I have to confess to a heresy.

I have no interest in televised football on Thanksgiving Day.

While the rest of you alpha males start boiling your oil and sharpening your pitchforks, I may as well admit that I don't really have any love for any televised sports. Except for baseball. I like watching baseball on television. But that's it.

As you might imagine, that puts a pretty big dent in my socialising on Thanksgiving. Oh, I can follow football. I know what I'm supposed to be watching and what the rules are, all the things I need to understand to know what's going on. It's just that I'd rather be watching the episode where Gilligan is turned into a radio.

It was worse for me when I was a youngster, because then I didn't even have enough knowledge of the game to be able to fake interest. Unlike my father and younger brother, who were sports mavens, to the young me, football on television was simply watching a bunch of guys run back and forth on a field, and there was something about lines of scrimmage and touchdowns. In those days, we had only one television set in the house, that Westinghouse black-and-white model, made from blond wood with the sharp edges. And of course, on Turkey Day, it was turned to the Big Game, with all my male relatives crowded around it. So, on Thanksgiving afternoon, I was bored to death.

Thanksgiving morning wasn't any better. The preparation of the feast hadn't reached the hot-and-heavy stages yet, so my mother and the other womenfolk insisted on watching the Macy's parade, brought to us by "the magic of television".

As long as I've already put my foot in it, I might as well tell you, I find parades pretty dull, too. Even the Macy's one. You have a couple of B-list (or C- or D-list) celebrities trying to find something new to say about a marching band that is really no different from the last six that passed by. Or trying to stir excitement in the viewers at home by pointing out how large the sidewalks crowds are this year. And then there are the lacklustre "Oohs" and "Aahs" over the passing floats, pointing out "Miss Dental Hygene" and her attendants waving to the spectators.

Yet, one single item of the Macy's parade always held my interest. And every year, despite my boredom with everything else, I 'd sit there on the davenport, eagerly awaiting its appearance.

That famous New York City event, originally named the Macy's Christmas Parade, made its debut on 27 November 1924. It had been conceived by Macy's employees, many of whom were European immigrants. Proud of their adopted country, they wanted to celebrate the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving in the traditional festival style of their homelands. Herbert Straus, then president of R. H. Macy & Company, knew a publicity grabber when it was set on his plate; he donated his blessings and his wallet to the idea.

That year, four hundred Macy's employees in gala costume, accompanied by bands, floats, and scores of animals, marched from 145th Street, in Harlem, to Macy's flagship store on 34th Street. A quarter-million spectators lined the streets to watch as the parade wound down to Herald Square, where, at the conclusion, Santa Claus himself unveiled Macy's Christmas-decorated show windows.

Thus began one of this country's longest running holiday traditions.

As with any other large-scale event, the details of the parade were honed and tweaked over the years. In 1927, the live animals were replaced by large animal-shaped balloons. That same year also introduced the first balloon depicting a cultural figure---Felix the Cat. Within five years, Felix would be joined by Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck,
Pluto, and other Disney characters.

The crowds for the annual event grew. By 1933, one million people lined the parade route. By then, the celebration was being regularly broadcast live over radio. It was about this time that noteables, such as Benny Goodman and the Marx Brothers, began to join the festivities, to capitalise on the nationwide exposure. Live television coverage began in locally in 1946, going national the following year.

R. H. Macy executives kept a weather eye on the annual production. They discovered that one of the most popular features of the parade was the balloons. The cheers and applause got louder whenever the Toy Soldier, the Elephant, Felix, Mickey, and Donald floated by. In 1939, Herbert Strauss turned to the head of his toy department and instructed him to secure licensing for other popular characters that could be turned into balloons.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which had released The Wizard of Oz that year, sold Macy's the rights to a balloon designed after the Tin Man. Popeye the Sailor was another score, after a Macy-sponsored poll indicated that the squint-eyed sailorman was more popular than even Mickey Mouse.

The following spring, one of the toy-department executives noticed that something new had captured the interest of his own sons. Comic books. Not that the concept of comic books was all that fresh, but until a couple of years before, they had been simply reprints of popular comic strips. But, as the supply of comic strips available for reprint dwindled, comics publishers began to fill the pages with original material. New characters were introduced, and as the executive watched his sons swap comics with other boys in the neighbourhood, it was obvious that one new character in particular had them all excited. He reported this to Jack Straus, who had assumed the company presidency from his uncle Herbert.  Straus agreed he was on to something.

