, so members will often offer to buy and ship an inflatable to a fellow collector who can't get the item in his or her area.

Those are the die-hards who drive Bob Gibbs' online inflatables business. Gibbs, of Massillon, Ohio, started Yardinflatables.com after seeing the exorbitant prices a hard-to-find Grinch from Rite-Aid was commanding on eBay a few years ago.

Now Gibbs sells inflatables for a variety of holidays, along with a few other items, through his online store. Business has been so brisk that Gibbs had to move from his garage to a warehouse in Canton, where boxes and boxes of Peanuts and Pooh and Elmo and SpongeBob inflatables line shelves and teeter in towering stacks. He's already wondering whether the cluttered warehouse will be big enough next year.

Gibbs specializes in hard-to find inflatables and eschews items that "everybody can get at the Wal-Marts." He sells only Gemmy products, with the exception of two inflatables he had custom-made in China -- a Hanukkah bear, which sports a yarmulke and holds a dreidel, and an angel with a fabric skirt that flutters in the breeze.

The angel, it turned out, posed a bit of a marketing problem. It was supposed to be called a Holiday Angel, but the boxes came back printed "Hanukkah Angel."

"Unfortunately, with China, there's a little communication problem," he said with a wry smile.

It's the constant innovation in inflatable designs that attracts Akron, Ohio, residents Terry Motz and Garry Lynch, who have eight of the decorations on display along with animated deer, lighted trees and other illuminated decorations. Among their newest additions is a family of snowmen huddling inside a snowglobe -- an inflatable that Motz spotted during the summer and had to have.

Their inflatables also includes a reindeer family, which waves to people driving by their home at 218 White Pond Drive; a Santa that rises from a chimney and then drops back down, propelled by a pillow of air that continually inflates and deflates; and Chilly Willy, a penguin atop an igloo, who lists a bit as the result of surgery he underwent after an unfortunate slashing incident by a vandal.

Motz and Lynch don't limit themselves to Christmas. The couple also puts up inflatables for Halloween and Thanksgiving, and Motz admitted she'll probably branch out to Easter if she ever sees a blow-up decoration for that holiday.

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