The balloons began as a solution to a problem. The first three years of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, from 1924 to 1927, featured not floating fantasy creatures, but real ones — tigers, elephants, camels and donkeys — from the Central Park Zoo. Instead of entertaining the thousands of children watching, it scared them.
So in 1927, 90 years ago this Thanksgiving, organizers experimented with a new star: Felix the Cat, oversized and full of air, floating feet above the ground.
Eyes turned up, fixing the focus skyward for the nine decades since. They’ll do so again Thursday morning as hundreds of thousands of people line the streets of New York for the parade, which kicks off at 9 a.m. It is being broadcast on NBC.
In the beginning, the balloons were pieced together by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant Company, filled with air and propped up by long, thin sticks. The arsenal was small at first, but like the parade through New York City and the crowds that flocked to witness, it would only grow.
With helium came handlers whose feet occasionally left the ground, but their balloons never floated away — at least not accidentally. From 1929 to 1932, releasing the balloons at the end of the parade was half the fun. They floated up and fell back down, and Macy’s offered a $25 gift card to anyone who returned the tag attached to the roaming balloon.
Each era inspired greater sophistication and innovation. A dachshund balloon barked and an alligator hissed. The smooth, rotund figures grew more chiseled, with bulging muscles and eyes, defined fingers and snouts. Pikachu’s red cheeks lit up and instead of simply bobbing above New York, the creations — like Spider-Man and Buzz Lightyear — appeared to crawl and fly.
Through hardships, the balloons endured. Macy’s had upgraded to helium by 1958, but agreed to fill the balloons with air after a special request from the government — there was a nationwide helium shortage. The balloons have drooped under pooling rainwater and deflated after run-ins with light poles. One year, because of a torrential downpour, they didn’t fly during the parade at all — except in NBC’s archival footage that aired on TV.
They became a tool of unity when the nation needed them most. During World War II, the parade stopped altogether and Macy’s donated 650 pounds of balloon rubber to the fight. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated just days before the parade in 1963, his family asked Macy’s to keep the joy on schedule — for the children.
And in 2001, just months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that devastated New York City, the balloons floated over the celebration’s featured guests: hundreds of first responders carrying large American flags.
The balloons tracked the country’s progress, too. The first female balloon, comic strip character Mrs. Katzenjammer, flew in 1929, but women didn’t fly again until the 1980s, with characters Olive Oyl and Raggedy Ann. Man walked on the moon and Astronaut Snoopy followed.
For 90 years, they have been inflated on the Upper West Side and paraded through Manhattan, an early arsenal of two balloons that has now grown to dozens. The balloons acquired handlers, captains and pilots along the way, a full flight command that walks forward and backward, and like everyone else, spends the day looking up.
Eventually Macy’s took over production from Goodyear and opened a parade studio in a New Jersey Warehouse. Old balloons have retired and new ones have captured hearts. They’ve won Emmys and given birth to new inventions: the tricaloon (a tricycle with an attached balloon), the balloonicle (a vehicle-powered balloon filled with cold air) and the falloon (a float and cold-air balloon combo).
But through it all, they’ve inspired the tradition — and wonder — that Macy’s promised in its very first parade ad: “Awe-inspiring in its grandeur, mirth-provoking in its comedy, teeming with a million thrills.”
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