How the concept of giant parade balloons got off the ground

In this 1940 file photo, a helium-inflated Superman rises over the Times Square crowd to lead the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1940. (AP file)
In this 1940 file photo, a helium-inflated Superman rises over the Times Square crowd to lead the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1940. (AP file)

(MEDIA GENERAL) — From Felix the Cat to Snoopy and SpongeBob, countless fictional icons have floated across some of America’s most popular roadways. But an American parade tradition actually started with a German immigrant with a passion for puppeteering and an eye for entertainment.

Anthony Sarg, known professionally as Tony Sarg, is widely credited with developing the prototypes for one of America’s proud parade traditions. Sarg, of German descent, moved stateside with his wife, an American, in 1915 after the start of World War I and they settled in New York City.

Sarg was a man of many talents, but all of them involved entertaining. He was an illustrator, a puppeteer and a theater designer. In 1924, when Macy’s kicked off the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – then known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade, to usher in the shopping season – Sarg signed on as “artistic director” of the parade.

In the first few years, live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo were used in the parades, but some animals were spooked by the large crowds and loud noise. In 1927, Sarg developed the idea of the first parade balloon. The balloon depicted cartoon character Felix the Cat and stood about 15 feet tall. Unlike today’s balloons, Felix was filled with oxygen, not helium, and was propped up by a team of puppeteers.

The next year, the balloons were filled with helium and better resembled the balloons we see today. In 1928, with no plans to deflate the balloons, they were released into the sky at the end of the parade. Most of them popped shortly after release.

From 1929 to 1932, the balloons were designed with release valves that let the balloons sail away at the end of the parade. The balloons were fitted with return tags and those that found the deflated balloons could return them to Macy’s for a prize. The tradition ended after a pilot who was trying to catch one of the balloons crashed after the rubberized canvas wrapped around her plane’s wing. She survived.

Since 1933, parade organizers deflate the balloons themselves.

The balloons have since grown into a parade tradition, spreading far beyond the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to celebrations across the country.