Posted by Moira Finnie on November 25, 2009
If you are like millions of Americans, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade may be playing as video wallpaper in the background of tomorrow’s holiday hubbub in your household. In between stuffing that turkey and unsuccessfully averting your eyes from the crasser, materialistic moments of the television broadcast, it is still fun to catch sight of those unwieldy balloons straining while remaining afloat above the crowded street. Depending on luck, fashions in pop culture and our memories of balloons past (where is Underdog?) these gargantuan floating creatures seem as familiar as that stained recipe card you may be consulting. Yet, as the above image from a 1930s Macy’s Parade illustrates, they were not always quite as cuddly as they seem today. Just as these helium behemoths sometimes elude their handlers and occasionally deflate, the origin of these now familiar fixtures is not well known. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the originator of these unique inflated fantasies dipped a toe into the movie business just as it started to take off as an art form.
These balloons exist because of the expressive, diffuse imagination of the once internationally famous Tony Sarg, (left) an artist, puppeteer, animator, author, muralist, dramatist, entrepreneur, and jaunty bon vivant who was born in Guatemala in 1880. His British mother and German father, an artist as well as a diplomatic consul and plantation owner in that then remote and exotic Central American country, returned to Germany with him in 1887. His father, an artist himself, was determined to mold him into an army officer, and enrolled his dreamy son in a military school by the time he was 14. Unfortunately for the elder Sarg, his scion had been infected with an antic imagination marked by a ferocious creative impulse. This capricious whim of nature may owe something to the boy’s early exposure to primal and colorful Guatemala and to his grandparents, whose interests seem almost subversive in the Victorian era. Tony Sarg‘s grandfather had been a master wood carver and his grandmother had a massive collection of miniatures and treasured toys, among which were several elaborate puppets, which eventually were her legacy to the young man. As described in the tantalizing, if all too brief DVD, Stories of the American Puppet (2007-Mark Mazzarella), the skills Tony gained from these two individuals within his own Teutonic family, eventually led Sarg toward an artistic life and away from his apparently preordained fate as prime cannon fodder. Though the young man’s drawings earned him the offer of a contract to illustrate a book when he was only 17, Tony Sarg was also an Army lieutenant by that time as well. Finally resigning his commission by the time he was in his mid-twenties, Sarg left Germany for the United Kingdom, where he pursued Bertha Eleanor McGowan, an Ohio native he’d met when she was a tourist in Germany. Married in 1909, the couple lived in Great Britain for several years as the journeyman artist soon became a commercially in demand illustrator for British ad agencies, and gained a reputation for his intricate, dynamic and funny illustrations, notably a series of posters for the London Underground, (seen at right) that have a “Where’s Waldo” aspect but with each illustration unique and all the tiny, abstruse figures individually alive in the bird’s eye view landscape they are animating. After the First World War broke out in 1914, Sarg moved to America, seeking to escape the anti-German sentiments he and his family encountered in Britain as a result of the disastrous war. He soon applied his skills to developing a career in the arts in the New World even further. Using what he had learned from studying with the Holden Puppet Theater in London, in his own marionette theater, writing children’s books (and eventually setting up children’s stores in both New York and Nantucket), he became a commercial success as well, illustrating other author’s books, (notably, those of Irwin S. Cobb, a popular humorist in the ’20s and ’30s. Sarg also adapted his birds-eye view approach to New York City, resulting in a book that was recently republished as Up and Down New York (Universe Publishing).
[See the thumbnail at the left for an example of this ingenious and exhilarating look at the Big Apple's life.]
Today we think of “puppeteer” and instantly think Jim Henson, or maybe Sid and Marty Krofft. Yet, in the mid-teens, Sarg began to be fascinated with the puppet theaters he’d come across in London, repeatedly attending performances of this ancient theatrical art, and even lying on the floor in front of the first row so that he could watch the puppeteers hands work the marionettes until he felt that he’d acquired the skills needed to put his grandmother’s puppets to good use. Putting together his own marionette theater, carving new puppets, writing plays retelling everything from Alice in Wonderland to Faust to Don Quixote and Rip Van Winkle. While readily accessible to children, these stories were widely appreciated by adults who enjoyed them as well, marveling at the sophistication and touchingly nuanced life that animated these painted hunks of wood under Sarg‘s ingenious hands. Unlike traditional puppeteers who guarded their professional secrets jealously, Tony Sarg was eager to share his knowledge in bringing these wooden marionettes to vivid life. He took on many apprentices over the years who toured with his companies, even though he knew that eventually the demanding profession and their growing skill set would lead to their breaking away from their collaboration with him. Among those who studied with him were Bil Baird and Margo and Rufus Rose. The latter couple met and married while working for Sarg. The Roses became famed for their creation of one of the 1950’s earliest television celebrities, Howdy Doody.
