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The Twisting, Turning, Wiggly History of the Used-Car-Lot Inflatable Dude

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Think back to the last time someone was having a sale at the local used car lot. When you were driving up to it (or past it), what was the first thing you saw?

Inflatable man

Photo: Angus Fraser

That’s right—the fan-inflated wacky arm-waving nylon tube men. But where did the wacky wiggly men come from?

To answer that, you need to talk to Doron Gazit, inventor of the tube dudes, which debuted at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (sort of). Talking to Sam Dean, Gazit revealed that the dancing tube guys had their origins in the 1970s, when Gazit was attending industrial design school in Jerusalem. To make a little side money, Gazit made and sold balloon designs on the street.

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At this time, Gazit thought back to his father, who operated plastic-covered greenhouses on the family farm, and decided to use balloons for art—and after a visit to a factory where the plastic greenhouses were made, the “Airtube” was born: 500-foot multicolored inflatable tubes. Gazit began stringing them across deserts and around scaffolding towers, eventually developing the technology to inflate the tube sculptures himself, which got him an invitation to bring the tube models to the 1984 LA Olympics. Afterward, Gazit moved in, building his dancing dudes until he was invited to another Olympics ceremony: the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The time of the inflatable tube dude had come. A slew of copycats and designers started cranking out their own tube folks at top speed, diversifying their appearance as time went on until we arrived at the familiar, winning formula—one tube, smiley face, and two little tube arms. Used car lots the country over were soon forests of wiggly, wacky, nylon tube dudes.

wacky waving inflatable arm flailing tube man

Woo woo!

The fall of the wacky dancing man came shortly after—Gazit, finally receiving the patent on the two-legged inflatable men he made, started suing people. People began to claim that Gazit was only taking the credit for the wiggly men, who had been designed by Peter Minshall, who had designed the ’96 Olympic ceremony as a whole. Gazit denounced the single-tube design as “very ugly and very unattractive,” and thousands of municipalities apparently agreed, because many full-on banned the tube dudes.

The loss of their novelty and an influx of cheap Chinese-manufactured versions fairly well signaled the end for the dancing men.

Mostly. It turns out that, now that they are draining from used car lots, dancing inflatables are finding new jobs: scaring the crap out of wildlife. While used car dealers were attracting prospective customers with wiggly men, farmers, landfills, and warehouse owners had been using the dancing tubes to scare away birds. The sporadic, jerky movement of the dancing tubes keep birds from figuring out it is not a threat.

It’s not just birds, though. Prepare to see the funniest photo you have ever seen of one of those giant inflatable wacky arm waving men scaring the ever-loving crap out of a bunch of sea lions.

*hysterical laughter*

Oh, God, look at their faces – they’re all like, “AAAH, GIANT WIGGLY MAN!”

The wiggly men are being used in an Oregon town to repel sea lions that have been covering the docks of its port (after a failed attempt with a fiberglass orca decoy).

And so ends the tale of the dancing wiggly tube dudes—with their roots in agriculture and air sculpture, then their fame coming in the wake of two different Olympics, the inflatable tube men danced their ways into our hearts, then right back out in a tsunami of knock-offs and bans, eventually finding their wiggly way back to agriculture (and Oregon docks), using their dancing, once intended to attract, to repel, silently accepting their new role as the hero that the people need, although not the one that the people want.

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News Sources: MNN, Joshua Bessex via Twitter, reForm