For the 90th edition of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan, one of its very first inflatable creatures is returning. The new Felix the Cat — held aloft by sticks, as he was in 1927 — is a replica, as in the inaugural years of the parade, the balloons were released at its conclusion to soar over New York City and beyond.
That touch of wonder is just one of the elements that characterized the colorfully chaotic early days of the parade, thanks to artist and puppeteer Tony Sarg. He started by installing animated windows at Macy’s alongside the first parade in 1924; that debut celebration featured elephants, tigers, and other animals on loan from the Central Park Zoo. By 1927, Sarg had been enlisted to think of a way to entertain rather than terrify the crowds, and he decided on balloons. Working with Goodyear rubber, he imagined inflated wonders that would be highly visible and buoyantly magical. The first year they were filled with oxygen, then with helium in 1928.
In a year filled with President-elect Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric and promises of deportation, it’s worth pointing out that Sarg, the man behind this now iconic American tradition, was an immigrant. As the Nantucket Historical Association relates, he was born in Guatemala in 1880 and moved to his family’s home country — Germany — as a teenager, before relocating to England in 1905. There he met his American wife, Bertha McGowan. At the outbreak of World War I, they went to New York.
In the city, the innovative Sarg found work as an illustrator, including at The Saturday Evening Post. He also created shadow-puppet films like “The First Circus” (1921), toys, and marionette shows. For him, the Thanksgiving parade was just another challenge of animation, except on a colossal scale.
Archival footage from the parades of the late 1920s and ’30s, when Sarg was at the helm, presents a whole different world from today’s sleek, heavily commercial spectacle. While Felix the Cat was a star, other balloons were essentially inflatable sculpture, whether the rotund elephant with floppy legs in 1927 or an incredible sea serpent in 1937. That particular monster was also used by Sarg in a great hoax the same year: it washed up on the shore near his home in Nantucket, after Sarg and his co-conspirators planted giant footprints on the beach. Many balloons had their own sound effects, such as a 1932 barking dachshund and a hissing alligator in 1933. There was a Pinocchio that needed 20 handlers to control its nose, as well as tributes to local celebrities, like vaudevillian Eddie Cantor in 1934. You can see some of the balloons from the 1920s and 1930s in 360 degrees on the Macy’s site.
The New York Times report on the 1931 parade captures some of its mania and hazards, including navigating balloons under the elevated tracks at 53rd Street, dodging riled-up dogs, and watching an inflated hippo nearly collide with the Empire State Building:
Terrible Turk sneered too hard at an electric sign — so hard that he broke in half and slunk miserably to the street as the helium sizzled from his forty-foot rubber. The two-headed Martian had an impolite habit of peering into the fourth-story windows on both sides of the street. Felix the Cat had his younger son following him, still rather small but fighting so hard to the last ounce of his helium that it took four men to hold him down.
Sarg was not precious about his balloons. After bumbling through the streets, they were let loose into the sky, equipped with slow-release valves. Postcards that guaranteed rewards were also attached to them, generating frequent pandemonium that culminated in 1932, when a young woman attempted to catch one with her airplane. As the November 25, 1932 New York Times front page reported, she said, “I think I’ll have a piece of the neck” before “hurtling at the goggle-eyed creature” and almost crashing her plane in Queens.
Other Sarg creations have returned to the parade over the years, such as his 60-foot-tall Toy Soldier, originally made in 1927 and replicated in 2001 (although as a medium-size balloon), and the dachshund in 2003, albeit with no bark. Sarg himself died in 1942, and the parade lost some of its spirit of delight — as well as some of its danger. Hopefully Felix, who last joined the procession in 1933, will stay grounded this year, but if any balloons do get loose, just consider their flight a tribute to Sarg’s legacy.