By Elana Warsen
LUZERNE – Neil Sauter is a stay-at-home dad with an unusual side job. On weekends the 33-year-old Luzerne man dons stilts and strides about dressed as a nine-foot leprechaun, elf, or scarecrow. He spends nights perfecting his balloon animal craft in his living room.
Sauter is a professional stilt walker, balloon twister, and entertainer. His talents have been featured on the CBS Early Show, at the NHL Great Winter Classic, and at the University of Michigan Big House on New Year’ Eve. He’ a regular at local festivals from Montmorency to Roscommon.
Sauter got into stilt walking professionally after an 8-week, 834-mile trek across Michigan in 2008, in which he set the world record for fastest marathon on stilts. His goal was to raise money for United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan. He succeeded in raising $85,000, and earned the admiration of strangers who witnessed parts of his journey.
‘People started calling me Michigan Stiltwalker on my trip, and the name stuck,’ Sauter said, explaining the origins of his professional name.
Sauter got serious about making a living out of entertaining other people when he and his wife, Kelly, learned they were expecting their son, Banks, now four.
‘I started doing it so I could be a stay-at-home dad,’ Sauter said. ‘That was my primary motivation.’
Sauter is first to admit that starting a business involves risks that were tolerable because his wife had a fulltime job with benefits.
‘It enables me to stay home with my son and bring in a side income for my family,’ he said. ‘It’ a fun job as well. I’m proud of my stilt walking talents.’
Sauter sees stilt walking as not only a source of income, but also a triumph over physical limitations he has lived with since birth. Affected by mild cerebral palsy, Sauter used to wear leg braces to keep his feet straight. He says the experience of wearing stilts is not unlike his prior experience with leg braces.
‘Stilts are an accommodation,’ he said. ‘It’ neat to turn a disability into a strength. I’m better on stilts than most people because it’ natural to my gate.’
Nevertheless, the transition from a ‘traditional’ job (Sauter previously worked for Community Mental Health in Mio) to self-employment was challenging.
‘At first I had a hard time booking clients,’ he said, of his first festival season after leaving his former job. ‘I learned that a lot of festivals book their entertainment six months or more in advance.’
His solution was to go to touristy areas and make balloon designs for tips. The practice, called ‘busking,’ brought in more than cash; it also won Sauter customers who asked for his business card after seeing his work.
Now, Sauter says, he works with most customers on an annual basis. His repeat customers keep him active during the busy season May-Oct. As for Sauter, he’ glad for the opportunity to bring joy to the people he entertains.
‘I take a lot of pride in amazing people,’ he said. ‘I love to make people smile.’
More information on Sauter can be found on his website themichiganstiltwalker.com.
Contact Elana Warsen with comments or story suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.