The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry hosted an intersection of puppetry and engineering during a forum last night, as Robert Grippo, Chris Hoskins and Dr. Mehdi Anwar gave a talk about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade’s iconic giant balloons. These balloons are impressive in both the puppetry aspects and as an engineering feat, and have a fascinating history stretching back nearly 100 years.
Anwar began the talk by listing some impressive facts and figures about the logistics of the balloons. Each balloon contains about 5,000 cubic feet of helium, which is used to lift them off the ground. Each balloon is capable of lifting 750 pounds, according to Anwar.
“It is fun using helium,” Anwar joked. On a more serious note, he mentioned helium is a finite resource, meaning one day the world could run out of the gas that fills these balloons.
Grippo and Hoskins, who collaborated on a book titled “Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade,” focused more on the history of the parade. The tradition started in 1924 when the Macy’s store in Manhattan expanded from 6th to 7th Avenue. The store wanted to promote itself, so the Macy’s Christmas Parade was created as a massive advertisement (it was not called the Thanksgiving Parade until 1935). This early version of the parade had no massive balloons – they were not used until 1927.
“The stars of the parades have always been the giant balloons, and the genesis of the balloons have always been puppetry,” Hoskins said.
Grippo compared the balloons to giant puppets because when you move a string, “you see the balloon wave – they use it as a puppet.”
The first licensed balloon was used in 1927, and the first characters to be portrayed as balloons were the Katzenjammer Kids, who were in a popular comic strip from the time. Interestingly, Grippo said this goes against Macy’s legend, as the company asserts that Felix the Cat, a popular animated character from a silent film, was the first licensed balloon. This balloon was not used until 1931, according to Grippo.
When a rights holder of a character wants their property to be portrayed in the parade, Grippo says they must pay Macy’s a stunning $1 million in order to secure the balloon.
Tony Sarg was the mastermind behind the parade from its creation to 1941. Goodyear, the tire company, was the manufacturer of the balloons until the early 80s, and today a company called Raven Arrowstar manufactures them. Grippo complained the balloons made today are “too perfect a copy of the character. Sarg’s genius was inventing a new form.”
However, some of the more recent balloons are impressive engineering accomplishments. The Spongebob balloon is particularly innovative, as it is a square balloon.
One of the most interesting topics discussed at the forum was the fact that the balloons have the capacity to lift people off the ground.
“If you let the balloon lift you up, it would take you,” Hoskins, who helped work the balloons in the parade before, said.
Grippo told a story about how Jean McFaddin, who planned the event from 1977 until 2001, once ran to grab the string of a Bugs Bunny balloon when it got swept up by a powerful gust of wind. According to McFaddin, she was pulled up a stunning 30 feet into the air. Grippo seems to doubt this story though.
“I thought it was interesting to hear the history of the parade because it is such a staple of Thanksgiving,” Jake Frischberg, a seventh-semester UConn student in attendance at the forum, said.
When you sit down next week to watch the parade on Thanksgiving, take a moment to appreciate the balloons that make the parade memorable. They have a rich history containing urban legends, engineering feats and puppetry on a massive scale.
Ben Crnic is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org