Thursday, November 24, 2005

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Growing up my typical Thanksgiving began by watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on KOMU. Afterwards we would have Thanksgiving dinner (always served at noon). I really have no idea when I first saw the parade, although I seem to recall watching it when I was three. Given that my parents also watched the parade, it seems to me that they must have started watching it before I was born. Of course, as a kid one the biggest attraction in the parade were the giant balloons. Actually, I have to confess that they still are (well, besides the Rockettes anyhow...).

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924 as "Macy's Christmas Day Parade," even though it took place on Thanksgiving. By 1927 it was officially renamed "the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade." Both the 1925 and 1926 parades featured such live animals as lions, elephants, tigers, and so on. After those two prades Macy's concluded that the animals scared many children. The decision was then made to replace the animals with balloons. The task of designing those balloons fell to Tony Sarg. Sarg was a theatrical designer employed by Macy's to design their Christmas windows. Those first balloons were not filled with helium and hence they were not airborne. They were simply filled with air and supported by handlers on sticks. Regardless, those first four balloons would set the pace for many of the balloons to come in the parade's 81 year history. They were a dragon, an elephant, the first of many toy soldiers, and the parade's first balloon based on an animated character, Felix the Cat. The following year the balloons were filled with the mixutre of helium and air that has been used ever since.

At the end of that 1928 parade, the balloons were released in the air. Because helium expands as it goes higher in the atmosphere, the balloons all exploded before they reached the top of the Macy's building. For that reason they added safety valves to the balloons in 1929. The balloons were again released aand there was a $25 reward for anyone who captured one and returned it to Macy's. In 1931 famous aviator Clarence Chamberlain actually captured a giant pig balloon. In 1932 a woman learning to fly tried to capture a giant cat balloon. Instead she collieded with the balloon. She and her instructor survived, but the cat did not. From then on, Macy's stopped releasing the balloons after the parade. While I suppose some may have been disappointed that the balloons would no longer be released in the air, it did allow for old favourites to return to the parade again and again.

For literally decades the balloons were made by Goodyear's Aviation Products Division. They went out of the business of making balloons in 1981. The balloons would begin as a sketch, which Goodyear's engineers would inspect to insure that they would be able to fly. A scale, clay model would then be made of the balloon with attention paid to the character's likeness (it wouldn't do to have a Spider-Man balloon that doesn't look like Spider-Man) and such concerns as the necessary volume of helium to insure flight. A second model is then made and painted. Following this the balloon would be assembled and test flown on the airfield at Akron. The balloon would go through a number of test flights in early November. On top of all of this balloon handlers must be trained how to support and pilot the balloons. Each balloon requires about 50 to 60 handlers to fly.

Starting with Felix the Cat, balloons based on characters from pop culture have been a part of the parade. In the beginning such balloons were rare, although this would change. In 1934 Tony Sarg teamed up with Walt Disney to create balloons based on the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, Pluto, and Mickey Mouse (the first of many). The first of three Superman balloons made its appearance in 1939. Unfortunately, it would not survive. The advent of World War II saw the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parde cancelled in 1942, 1943, and 1944. The balloons were donated to the government to help in the war effort (rubber was in high demand). Besides the Superman balloon, the Uncle Sam balloon was also sacrificed to help our armed forces.

It was after World War II that the Golden Age for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade began. Although I have no data to back this up, looking at pictures it seems to me that the balloons grew in size Even if they didn't, it was during this period that some of the parade's best known and longest running parades made their debut. Mighty Mouse (1951-1972), Smokey Bear, Popeye (1957-1969), Bullwinkle (1961-1983), Underdog (1965-1984), and Snoopy (1968-1985) all first appeared during this period. And all of them had particularly long runs. Ironically, perhaps none were more durable than Linus the Lion Hearted. He was the animated spokesman for Post Crispy Critters Cereal. He even had his animated cartoons on Saturday mornings starting in 1964. Even after his series was removed from the air over FCC concerns about a commercial character appearing in a children's cartoon and even after Post stopped making Crispy Critters, his balloon continued to appear in the Macy's parade. In fact, it was last flown in 1991! Of course, among many of my generation the all time favourite balloon was Underdog. The Underdog balloon flew for 19 years, long after his series had left network airwaves. I don't know what the longest running balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was, but I suspect Underdog is in the top ten longest running.

Of course, the parade has had its share of balloons based on advertising icons. I am not sure what the first one was, but it could have been Dino, Sinclair Oil's allosaurus mascot. He made his debut in 1963 parade and continued to appear in the parade well into the Seventies. Since then there have been balloons based on Honey Nut Cheerios Bee, the Snuggles Bear, and Jeeves of Ask Jeeves fame (the first balloon to be based on an internet character).

Unfortunately, the balloons have not always had it easy. Nineteen fifty six saw particularly high winds that grounded Mighty Mouse before he had even hit Columbus Circle. Other balloons, the War Between the States themed Observer, and Gobbler (a giant turkey) also fell victim to the winds that year. In 1958 a helium shortage forced Macy's to fill the balloons with air and carry them through New York on cranes. In 1971 the balloons were grounded entirely because of high winds. In 1975 the Underdog balloon collided with a light pole. It seems to me that such incidents increased dramatically in the Nineties. In 1993 the Sonic the Hedgehog balloon knocked over a lamppost, while that same year a balloon based on the character Rex from We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story split in two when it hit another lamppost. In 1997 there was a balloon mishap in which someone was seriously injured. The Cat in the Hat balloon actually knocked a lamppost into a crowd of spectators and injured a woman. I think it may have been that same year that Bart Simpson hit a tree. As a result of these mishaps the City of New York passed laws restricting balloons to a size of 70 feet high, 78 feet long, and 40 feet wide and requiring more handlers.

Sadly, while balloon accidents have decreased since these laws were put in place, they have not stopped them from happening entirely. Today two people were injured when the M & Ms balloon crashed into a light pole. I must say that this disturbs me. First, I don't like the idea of anyone being injured, especially when they are simply enjoying a parade. Second, I worry about the future of the balloons in the parade. It seems possible to me that either Macy's or New York City could simply stop having the balloons in the parade. I cannot say I would blame them, given the various mishaps and injuries over the years. That having been said, it seems to me that such accidents did not start occuring until the Nineties, meaning that in previous years Macy's must have been doing something which made flying the balloons safer. Perhaps a few more regulations are needed to insure that the balloons are safer. At any rate, I don't want to see the parade without the balloons.

Anyhow, it seems to me that for some time after 1980 the appeal of the giant balloons went downward. Throughout the Eighties and the Nineties I can say that there have been only been a few balloons that have appealed to me: Spider-Man, Bart Simpson, Clifford, the new Bullwinkle balloon, and, of course, Spongebob Squarepants. I do think this years' crop of new balloons have improved slightly. Although I am not a big fan of the cartoon, I do like the new Scooby-Doo balloon.

Giant balloons have been a part of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade since 1928. It is hard to say what their future will be given today's incident, but one thing can be said. Many people have watched the parade over the years for the balloons and many have fond memories of various balloons from over the years. I know I do.

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