This summer, Brandon Axelrod ’21 took a physics class, worked an oral surgery internship at Weill Cornell and tied balloons for six shows each weekend.
The Cornell junior, who goes by “Magic Brandini” professionally, started his balloon twisting and magic performance business when he was just 12 years old. From humble beginnings of doing magic for his grandparents, Axelrod’s business has since blossomed to help cover the costs of Cornell.
Axelrod first fell in love with magic at the dentist — after falling and impacting his two front teeth. Amidst the pain, his dentist made him laugh with magic tricks, replacing the medical gauze in his hand with a little red ball. After that, Axelrod never dreaded going to the dentist. Unlike “every other kid,” he looked forward to his biannual visits even more than his own birthday.
“He had no idea the impact he’s had on my life, in terms of my business, which has absolutely flourished … and also my interest in dentistry,” said Axelrod, who is currently a pre-dental student.
After working some kids’ birthday parties, Axelrod found that connecting with a young audience that’s too close to his age was challenging. Figuring that he needed a new game plan, Axelrod set out to twist balloons.
He enrolled in classes in New York City, first learning the basics of tying balloons, before graduating to make dogs and swords. But frustrated that the designs were too “boring,” Axelrod took the balloons into his own hands to brainstorm new ideas.
His balloons were an “instant hit.”
Axelrod boasts over 100 different designs, such as a surfer with a board and waves, a wearable unicorn, a jetpack and all the Disney princesses. At parties, he prefers when people ask to be surprised, so he can really get creative.
“Now I do literally anything they ask for in the moment,” Axelrod said. “I stay up to date with what the kids are into. For some reason, I’m almost 21 years old and I know all the characters from Peppa Pig. It’s very weird, I understand.”
Axelrod’s approach is minimal. For his performances, he brings only a small bag and balloon pump, and opts for a black “Magic Brandini” t-shirt rather than a clown costume. Keeping it “cool,” he said, makes him more approachable and relatable for the kids.
Beyond birthday parties for kids, Axelrod will perform at religious celebrations, graduation parties, corporate events and weddings. Cornell has also hired the resident balloon artist for various events, including Slope Day.
“[College students] get more excited than the five-year-olds,” Axelrod said. “And they ask for the same things. I’ll make just as many Elsas and Olafs.”
Since starting the business, Axelrod hasn’t spent a cent on marketing, attributing his success to word of mouth through “a team of moms,” whom he can count on to recommend him whenever someone on a group is looking for party entertainment.
With party requests filling his inbox even during the school year, Axelrod generally sets aside an hour or two each weekend to respond to messages. By March, he’s almost completely booked for every weekend of the summer.
Over the nine years as owner and headline act for his own business, Axelrod hopes to apply the lessons he has learned to his future dental career.
Because dentistry is more often a private practice, he plans to specifically use the entrepreneurial skills he’s gained from operating his own business, including accounting, carefully planning schedules and interacting with customers. He does all of the work on his own — or has ever since he got his driver’s license. Before, his mom used to drive him to gigs.
He’s also learned a lot about communicating with people from doing magic shows. After a few young fumbles, he’s improved at reading his audiences and including them in his acts. And he’s better able to talk while thinking ahead, often needing to distract from a move with a joke.
“In my future, I definitely want to incorporate [balloons] as much as I can,” Axelrod said. “All the kids hate going to the dentist, [but] I had a great experience, and I want to pass down that experience.”
To accompany his dental school application, Axelrod plans on crafting an enormous balloon dental chair, because the two passions have the same origin.
“I’m turning 21, and still playing with balloon animals,” Axelrod said. At least for now, he doesn’t see an end in sight for this job that he’s created for himself.