Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924 and was originally known as Macy’s Christmas Parade. To any retailer, the advent of the Christmas season has always been an important time.
There were no balloons for the first three years.
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The First Parade
Some sources attribute the idea for the first parade to Macy’s employees, many of them recent immigrants. The story goes that they wanted a way to show gratitude for the opportunities in their new country. Since parades were a part of most festivals in Europe, this may have sparked the idea. However, Gimbel’s, Macy’s nemesis, sponsored a toy parade in Philadelphia as early as 1920. While employee eagerness likely encouraged Macy’s plans, it is difficult to think that the tradition came about simply because the staff said, “Let’s have a parade.”
That first year—1924–the parade had a circus theme with employees dressed as circus performers, clowns, and there was an occasional cowboy or two. The two-block line of participants included the costumed employees, a few floats, and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo.
The parade stepped off from 145th Street at 1 p.m. The group made their way down to 34th Street within about two hours. As was to become the tradition, Santa rode in the last float and disembarked on to the marquee over Macy’s front door. From there, he unveiled the holiday windows that were themed around “Fairy Folks Frolic in Wondertown.” Each window featured animated marionettes designed by Tony Sarg, a Macy’s employee and puppeteer.
The Day A Big Success
Macy’s was thrilled with the response to the parade. An estimated 250,000 people came out to enjoy the festivities. As the executives made plans to repeat it, they also assessed what could be improved. The continued use of live animals needed to be re-visited as some children were frightened by having the animals being so close to them. Street clean-up afterward was never any fun either.
That’s where Macy’s top designer Tony Sarg came in.
The First Balloons
In addition to designing the holiday windows, Tony Sarg did much of the parade planning. As a puppeteer, he loved nothing better than dreaming up wondrous elements to amuse and entertain. Sarg put his mind to ways to bring other creatures to life. This led him to the idea of creating characters—some animals, some humans–out of much larger-than-life balloons.
The balloons used in 1927 were air-filled. The first balloon to appear was described by newspapers as a “human behemoth” 21 feet tall. He greeted spectators in second-story windows along the parade path. Reporters noted that he had to “crawl” under the elevated train lines at 66th Street and again at 53rd Street. (A photograph would be wonderful to help tell this story, but I have reviewed several books and online sources. I can find no photograph labeled “human behemoth.” Perhaps a reader will know?)
That first year, Felix the Cat was the most famous character to debut. Felix was accompanied by a 60-foot dinosaur and a dachshund measuring 25 feet. All the balloons were held by at least 25 handlers.
So They Got to the End of the Parade…
At the end of the 1927 parade, no one had given thought to deflating or packing up the balloons. As a result, the balloon crew did what was easiest. They released them and watched the balloons float skyward. The colder air of the atmosphere soon caused the air-filled balloons to pop as they rose.
In 1928, Tony Sarg wanted a better plan. He chose to use helium to fill the balloons, but was still puzzling through what to do with the balloons at the end. Ultimately, Sarg developed a time-release plan that doubled as a great store promotion. The balloons were crafted to leak slowly over a long time, coming to earth in 5-7 days. This way they could be set free at the end of the parade with a special offer. Macy’s announced a $100 reward for the return of the balloons. On paper, it seemed a win-win proposition.
That first year, however, one balloon landed on the roof of a home. It was spotted by neighbors who came over and tussled with the home owner as to who should get the $100 reward. What was eventually returned to the store were pieces of the balloon. No word as to whether anyone got the $100.
Balloon Release Problematic
As one might expect, the balloon release tradition was doomed.
(Today with balloons costing nearly $200,000 to design, fabricate, and fly for the duration of the parade, no organizer would dream of releasing the balloons.)
The next balloon recovery disasters were plane-related. In 1931, a pilot whose plane carried sightseers decided to fly alongside the floating Felix the Cat. With the tourists egging him on, the pilot, who was in an open cockpit, reached out and somehow managed to grab some of the Felix balloon. The experienced pilot safely landed the plane and still had Felix along for the ride.
Macy’s foresaw the danger of this and issued a warning that no aviators were eligible for prizes. But in 1932, a young woman taking a flying lesson took matters into her own hands. Flying in a biplane with an open cockpit, she and the instructor could see the Tom-Cat balloon near them. Ann Gibson reportedly shouted to her instructor: “I think I’ll have a piece of the neck.” With that, she aimed the plane directly into the balloon. (The New York Times, November 25, 1932.)
The balloon wrapped around the left wing of the plane. The plane began a nose dive. Gibson turned off the engine, thinking fire was the biggest danger in a crash. The instructor, Hugh Copeland of Queens, was riding in the front seat of the cockpit. (Pilots in biplanes flew from the rear seat; at this time, the second seat offered a better vantage point.) He climbed back into the pilot’s seat forcing Gibson to move forward. She slipped as she climbed over the seat and was saved only because her foot caught on a safety belt. Copeland then re-started the engine and pulled the plane out of a nose dive only 80 feet from the ground.
That was the last time the character balloons were set free.
In 1933, Macy’s released 5000 balloons that were 3-feet in diameter. Two hundred of them were marked with a red star. Those who recovered balloons with a star could come to the store and exchange the balloon for merchandise.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade continued as a happy occasion each Thanksgiving Day throughout the 1930s and into the ‘40s. The first Mickey Mouse balloon, marking early cooperation between Disney and Macy’s, appeared in 1934. Mickey was controlled then by “25 husky attendants,” according to The New York Times.