Straus himself made the offer. He approached Harry Donenfeld, owner of National Allied Publications, which published the stories featuring this popular new hero. Strauss paid Donenfeld a substantial license fee for a balloon using the name and likeness of this latest character.


If you think about it, there's no better evidence of how the creation of Superman had taken the public by storm. He had been in existence only since the summer two years previous, when he debuted in Action Comics # 1 (Jun., 1938). In that short time, the Man of Steel had become the headliner of both a newspaper strip and a radio programme. Twenty-eight other licensees were manufacturing items bearing the Superman imprint. And now he was about to become a part of one of America's biggest holiday traditions.

A 75-foot-high balloon of Uncle Sam led the November, 1940 parade, but it was the Man of Steel that dominated the event. Standing eighty feet tall, with a chest-span of twenty-three feet, it was the largest balloon that had ever appeared in a Macy's parade. It had taken a thousand dollars' worth of helium (almost $16,000 in 2009 dollars) to inflate it and fifty men to handle it.

The New York Times reported the crowd's reaction in a front-page article the next day:

"Waves of murmured astonishment, screams and squeals of delight, washed down the long lines from 106th Street and Central Park West to Thirty-fourth Street and Eighth Avenue, as Superman came over the horizon."

The Balloon of Steel made the annual march throughout the decade, except for 1942-4, when balloons were not used in the parade, in order to preserve rubber for the war effort. Then, as comic-book super-heroes lost popularity in the post-war era, the Superman balloon was quietly retired. The 1950's were not a good decade for the parade balloons overall. In 1956, high winds deflated all of the balloons, except for Mighty Mouse. A helium shortage in 1958 forced the balloons to be air-filled and, unable to float, had to be carried by cranes. Things weren't better the next year. With helium still in scant supply, only three balloons---Popeye, a turkey, and a spaceman---appeared in the parade.

While super-heroes in general had been abandoned as a genre by most comics publishers, Superman hung in there with a tenacity. While fellow die-hards such as Batman and Wonder Woman were limited to simply having their titles survive the purge, the Man of Steel pushed into his next new medium with the debut of The Adventures of Superman television show, a series that was still going strong when DC (formerly National) and editor Julius Schwartz revived the Flash to a new generation of youngsters. The Silver Age of Comics was off and running.

It took awhile for Macy & Company to tap into this resurgence, but comic-book stars were going mainstream. In 1966 alone, the Batman television show debuted, a Superman-based musical hit Broadway, and super-hero cartoons clogged Saturday morning kid-vid. In 1965, a balloon in the likeness of Underdog was introduced in the parade. The youngsters on the sidewalk recognised it immediately, and gave it more applause than any other display in the parade.

The following year, a Macy executive showed up at 575 Lexington Avenue and once again, licensed the rights for a Superman balloon. This was a big deal, promoted by Macy, in newspaper spots, and DC, through in-house ads.

I don't remember where I had heard about it, but I sure remember that was the first year I wanted to see the parade. I also recall that it took far too long for the new Superman balloon to show. I kept getting called away from the tube to perform errands for my mother. I'd rush to do them as fast as I could so I could get back to the television set and still have to sit through what seemed like an endless stream of high-school marching bands and floats full of waving pageant winners whom were either smiling at the crowds or grimacing at the cold. It was hard to tell which.

Somehow, it figured that Superman would be the last balloon of the parade. It was still huge, though not significantly bigger, if at all, than any of the other balloons. And I noticed that his "S" emblem was off, not like the way it was supposed to look, the way Curt Swan, the definitive Superman artist, drew it. About ten minutes later, Santa and his sleigh appeared, and that was it. The best part of my Thanksgiving morning was over.

I guess it might be a tad difficult for some of you younger folks to understand why the appearance of a Superman balloon was so thrilling. Super-heroes have become a significant part of popular culture to-day. With the dozens of profitable super-hero movies that show that as many adults as kids have plunked down their hard-earned cash to see them. Graphic novels---essentially bound comics---have their own section in book stores. Even the man on the street understands such comic-spawned expressions as "Hulk out!" Comic books themselves have gained a certain amount of respectability.