Already well known for his advertising and children’s illustrations, by 1920, Sarg, his wife Bertha, and daughter Mary eventually moved to the United States where his beautifully presented 18 inch marionettes and artistic adroitness earned him greater fame. Setting up a studio in the Flatiron Building in New York while residing periodically in Greenwich Village, New Jersey and Nantucket, Tony lived at the center of the lively cultural life of America between the wars from then on, visiting nightclubs, hosting civic events and making contacts with the elite of the theatrical, political, intellectual and journalistic worlds.
Thanks to his prodigious talent, he soon became known throughout the country thanks to his marionette company tours outside of New York, his many children’s books, appearances on the radio and his singular flair for design as well as canny sense of self-promotion. The latter gift found expression in myriad objects and projects ranging from projects such as designing a series of junior barber shops for children in department stores (with the children sitting on wild animals while having their hair cut while a peep show telling a story flashed by their eye ), to the creation of jigsaw puzzles, decorative boxes, musical blocks, and whimsical maps of places from New England to Washington Square to the 1939 World’s Fair. While Sarg was a highly competitive professional artist and designer, his career was marked by his ability to attract many young people to him as apprentices, among them the noted puppeteer Bil Baird, each of whom were mentored by the kind and ruddy faced boss.The puppet technology that Baird and his students used to translate small scale figures into enormous balloons made possibly the
I first became interested in Tony Sarg around the age of four when a very well worn copy of one of his rarest and most intricately designed books, Tony Sarg’s Treasure Book, made its way into my eager little hands along with an irreverent history about Christopher Columbus and Sir Walter Raleigh (in which Sir Walter somehow misinterprets a Native American’s generosity and smokes a potato, while eating tobacco). As can be seen in the images that Sarg chose to incorporate into his art and especially into the balloons that helped establish the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as an annual ritual opening the door to the holiday season, the commercial aspects of the season never quite overwhelmed the artist’s instinctive understanding of what controversial child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim once described as “the child’s need for enchantment as well as terror”. You can see portions of Sarg’s intricate vision in the Treasure Book below:
In the midst of these protean diversions and obsessions, Sarg became intrigued with the possibilities of animation around the time that he published a popular biographical book, The Tony Sarg Marionette Book. This explanation of the tradition, techniques and stories used to create his wondrous effects on stage, sold thousands of copies. Seen here (in PDF format), it may have seemed logical to develop his notoriety further by branching out into movies. He undertook a series of seventeen short films with Herbert Dawley (an earlier collaborator with stop-motion innovator Willis O’Brien) in Tony Sarg’s Almanac, made between 1921 and 1923, demonstrated some humor as well as amazingly fluid images in shadow silhouettes, re-imagining ancient ‘shadow plays’ while substituting rod puppets for animation and adding tint to the films as well for effect. Those who saw the entire Almanac series reported that these entertainments were both intelligent and funny, though only three of these are believed to be in existence today. You can see two below, and one other of the collection, Fireman, Save My Child (1921) is said to be too deteriorated for reproduction. Each of these is held in the Library of Congress. I’m quite partial to The Original Movie, since it demonstrates nicely that making fun of Hollywood is nothing new. None of these animations could be compared with the poetic or technically accomplished work seen in animation pioneer Winsor McCay‘s last little feature, The Centaur (1921), which can be seen here, but Sarg‘s anarchic and irreverent anthropomorphism of goats and monkeys seems to look forward to the paths that both early innovator Max Fleischer and Walt Disney‘s corporate approach would pursue quite profitably creatively and financially in the future.
The First Circus (1921)
The Original Movie (1922)
Why didn’t Tony Sarg continue making cartoons or some form of films? Perhaps his enormous number of professional commitments distracted him, and it is possible that the sustained, painstaking work required by animation did not appeal to his multi-faceted talent. (While I have not been able to find a video of one other filmed performance of Tony Sarg’s Marionettes of the Orient (1929), this short, which features a brief glimpse of Sarg, can be seen on the Flicker Alley DVD, Saved from the Flames-54 Rare and Restored Films 1896-1944 (2008). Another reason that may have prevented Tony Sarg‘s further participation in the development of movies was his commitment to a particular project for Macy’s Department Store, beginning, according to many sources, around 1923. Competing for that desirable Christmas cash, department stores in Philadelphia and Detroit had begun to feature holiday parades to entice customers to their stores with a Santa on hand surrounded by a hoopla usually reserved for visiting circuses.
