Tony Sarg & an elephant balloon (via printmag.com)
As the procession of bands, balloons, and high-production spectacles makes its annual appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, let’s time travel back to the 1920s to the innovative puppeteer who made the inflatable characters part of the American holiday.
The Macy’s parade started in 1924, but in 1927 its collaboration with Tony Sarg took things way up a few whimsical notches. Working with fellow puppeteer Bil Baird, a 60-foot balloon dragon, tottering Felix the Cat, hummingbird, and other buoyant wonders made their way down the Manhattan streets, and the crowds went wild.
As Jimmy Stamp wrote at Smithsonian Magazine, these first balloons were inflated with oxygen (although by 1928 they’d switched to helium, often soaring higher than our balloons today). Furthermore, in the early years they were let to ascend at the end of the parade and people got rewards for their retrieval. Stamp explains that ended in 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.”
Sarg also worked on the annual Macy’s holiday window displays from 1935 to 1942, the year he died of appendicitis. He considered the balloons ”giant, upside down marionettes,” and saw no limits to what they could do. Each year of the Macy’s parade, he added new fanciful figures, ever more animated like a policeman shaking a nightstick, a 20-foot elephant, and a sea monster. That inflatable sea serpent was eventfully part of a hoax Sarg staged at his home in Nantucket, where in 1937 he had the balloon wash ashore to the delight of the locals and tourists. In 1939, Sarg was a host for the first television broadcast of the parade.
Melissa Sweet’s children’s book Balloons Over Broadway playfully tells Sarg’s story, and in the video below you can see Sarg’s creations in action on the New York streets, where they even had to fit below the elevated train.
Felix the Cat in the 1927 parade (via bennypdrinnon.blogspot)
The “Happy Dragon” balloon from 1927 (via Macy’s/Brooklyn News)
The 1930 parade (via businessinsider.com)
Mickey Mouse in the 1934 parade (via trendimages.net)
The 1931 parade (via NY Daily News)
For more on Tony Sarg’s balloon work, check out Atlas Obscura’s story on the Sea Serpent of Nantucket.