When images of the modern Thanksgiving come to mind, the balloon titans of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade have become as ubiquitous as turkey. But while children of all ages may watch transfixed as beloved helium-filled cartoon characters float slowly above the New York City avenues, it’s safe to say hardly any in that delighted crowd knows how those magical creatures came into being. Until now. In Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade, Caldecott honoree Melissa Sweet (A River of Words, by Jen Bryant, 2008) reveals the incredible story of Anthony "Tony" Sarg (1880-1942), the master puppeteer whose creative genius brought these colossal balloons to life in 1928.
Through her trademark mixed-media illustrations, Sweet combines simple elements of richly layered collage—children’s blocks, buttons, fabric scraps, string, papier mâché, spools of thread, cardboard—with cheery watercolors and engrossing endpaper photos of the 1929 marionette book Sarg wrote and a 1933 New York Times Macy’s parade ad. The thrilling overall effect not only animates the character of this gifted, all-but-forgotten artist, but describes the genesis of the 85-year-old parade itself—a fact that, much like this adored holiday tradition, is sure to intrigue young and old alike.
Meeting Tony Sarg here was an absolute treat, but I was also fascinated to learn that the Macy’s parade started as a celebration for the company’s immigrant workers. What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching this?
I have to confess learning that about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was one of the most surprising things for me, too. I made the assumption that this department store put on the parade because that would have been a good commercial thing to do, but I love that they looked for a way to honor their immigrants, who were probably homesick around the holidays.
Another thing that surprised me, though I was pretty wowed throughout this project, was the ripple effect of Sarg’s puppetry. Because of how he approached puppet theater, he is credited with puppetry being elevated to an art form. In his generosity, he mentored so well that many apprentices went on to great careers—Margo and Rufus Rose creating Howdy Doody, Bill Baird’s illustrious career (he designed “The Lonely Goatherd” marionette show in The Sound of Music) and his famous apprentice, Jim Henson.
You know, Tony also pulled off some really good pranks that didn’t make it into the book. One of my favorites took place in 1937 in Nantucket, where Tony Sarg had a home. A “fisherman,” who happened to be Tony Sarg, contacted the local newspaper and told them there had been “sightings” out to sea of a large sea creature—huge and monstrous. Early one morning, word got around that there were gigantic footprints in the sand, and all of Nantucket screamed down to the shore. A dinghy towed in the sea monster, and men hauled it onto the beach. People on Nantucket still recall it, and no doubt Tony was in the dinghy that day…
So is Tony Sarg now a hero of yours?
Oh yeah, he really is—not just because of what he did or what he made, but who he was. He was amazingly generous in giving away information. He wrote the marionette book you see in the endpapers, and that was completely in response to [his experience] when he wanted to learn how to make marionettes and put on shows, and no one would help him—they didn’t want him to learn their secrets.
For example, a puppet troupe came to London, and they wouldn’t talk to him about it. So he ended up buying a ticket to their show for 50 nights in a row, and he just sat in the front row; that’s the kind of guy he was. That’s extraordinary to me. He had determination and tenacity and just figured this is what he needed to do to figure it out. That really inspired me. He was very kind, and funny, as you can see in his pranks, yet he had a designer part, too, that was lovely. If you just look at his work, it’s amazing, but to get to know who he was was really an honor.
Your author’s note says that Tony Sarg’s legacy reminds you that “ ‘play’ may be the most important element in making art.” Who do you think needs to be reminded of that more, children or adults?
Here’s my knee-jerk feeling—that children need to be reminded of it because it’s in play that we have so much discovery, and there’s a sense that it doesn’t matter what we find out because it’s all interesting and we’re not really looking for an outcome.
As adults, my generation and either side of my generation can remember that the pleasure of pure play was simpler. We had a gang in the neighborhood that would play; our toys were simpler. Of course, we had television. But just to give ourselves permission to let play be part of our process in whatever creative stuff we like to do or want to try should still be there.
One kind of cool thing now is that it has become hip to make stuff again. The do-it-yourself (DIY) movement is huge, and I love that kids in college are knitting again and the resurgence of beautiful fabrics. I don’t ever think we’ll lose the notion of play completely, but it will take some determination to keep it here.
What do you think it is about a parade that captivates young and old?
Well, seeing so many people out of character in a venue that we’re used to seeing vehicles in, so that when people take over the street it becomes like a stage set, is just exhilarating. I just think there’s something about that—everybody doing something that you never get to do. Especially in this book, I think of that first Macy’s parade, which was, by all accounts, like a raucous street party—just kind of that permission and freedom is really compelling. It’s like going to a play that just keeps rolling past you—it’s engaging, always changing and really fun.