Whenever the forecasters call for windy weather on Thanksgiving, I always wonder whether the giant balloons are going to appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. If the wind speeds are higher than 34 miles per hour, the balloons don’t fly.
That’s because in 2006, Macy’s incorporated several safety measures to prevent accidents and balloon-related injuries at its annual parade in New York City. Parade officials installed wind measurement devices to alert them to any unsafe conditions that could cause the balloons to behave erratically. They also implemented a measure to keep the balloons closer to the ground during windy conditions.
None of these safety measures were in place when the parade began in 1924. In fact, you could probably call what took place at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade during some of its early years “unorganized chaos.”
Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1924 – 1931
According to Rob DelBagno of the New York Historical Society, R.H. Macy’s and Co. hired renowned illustrator and puppeteer Tony Sarg in the 1920s to help create its inaugural parade. The goal was to attract children and their parents to Macy’s newly expanded toy department at its Herald Square flagship store. Click here to see the parade in the 1947 classic, Miracle on 34th Street.
The first parade took place on November 27, 1924, before an estimated 250,000 spectators. It was a mish-mash of floats pulled by horses, a few professional bands, and live animals in cages borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. The parade also featured Macy’s employees, professional entertainers, and many tag-along ragamuffins, who marched six miles from 145th Street in Harlem to Macy’s at Herald Square.
Although it was billed as the Macy’s Christmas Parade, The New York Times called it “a retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats.” The parade was such a success, however, that Macy’s decided to make it an annual event.
Bring in the Balloons
The floats and clowns were great, but Tony Sarg wanted to feature something in the parade that everyone could see. He thought tall balloons would be perfect, and turned to the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, for assistance. The result was Felix the Cat, a toy soldier, and a dragon, who all made their debut in 1927. (These were actually rubber, air-filled puppets held aloft with long poles, but they were impressive.)
Unfortunately, Felix got curious, and he wandered into some telephone wires and caught fire. The fire was put out, but Felix lost at least five lives and had to be removed from the parade.
The trouble really began in 1928, when five tethered, helium-filled balloons up to 125 feet long (aka “ballooniacs” and “upside down marionettes”) designed by Tony Sarg and Bil Baird, entered the parade. Someone (probably a PR guy) came up with the bright idea to give the balloons an extra shot of helium and then release them at the end of the parade — people could find them and return the balloons to Macy’s for cash prizes. Although the balloons were designed to release air slowly, they unexpectedly burst in the air. So much for the cash prizes that year.
The following year the balloons were redesigned with safety valves to allow them to float above the five boroughs of New York for a few days. Safety-schmafety. Does anyone see a public relations disaster in the making here?
1931: Felix Meets Pilot Clarence D. Chamberlin
In 1931, the annual parade started at 1:30 p.m. at 110th and Broadway (the balloons were inflated in front of The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine on Amsterdam Avenue). This year the helium balloons included the 40-foot Terrible Turk, a two-headed Martian, Tiamet the dragon, Felix the Cat (and his youngest son), Jerry the Pig, a 40-foot hippo, and a 171-foot dragon.
During the parade, the Turk ran into an electric sign at 72nd Street, broke in half, and deflated into the crowds. The Martian, who had a tough time getting under the tracks of the 9th Avenue El, bumped into fourth-floor windows and swooped down upon spectators when the winds blew. The pig kept bumping his snout into windows and signs, and the dragon was attacked by a little white dog. All the while, motorists on the northbound side of Broadway were causing traffic jams as they stopped to take in the show (yes, they kept traffic lanes open between Columbus Circle and 110th Street.)
When the balloons were released at 34th Street, a wind from the west brought the giant hippo within inches of the Empire State Building, where three small planes had been flying in anticipation of the release. (The hippo was last seen headed for Brooklyn — a fisherman also reported seeing the hippo 100 miles off of Rockaway Point “walking on water.”) Felix also soared over the Empire State Building as the band played “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.” The dragon’s tail narrowly missed several buildings – he was last reported seen sailing in the direction of Governor’s Island.
Right about this time, ace pilot and barnstormer Colonel Clarence D. Chamberlin was making a flight from Floyd Bennet Airport with several passengers. Needless to say, he was not sure what to do when he saw Felix and Jerry the Pig heading his way. One passenger suggested the pilot try to save Felix because the cat appeared to be headed toward a transatlantic voyage, and cats hate water.
News reports state that Chamberlin lassoed the pig with some rope and snared the cat by his wing. But apparently Felix broke loose. On December 2, he died a horrific death when he got caught in a high-tension wire in West Norwood, New Jersey. A resident said she saw the silk and rubber feline float into the wire and burst into flames. You just can’t make this stuff up.
1932: Tom-Kat Takes Down a Plane and Two Pilots
In 1932, Macy’s told the New York press to warn all pilots to stay away from the balloons, and to let them know that no pilots would win a prize for recovering them. Apparently 22-year-old student pilot Annette Gipson of Brooklyn didn’t get the message.
At 4 p.m. on November 24, a half hour after the balloons were released, Miss Gipson and her instructor, Hugh Copeland, of Woodside, Queens, came upon the 60-foot, yellow-striped Tom Kat. Miss Gibson decided to go for the cat’s jugular and steered the plane right into him. The balloon’s fabric wrapped around the left wing, causing the plane to go into a deep tailspin. She shut off the ignition, thinking this would prevent fire when the plane crashed.
As thousands of people in Queens watched in horror, and the plane continued to fall, Annette and Hugh switched seats so the instructor could take control of the plane. At one point the cabin door flew open and Annette almost fell out of the plane. Luckily her foot got caught in her safety strap and she was able to pull herself back in.
The plane was only about 250 feet above the rooftops near Rosedale when Hugh turned on the ignition. By this time the tattered remains of Tom had flown away, so Hugh was able to resume flying and land the plane safely at Floyd Bennett Field. Following an investigation by Inspector Sanford A. Willetts of the Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch, the two pilots were grounded for violations of federal regulations forbidding stunting over congested areas.
Souvenir hunters quickly pulled apart poor Tom Kat, and not a single piece was returned to Macy’s. However, a few people were able to claim the last rewards the store would ever give for the helium balloons:
•H.F. Marrit of Garden City snagged Andy the alligator.
•Jerry the pig loitered around the Empire State Building before getting rescued in East Islip by William Garrigan.
•Fritz the dachshund landed in the East River and was rescued by the tug Long Island, headed by Roy Marques of Weehawken New Jersey.
•Georgie the drum major landed in Long Island City, where he was mobbed and torn to bits. Eighty-two people tried to claim the reward money.
•Willie Red Bird was last seen about 22 miles off the coast of Fire Island. He had enough gas to last 72 hours, so if no one had claimed him by Saturday night, Macy’s planned to issue warnings to ships on the North Atlantic lanes to be on the lookout.