The puppeteer who brought balloons to the Thanksgiving Day Parade The 1927 Felix the Cat balloon. One of the first balloons to be carried down Broadway on Thanksgiving Day. (Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade/Scott Roth/Invision/AP)
The puppeteer who brought balloons to the Thanksgiving Day Parade
Lexile

The first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (then known as the Macy's Christmas Parade) was held in 1924 and culminated in front of Macy's department store in New York City, where the elaborate holiday window displays were unveiled. Thousands gathered to see the displays, which were designed by Anthony Frederick Sarg, a noted puppeteer and theatrical designer. Sarg was also the artistic director/mastermind of the parade and, during the fourth annual Macy's Christmas Parade in 1927, he introduced the enormous inflatable cartoons and caricatures that would become almost synonymous with the annual holiday tradition.
 
Creativity was in Sarg's genes. Born in Germany, his father was an artist, his grandfather a wood carver, and his grandmother was a painter who gave the young Sarg a collection of mechanical toys that may have inspired the imagination of the burgeoning designer. But it wasn't until he saw a performance by famed puppeteer Thomas Holden, who essentially invented the marionette, that Sarg found his calling. He began experimenting with puppet designs and stagings around 1917, eventually earning renown for his particularly sophisticated puppet shows that included performances of Faust and Don Quixote.
 
After World War I, Sarg moved to New York City and quickly gained a reputation as a practical joker, the life of the party and a tireless worker. In his various ventures, the designer, inventor and illustrator worked on cartoons, children's books, mechanical toys, advertising and of course, window displays and balloons.
 
These first parade balloons were filled with oxygen, not helium, and were propped up by teams of puppeteers - usually just Macy's employees drafted into parade service. These balloons, such as 1920s biggest cartoon star Felix the Cat, were cruder and smaller than today's Godzilla-like monsters, but still charmed and captivated the throngs of onlookers who came to ring in the holiday season.
 
Other early balloons included a 20-foot-long elephant, a 60-foot-long tiger and an enormous hummingbird. In 1928, the parade culminated with a release of the now-helium-filled balloons into the skies above the city. The stunt was a crowd-pleaser and the following year, the balloons were designed with release valves to make their ascent easier and Macy's offered rewards for their capture and return.
 
That tradition continued until 1932, when a daredevil pilot thought it would be fun to capture the balloons with her biplane and nearly crashed when the rubberized canvas wrapped itself around the plane's wing.
 
The rubberized silk balloons were produced by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, and their archives at the University of Akron include some amazing pictures of these early behemoths.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why aren't these kinds of balloons used in all parades?
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COMMENTS (4)
  • kaileew-ste
    11/17/2016 - 02:13 p.m.

    The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade plays a big part whether you are watching it at home or have a front row seat. This phenomenon began with the designs of a puppeteer. The history of this grand event was really interesting to read about.

  • zakrym-ste
    11/18/2016 - 01:06 p.m.

    This and football are the two things I watch on Thanksgiving Day. It is very neat to see all the different floats and balloons that fly high in the sky.

  • isabellam-lam
    11/23/2016 - 11:55 a.m.

    I love watching the parade on Thanksgiving morning and now that I know more about the history I may see the parade differently. Although I don't think it was smart to fill the balloons with oxygen because it would have been hard to carry.

  • mollyb-lam
    11/23/2016 - 02:26 p.m.

    I think that this is a beautiful American tradition that generation after generation will be able to enjoy.

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