Around this time, Macy’s approached the puppet master to bring his miniature world to life in the 75 foot long toy window that was featured on 34th street. The press releases for that initial year of his partnership with Macy’s indicates that the window featured “a Puppet Parade on [the] March” with an “Animate Display” that featured 26 stories brought to live by the marionettes. By the next year, Sarg‘s windows showing the parade on small scale was duplicated on the street as well to great acclaim. While other designers contributed to the parade over the years as well (notably designer Norman Bel Geddes in the later twenties), Sarg‘s distinctively playful and somehow suitably mysterious and occasionally sinister designs developed further in 1927 when the first helium balloon figures were introduced to the parade. Smaller than today’s balloons (the demolition of one of NYC’s elevated train tracks eventually made it feasible to have larger creations), I find many of these to be disarmingly eccentric and almost ominously, surreally playful. The balloons, some of which were up to 125 feet long, can be seen below. Once you know Sarg‘s artistic style, they each seem indicative of his mischievous vision. Even though he was clearly a part of the commercialization of Christmas and the holidays in the last century as mass culture exploded through print, radio and film, there seems a clearer connection to an older, somewhat charming, and instinctive form of amusements as well as theatrical traditions that have faded or been overblown since Tony Sarg was on the scene.
Sarg created the large figures for the parade by taking the same design he might use of one of his marionette figures upside down, and enlarging on it, allowing parade workers to control the balloon from the ground. The dinosaurs, 25 foot dachshunds, gargantuan turkeys, tipsy Uncle Sams, policemen, Pinocchio-like figures, Krazy Kats and Katzenjammer Kids that populated the parade were enormous hits with the crowds. The city’s joy in this spectacle even included a practice of letting the balloons go at the end of the parade, allowing them to float away. Macy’s even gave a monetary award to lucky citizens who found the deflated balloons eventually. While some reward seekers were said to fall into the East River trying to snag the untended balloons, it was believed most of them floated out to sea. In that less litigious era, this tradition continued until around 1932, after two incidents with pilots indicated that this might not be a good idea. One Clarence Chamberlin demanded his reward of $25 after a yellow and black dragon wound up attached to the wing tip of his plane, (Macy’s then announced that they would no longer honor pilots returning balloons, since they were perceived to have “unfair advantage” aloft). The next year a student pilot in a small plane had a close encounter with a 25 foot yellow tabby cat floating over Manhattan and the boroughs, wrapping itself around a wing and sending the monoplane into a spin hurtling toward the ground. After a series of nearly disastrous events that ensued, including the plane’s hatch flying open during this struggle, the pilot’s instructor was able to pull the plane out of the tailspin at about 100 feet above the houses below, prompting some 700 calls to the police from concerned Thanksgiving celebrants being dive bombed by a Parade balloon. Macy’s and the City came to an agreement after this and there were no more balloon releases over the city.
Tony Sarg went on to help inspire and create further spectacular parade floats, windows, reaching a career peak around the time of his contributions to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, after which his creative gifts no longer seemed to catch the fancy of the public in quite the same electrifying way. Perhaps the whirlwind of activities that always engaged Sarg‘s attentions finally got away from him, overwhelming his ability to keep juggling his many projects or caused his inspired creativity to flag with age a bit, or the economic malaise that lingered in America affected his finances as the thirties wore on, but, by the end of the decade, Sarg would be compelled to declare bankruptcy, mentioning that his assets–aside from his puppets–consisted of a suit of clothes that he was wearing. Dying in 1942 after an appendectomy, there were reports that his lovingly carved marionettes may have been dumped on the street of Greenwich Village for the trash man to take away following his demise. Happily, his best remembered artistic contribution lives on in memory, in books that he wrote and illustrated, and each year when the parade begins again.
Please Note: On a related tie to this parade, as part of the ongoing Boris Karloff Blogathon this week, our friend Jacqueline T. Lynch at Another Old Movie Blog has contributed an account of Karloff and other’s participation in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This delightful account can be read here.
Latshaw, George, The Complete Book of Puppetry, Courier Dover Publications, 2000.
Marling, Karal Ann, Merry Christmas!: Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday, Harvard University Press, 2000.
McIsaac, Frederick John, Stoddard, Anne, The Tony Sarg Marionette Book, B.W. Huebsch, inc., 1921.
Time Magazine, “Aeronautics: Girl v. Tomcat”, Monday, Dec. 5, 1932.
Whitaker, Jan, Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class, Macmillan, 2006.
The Macy’s Day Parade Balloons Created by Tony Sarg–
Please click on each of the thumbnail images to view more of Tony Sarg’s creations for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade:
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