, , , , , , ,

Felix the Cat, the first character balloon, at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Apart from my Great Aunt Margaret’s stuffing, my favorite part of childhood Thanksgivings in New England was watching the Macy’s parade. My sister and I waited until the end, when Santa Claus arrived to officially open the Christmas season.

In particular, we loved the balloons, but we didn’t know their history. 1927, puppeteer Tony Sarg suggested introducing inflatable balloons to the parade. That year, Macy’s featured Felix the Cat, a 60-foot-tall toy soldier, and a 20-foot-long elephant, all manufactured by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, in Akron, Ohio. The helium inflatables, a bit more fearsome than those of today, grew larger and more complicated with each passing year. Some contained their own sound effects—like a barking dachshund—and others needed as many as 50 handlers on the ground, with a Pinocchio requiring 20 handlers for his nose alone.

Eventually, the balloons were fitted with slow-release valves so they could be let loose into the sky at the end of the parade, averting a logistical nightmare on the ground and simultaneously creating an airborne sensation.

In another feat of well-calculated promotion, Sarg offered a reward to anyone who returned a wayward balloon to Macy’s. The ensuing races to find and give them back were so heated that they became news in their own right—one woman, trying to catch Felix the Cat on the wing of her biplane while aloft, crash-landed her way onto the front page of the next day’s New York Times.

Thankfully, that tradition ended – like so many others. Today I buy my stuffing at the grocery store, but I make it as I watch the parade. Happy Thanksgiving!

Renee Garrison is the award-winning author of “The Anchor Clankers,” and “Anchored Together.”