Richie Partington's Reviews > Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade

Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet
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Nov 05, 2011

it was amazing

12 October 2011 BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY: THE TRUE STORY OF THE PUPPETEER OF MACY'S PARADE by Melissa Sweet, Houghton Mifflin, November 2011, 40p., ISBN: 978-0-547-19945-0

"With a marionette, the controls are above and the puppet hangs down...
But what if the controls were below and the puppet could rise up?"

"There's a holdup in the Bronx,
Brooklyn's broken out in fights;
There's a traffic jam in Harlem
That's backed up to Jackson Heights;
There's a scout troop short a child,
Krushchev's due at Idlewild!
Car 54, Where Are You?"

It was in 1961 that television coverage of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade expanded from one hour to two. I was six in '61 and watched the parade on TV at my grandparents' house in Garden City. It was the year that the Bullwinkle J. Moose balloon made its debut, and the celebrities participating in the parade included the stars (and car) of Car 54, Where Are You? as well as Casey Stengel, manager of the new team in town, the New York Mets.

I had no idea before reading Melissa Sweet's amazing picture book history of the Macy's Parade-slash-biography of puppeteer Tony Sarg, that the parade's history goes all the way back to the Roaring Twenties when my parents were being born.

"Many of the people working at Macy's were immigrants, and as the holidays approached, they missed their own holiday traditions of music and dancing in the streets."

Immigrant Tony Sarg was already a renowned puppeteer performing on Broadway when Macy's hired him to develop moving puppets for their holiday windows. The company then had him help organize a parade in 1924. Their first parades featured real animals along with the floats. And when the company asked Tony to replace the real animals (which could scare young spectators), it took a few years and a few great ideas, but they ended up with the helium-filled balloon characters that we all know and love.
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Melissa Sweet's illustrations include gouache as well as mixed media collages which, in turn, include puppets and toys she made herself while creating the book. Filled with movement, bright colors, and smiles on giant balloon figures, the excitement dances off the page.

I love how Ms. Sweet incorporates some fascinating challenges Tony Sarg faced in bringing his ideas to life, such as how one would create these giant puppets and whether the balloon creatures would fit under the elevated train tracks (which, back then, existed along the parade route).

One of the coolest facts in the book is found all the way at the end, in the Author's Note:

"But Tony could not have accomplished all he did without his talented apprentices, some of whom went on to their own fame. One of his apprentices, Bill Baird, later created the puppets for the 'Lonely Goatherd' marionette show featured in the movie The Sound of Music. (And one of Baird's apprentice's was Jim Henson, who invented the Muppets.)"

BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY is a creative, joyful, and informative story about the origins of one of the most quintessential of American holiday traditions.

Richie Partington, MLIS
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