Melissa Sweet, Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade (Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2011)
Just back from a trip to New York, I can’t resist bumping a favorite title to the top of the blog. Balloons over Broadway shows children how one imaginative man conceived of old-fashioned carnival decorations on an architectural scale. Tony Sarg, the inventor of the familiar over-sized animals in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, was once a six year-old who designed puppets and played with pulleys. Melissa Sweet, an award-winning author-illustrator, shows readers how Tony’s boyhood inventions began as small experiments like a string-operated bedside chicken-feeder. Sweet follows Tony into adulthood, where he finds a job designing marionettes for Macy’s store windows. Adults will be interested to learn that the first Macy’s parade – which took place in 1924 and featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo – was intended to recreate the pleasures of Central European street festivals for the store’s largely immigrant and apparently homesick workforce. As crowds grew along the parade route each year, it became clear that larger-scale entertainment would be necessary. Goaded by Macy’s management, Tony Sarg created the enormous helium animals which were first used in 1928. Sweet’s mixed-media work show how Sarg created new articulated helium parade animals, using rubberized silk from an American blimp manufacturer and a system of string controls based on Indonesian rod puppetry. The book concludes with a wonderful sequence of drawings of the over-sized animals being pulled through the streets of Manhattan, bumping up against apartment buildings and being squeezed under the El.
Puppets may not be architecture. (Indeed, the original choice for today’s post was Roberto The Insect Architect). However, Balloons over Broadway belongs on any design-oriented shelf because it introduces children to both three-dimensional design and urban history. One of the roles of the city is as a stage for its inhabitants, and Melissa Sweet’s story shows how one creative child can grow up to play a role in the spectacle. A visual pleasure and a fascinating story, Balloons over Broadway would be a great addition to the children’s table next Thanksgiving. (Grown-ups might sneak a peek at the end pages, which reproduce the ad for the parade from the 1933 New York Times).