The annual return of an almost magical sight involving a squadron of living, breathing machines — fire-breathing machines, no less — takes place Thursday at Allegheny College’s Robertson Athletic Complex.
The Joyce Stevens Memorial Night Glow inaugurates the 31st annual Thurston Classic at 9 Thursday, though if the past is any indication, crowds will begin to gather on the hillside below the baseball and softball fields hours earlier.
“People definitely get there early for the glow,” said Bill Chisholm, who has helped to organize the event for about 25 years. “The glow probably has the biggest turnout by far. Kids love it — they get into the action. Everyone gets excited. It’s the most family event because it’s so up close and personal.”
The Night Glow’s growth in popularity over the decades also owes something to the event’s featured character balloons, Chisholm said.
Among the eight balloons that will glow like gargantuan Japanese lanterns will be this year’s featured balloon, “Rocket, the Flying Squirrel,” an 82,000-cubic-foot inflatable with buck teeth, aviator’s helmet and goggles that was inspired by the spunky character from the classic “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.”
Firing the dual burners in the gondola beneath that massive cartoon rodent’s head will be pilot John Cavin. The propane burners use the same fuel a backyard grill uses but are capable of putting out approximately 24 million BTUs of heat per hour — a bit more than the 35,000 a grill might produce in the same time frame.
But the resulting sight conveys more than any statistics.
“It looks like a huge —” Cavin said, pausing as he searched for a suitable phrase. “Well, it’ll light the whole field up. It’ll look like daylight on the field.”
When that happens, according to Cavin, the crowd’s reaction is audible, though maybe not to the pilots stationed next to those roaring burners.
“You can hear the crowd go, “Woooh” because they weren’t expecting to see what they see — unless they’ve seen it before,” he said. “You’ve got to experience it.”
Many long-term Thurston aficionados are familiar with the sight of the enormous twinkling globes, of course, but the sight is so enchanting that it draws repeat visitors year after year, many of whom bring youngsters who are less familiar with the spectacle.
Even Ted Watts, who helped to organize the first Thurston Classic during Meadville’s bicentennial in 1988 and has led the work behind each one since, still looks forward to the Night Glow each year.
“It’s the kids,” he said of the reason the event continues to entertain. “The kids absolutely go crazy over it. That’s why I really, really enjoy it.”
The kids come in all ages during the Night Glow, it seems.
“I kind of provoke them,” said Watts, who cruises the field, microphone in hand, as master of ceremonies for the event. “I tell them to scream louder and tell them their parents can’t tell them to be quiet. We have a lot of fun.”
Fun at a balloon festival always comes at the mercy of the elements, however, and, like Watts, anyone with a weather app on their phone knows the forecast for Thursday evening does not look hot air balloon friendly.
“You don’t put a balloon up in the rain, it’s as simple as that,” Watts said. Even when the balloons are remaining tethered for the glow, the first rule of ballooning still holds.
Still, Watts said, the event will go on if at all possible. He encouraged visitors to come prepared for the possibility of inclement weather and to check online for cancellation updates. Despite forecasts calling for a 90 percent chance of rain, Watts remained optimistic on Tuesday.
“It’s anybody’s guess what’s going to happen,” he said.
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.