But back then, many adults still referred to them as "funny books", expressing their derision and, at the same time, their lack of understanding of the genre.

That Superman balloon continued to appear in the Macy's parade until the early 1970's. Life has a way of shifting one's priorities---I was in college by then and working a job, too---and there were more important things to occupy my Thanksgiving mornings. I don't think I ever saw another Macy's parade again. But as with my generation, the Man of Steel would get another boost that earned him a spot in the parade line-up.

The series of Superman films starring Christopher Reeve had, again, made the character marketable, and 1982 saw a third Superman balloon make its debut. For the first time, the balloon was fashioned in a flying pose, and the advances in craftsmanship allowed for it to have an obvious resemblence to Reeve. In keeping with its super-stature, it was the largest balloon to ever appear in the Macy's parade. From front to back, it measured 104 feet and required 14,000 cubic feet of helium-and-air mixure to inflate it.

Something that big, no matter if it's lighter than air, is difficult to manage. Even the original, eighty-footer had its rough going. In that first appearance in 1940, a guy rope snagged a lamppost, causing the balloon to list, and "Superman's" boot almost kicked a Times Square marquee lose. In 1986, the lead ropes got away from the handlers and a tree tore off the hand of the balloon's outthrust arm. Only the fact that the 1982 balloon was constructed of individual inflated cells kept "the Man of Steel" from deflating upon scores of parade-goers.

That may have had something to do with the fact that the next year, 1987, was the swan song for the Superman balloon. Because of a 1997 incident involving a balloon getting loose, hitting a lamppost, and seriously injuring one of the spectators, New York City passed an ordinance restricting all parade balloons to seventy feet.

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade may some day see another Superman balloon, but it's not likely you'll ever get that same sense of awe as it passes by.

Like so many things in life, you just had to be there.

* * * * *

From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving Day, and many more of them.

Views: 237

Comment by Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) on November 26, 2009 at 12:32pm
Nice one, Commander! I share your lack of interest in sports (which includes baseball, for me). Jeanine has started a new Thanksgiving tradition in our house: the National Dog Show is on our TV right now, as it has been the last few years.
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on November 26, 2009 at 3:50pm
I must admit I enjoyed reading about the history of the Macy's parade more than I ever enjoyed seeing one (and that includes the time I once saw it in person).
Comment by Figserello on November 26, 2009 at 7:19pm
Proud of their adopted country, they wanted to celebrate the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving in the traditional festival style of their homelands.

A good point to make. It's a two-way street.

Great post, Commander B. Loved all the facts and figures. That's a lot of Helium.

No matter how many times I read about, it always amazes me how quickly Superman made his way into the popular consciousness.

I find it hard to think of anything in my own lifetime that literally went from zero to hero in such a short time. Homer Simpson is probably the biggest icon of our times, but there was no way the whole family would have recognised him, or a major public event revolved around him, 2 years after he first appeared.
Comment by The Baron on November 27, 2009 at 9:15pm
Actually, I tend to fall asleep in front of Thanksgiving football, more than actually watch it. I suppose if the Pats were playing, I'd stay awake for it.
Comment by Eric L. Sofer on December 1, 2009 at 7:51am
I happen to LOVE football. That's how I spent my afternoon on Thursday... which, of course, means nothing to anyone who doesn't like football; it's just MY gig. And come New Year's Day, football is on; parades are not. I agree with you, Commander; I feel that if you've seen one parade, you've pretty much seen them all. I'm afraid I don't have a lot of interest in seeing the Wonderful World of Butter float, nor how many different ways roses can be used to create an arch. And God love those kids in the marching bands - more power to the music programs in our schools! But I'm afraid that they always sound the same to me, and never quite as clean and clear as I'd like... there's always a kind of brassy sound to them that I never can get around.

I'm sorry Commander - I mean no disrespect, but I laughed out loud when I saw your comment about Harpo Marx being on the radio. I know you were being legit, but really - couldn't two dozen radio stations simultaneously claim to have Harpo on the air with them? "Say, Harpo, what do you think of Miss Red Delicious on that apple float?" "Honk! Honk!"

