LEVITTOWN, NY — In mid-March, Derek Muterspaw was completely booked. A teacher's aide at a special needs school by day, the Levittown resident takes on a whole different persona at night, over the weekend and when school lets out over the summer: Mr. PoppinTwist.
Muterspaw is a performer. Specifically, a balloon-based entertainer called to various events, such as children's birthday parties and library gatherings. He's been at it for a decade, and his specialty is making uncanny balloon figures — including Spider-Man, the Cat In The Hat, the popular Pokémon Bulbasaur and Road Runner from the Looney Tunes.
Mr. PoppinTwist is supposed to be in the midst of his busy season, Muterspaw said. Every weekend is typically booked from late April into early June, and the income he receives from entertaining is significant, amounting to somewhere between a third and half his earnings at the Rosemary Kennedy School in Wantagh.
But the statewide stay-at-home order for non-essential workers, coupled with a ban on all large gatherings of any kind, meant Mr. PoppinTwist lost his gigs.
"Come March 17, when everything started to change overnight, I lost every job that I had," Muterspaw told Patch on Thursday, noting that business "dried up" within three days, between cancellations and postponements.
"I think everybody in entertainment in general, no matter what part of entertainment you're in, you are working in a world where you're designed to draw crowd, you have some concerns," he said.
Muterspaw said he's lost 100 percent of the business he had in the last eight weeks as Levittown has seen the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rise to 954.
Moving forward, he hopes things will pick up again. But he knows Mr. PoppinTwist's act is aimed mostly at sizable groups, and he fears what the future may hold for performers.
"If we're going to keep a limit on the size of groups, it's going to limit what people need me to do," he said.
In the meantime, he and other performers have tried to adapt, namely through contact-free delivery. Sometimes customers call Mr. PoppinTwist and ask him to make and drop-off some balloon figures. Other times, he'll do drive-by birthday parties.
And while the balloons look the same, the hygiene standards have changed. He washes his hands before touching balloons, inflates them with devices rather than by mouth, wipes the balloons down with disinfectant and delivers them in a plastic bag. Some balloon sculptures stretch 3 feet and have to be assembled in pieces at their destination.
"I just take all the precautions that I can," he said.
He's also using social media to remind the community that Mr. PoppinTwist is alive and kicking. Nearly all of his business comes from referrals so Muterspaw has taken to Instagram Live videos to stay in the public eye. The setup is simple: two cellphones propped up on two speaker stands. While the videos help him market his entertainment business, it's also meant to help people relax. The idea, he said, was to help people "chill out" by watching him make balloon figures.
"I come up with an idea for the half-hour show where I talk about things and I make a balloon based on whatever inspires me that day," he said.
Initially Muterspaw posted the videos every weekday, but has since transitioned to holding them about three days a week. For those interested, Fridays are known as "free-form Friday." Viewers are invited to chat with Mr. PoppinTwist and request figures that he'll make live.
Those who watch until the end of his show will hear his new signature line:
"Stay safe, stay healthy, keep smiling and keep poppin' stuff," he said.