Another early balloon was Mrs. Katzenjammer from the very
popular newspaper comic strip of the day, The Katzenjammer Kids. Today she is remembered as the first balloon representing a female. (The public waited until 1982 for the second female character—Olive Oyl.)
In 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor changed everything. America was at war. All resources were diverted to building military capability.
Balloons Enlist to Serve in War
By autumn 1942, Macy’s executives had decided that the parade had to be cancelled. Many employees had gone to war, and the materials involved in making the character balloons were a valuable war commodity. The military needed both rubber and helium.
On November 13, 1942, Jack Straus of Macy’s met with New York City’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Accompanying him was the dragon balloon, filled with air instead of helium. LaGuardia took the ceremonial knife provided and plunged it into the dragon’s neck. As the monster slowly deflated, Jack Straus completed the donation of all the balloons to the war cause. This accounted for 650 extra pounds of valuable rubber to be re-made into life vests and life boats, and any number of items needed in war.
After the War
When the war ended in 1945, Macy’s was ready to bring back the parade that very November.
The elevated trains on the West Side had come down in 1941, and this meant that the balloons could now be taller. The Mickey Mouse of 1951 was 70 feet tall with a 42-foot wide arm span.
A division of Goodyear made the balloons for Macy’s from 1957 to 1983. The designers at the tire company received drawings from Macy’s, and from there the balloon-building began. The Goodyear people were always on hand to oversee the inflation, deflation, and putting the balloons away.
All went well the first year. Then in 1958, the U.S. encountered a helium shortage. This meant no helium for the parade. Goodyear developed a concept for flying the balloons anyway. The balloons were filled out to their proper form with air, and then Macy’s and Goodyear worked with a company that rented out derricks that could hold rigging for construction. The balloons were attached to the long arm of the derrick, and dangled from on high. Each balloon that year had to be followed by its derrick.
Enemy of Thanksgiving Balloons? Weather
Weather has always been a challenge for the balloons. In reading newspapers throughout the parade’s history, some balloons were totally brought down and had to be removed from the parade after a wind-related encounter with a tree or a lamp post. In the 1930s, Macy’s had an emergency crew that could go in as needed to do surgical repairs. Some of the time they could be patched, filled with more helium, and sent on their way again.
Many times, the wind has blown a balloon into a sign or a tree. On occasion this has knocked debris to the ground. Now and then, bystanders have been injured.
The year 1971 was the only time the rain and wind were so bad that Macy’s and Goodyear decided the balloons couldn’t fly. The parade went on without them, but the balloons had to go back into storage for a year.
The early versions of Popeye and Donald Duck brought about another type of surprise. On rainy days, their hats turned out to be great repositories for rain water. When the weight of the water got too heavy, the hat would tip and provide an unexpected additional shower for those watching the parade.
When they returned to home base, the hats were re-fashioned.
Macy’s is well aware of the responsibility of flying the balloons. Each team of handlers has two co-pilots, and often as many as 90 handlers. (The handlers themselves must weigh at least 125 pounds so no person becomes airborne.) There are rehearsals for handling these mammoth creations.
As the balloons began to represent diversity, the first African American balloon appeared in 2002. It was Nickelodeon’s “Little Bill,” an animated character created by Bill Cosby. In 2005, Dora the Explorer, also from Nickelodeon, became the first Latina balloon character. This year, Ada Twist, girl scientist will make her first appearance. Pikachu and Eevee from Pokemon will be flying high as will Groga from the Star Wars series, The Mandalorian.
And of course, these are just a few of the attractions that will come down the 2.5 mile parade route. There will also be high school marching bands and many, many floats. Santa always brings up the rear.
Today’s Santa, however, no longer unveils the windows. In today’s competitive retail environment, most stores—including Macy’s—have their holiday windows up by mid-November.
For more entertaining stories about the holidays, check out the very American history of cranberries, or read about the theories relating to the First Store Santa.
Last year many readers expressed concern about the balloons leading to a worldwide helium shortage. There have been years when helium has been hard to come by. In 1958 (see above), this was such a big problem that the balloons were filled with air. Each balloon was then hung from a derrick… the derricks became part of the parade, going up Broadway so that people could still enjoy the balloons.
This year, according to www.gasworld.com, the helium supply should be tight but tolerable. The reporter, Phil Kornbluth, President of Kornbluth Helium Consulting, writes that while COVID-19 drove down the helium demand, the start-up businesses coming into the market are helping to overcome some of he problems that have occurred due to outages at older plants. In short, the Macy’s balloons should be okay.
Helium is extracted from the earth along with natural gas and can separated at that time. At one point, the government stockpiled helium because it was feared we might run out. Since that time, it is clear that businesses will continue to increase our helium stores. Prices may fluctuate, but it should always be available. Scientists are also figuring out ways to “recycle” helium.
Incidentally, helium is used for many more things beyond balloons. It’s needed for MRI machines, cooling quantum computers, and detecting leaks in pressurized vessels, just to name a few.
I always appreciate hearing from readers. I would never have thought to look into this otherwise.
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