And the history of the Macy's parade was a swell learning experience - you surely are the font of knowledge! I hope that you're getting to spread that to children, nieces and nephews, and others who should learn about what was...

Comment by Commander Benson on December 2, 2009 at 11:42am
"I'm sorry Commander - I mean no disrespect, but I laughed out loud when I saw your comment about Harpo Marx being on the radio. I know you were being legit, but really - couldn't two dozen radio stations simultaneously claim to have Harpo on the air with them? 'Say, Harpo, what do you think of Miss Red Delicious on that apple float?' 'Honk! Honk!'"

And no disrespect taken, Fogey. In fact, I'm laughing about as much as you did, now that you pointed it out to me. That was simply a matter of not taking time to think through what I saw as a quick, throw-it-out sentence. I gathered as many names as I could of celebrities who took advantage of the parade's nationwide radio broadcasts in the early '30's, and to keep it from being a laundry list, just selected two names at random. I never gave a moment's thought to the fact that Harpo never spoke.

That was a real slap-in-the-forehead moment for me. Still, it's not quite so ludicrous as it sounds . . . after all, Edgar Bergen (he was a ventriloquist, for all you youngsters out there) had quite a successful career on radio.

"And the history of the Macy's parade was a swell learning experience - you surely are the font of knowledge! I hope that you're getting to spread that to children, nieces and nephews, and others who should learn about what was..."

Thank you, good sir. I take that reputation seriously and attempt to find the accurate information. One would think, with all the information available on the Internet, that would be a simpler matter. But the plethora of sites actually makes it harder. Erroneous information obtained by a poster tends to get perpetuted---"misinformation begets misinformation"---and very often, I find contradicting facts that I have to parse to get the right data.

Case in point, and I spent hours on this: the year that the Superman balloon debuted in the Macy's parade. Approximately half the sources I found said it was introduced in the 1939 parade; the other half, 1940. Things like that mean I have to scrub each source to determine which ones are the most authoritative, and sometimes, all I can do is give it little more than a mental coin toss. However, in this instance, it was easier: I was able to track down actual the New York Times article covering the debut of the Superman balloon in the parade, and it was dated 22 November 1940---clearly the best evidence.

However, while we're on the subject of errata, it gives me an opening to make two correxions in minor errors of fact that, fortunately, didn't greatly foul my article.

The first one falls to my blame for failure to do completely thorough research. A couple of days after I posted my column, I discovered that the owners of Macy's preferred spelling of the family name was Straus---one trailing "s". Virtually every article I had uncovered about the dynasty behind Macy's spelt the surname "Strauss", and it just didn't occur to me to check any alternate spellings until after I had posted.

The second goof falls to my blame because of too-quick typing followed by inattentive proofrreading. By the time that the R. H. Macy executives decided to license a Superman balloon from National in 1940, Herbert Straus was no longer the president of Macy; his nephew, Jack Straus, had taken over by then. He was the one who arranged the licensing of Superman's name and likeness from Harry Donenfeld.

Rather than put some mod through the trouble of re-approving my post, I just let the errors stand, but here is the accurate information, albeit late. My apologies.

"And God love those kids in the marching bands - more power to the music programs in our schools! But I'm afraid that they always sound the same to me, and never quite as clean and clear as I'd like... there's always a kind of brassy sound to them that I never can get around."

That's precisely my problem with marching bands, as well. Emphasis on brass can work---several successful big bands attest to that---but somehow, something seems to be missing from marching bands. There is a sourness to the brass, and its not kindly offset by a tendency in shrillness from the woodwinds. Perhaps, it is simply attributable to the fact that the performers are youngsters who cannot have had more than a few years' experience with the instruments, at best. But one would think that the band instructors would have figured out a way to compensate for those definciencies in experience. (And no, please, all of you folks out there who have taught band don't pelt me with rotten fruit and rocks. It doesn't take more than a moment's thought to grasp how difficult a job it is to get a couple of dozen high schoolers to sit still long enough to learn the basics of playing in concert. From that standpoint, I am amazed and impressed that you are able to get them to play anything recognisable at all. I'm just saying, you'd think there would be a handful of breakout bands that would really know their stuff, and that just never seems to be the case.)

Thank you for your kind words, Fogey.


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