Behind the scenes at the Macy's parade

At first, the famous balloons were a gimmick to get kids to buy toys. Now, they're a Thanksgiving tradition.

At exactly 9 a.m. on Thursday, a smiling Big Bird will start floating through New York City. No, he hasn't finally learned to fly.

In fact, he'll have lots of company. Arthur, Barney, Pikachu - 15 giant balloons in all - will join dozens of floats, marching bands, and clowns for Macy's 75th Thanksgiving Day Parade.

It has become an American holiday tradition. More than a million spectators line the route each year. Many more see the spectacle on live TV. The helium-filled balloons - each 60 feet (five stories) tall - are the stars of the show.

The story of the balloons begins in a New Jersey warehouse. There, the 20 artists and designers of Macy's Studio work year-round to design balloons and floats for the parade.

We stopped by for a visit last week. And the first thing we learned was: "Don't ask the designers to name their favorite balloon."

"That's like asking a parent: 'Whose your favorite kid?' " said John Piper, who heads the studio. "They all may aggravate you, but you love each one differently."

It takes from six to nine months to create a new Macy's parade balloon. Three or four new ones appear every year. Sometimes a new balloon is Macy's idea. Sometimes, the owners of a particular character (Disney, or the producers of "Sesame Street," for example) want to pay to have a balloon made. They think of it as good advertising.

Big Bird has been in the Macy's parade for almost 10 years. But the Big Bird balloon was starting to look worn. Its stitching is frayed, and he's been patched a lot. Macy's decided it was time for a new Big Bird.

First, artists read books and watched "Sesame Street." They needed to find out more about what Big Bird was like.

What if Big Bird springs a leak?

Then the artists sketched possible designs. The new Big Bird isn't wearing a winter cap, and instead of wearing a sweater with alphabet blocks, he carries a pair of cymbals.

Next, designers built two models of the new balloon out of plastic and fiberglass. One model has numbers written all over it. The numbers helped designers figure out how to cut the pieces of fabric for the balloon and where to attach the ropes.

The second model shows what colors to paint the balloon. People from "Sesame Street" looked over the models to make sure they were accurate.

The balloons are very complex. Designers are particularly proud of the Spiderman balloon. The balloon's bulging "muscles" make it look like a sculpture. Each balloon requires 12,000 cubic feet of helium. That's 12,000 large-size birthday balloons' worth.

When everyone was satisfied with the model, the balloon was manufactured at another location. Engineers draw blueprints and cut exact patterns. Leak-proof urethane-coated nylon is laid out on gigantic cutting tables and the pieces are cut out and stitched together.

The balloons are made of many sections. Each section is inflated separately. That way, if Big Bird's beak springs a leak, the rest of him won't deflate, too.

Characters take a practice flight at a New Jersey parking lot a few weeks before the parade. It was Big Bird's only chance to fly before arriving in Manhattan packed in a carton the size of a kitchen table.

"It's amazing how these people can do this so fast and build them so great," says Nathanael Lewit, a fourth-grader touring Macy's Studio.

Each designer has many skills: sculpting, welding, engineering, crafting fabrics. But the most important requirement, says Mr. Piper, is that "you can't grow up."

Curious George, Cheeseasaurus Rex, Bob the Builder, and Pikachu (of Pokémon fame) are new this year, too. They will join Big Bird and 10 "veteran" balloons.

This year's parade will honor those who perished in the World Trade Center attacks. The Cheeseasaurus will wear a New York Police Department cap, and the inflatable Harold the Fireman will sport a New York Fire Department emblem.

Most balloons march in four or five parades before they are retired. Sometimes, a favorite character is brought back or re-created - Betty Boop and Bullwinkle the Moose, for example. Dozens of retired balloons are stored at the Macy's Studio.

The current flotilla of balloon characters will come to life after sunset on Wednesday. Macy's employees will begin to inflate them on closed-off streets on Manhattan's Upper West Side. (Some people take this opportunity to look at the balloons close up. It's almost as much fun as the parade the next day.)

The balloons rest under nets so they don't float away. On Thanksgiving, they parade 2-1/2 miles, starting near Central Park and going down Broadway through Times Square before stopping at Macy's.

Walking backward for 2-1/2 miles

Calm weather is a must. Wind makes it difficult to control the balloons. Trained handlers - 45 to 70 per balloon (all Macy's employees) - hold onto ropes tied to the balloon. Sometimes, they have to hang on very tightly: A wind-propelled balloon can lift them off their feet!

Kathy Kramer has helped guide Ronald McDonald, Babe the Pig, and her favorite, Garfield the Cat, during 15 parades. This year, she'll be Big Bird's captain. That means she will walk backward about 100 feet ahead of the balloon (for 2-1/2 miles, remember). She will shout commands to the handlers when Big Bird needs to be raised or lowered, depending on the wind.

"It's a lot of fun," Ms. Kramer says. She can't wait until her nieces and nephews are old enough to join her in the parade, she says. Employees' family members can also participate.

If you miss the parade on Thursday but you still want to see the balloons in person, at least one balloon appears every time Macy's opens a new store.

Or, stop by the New York Historical Society, located right at the start of the parade route on West 77th St. You'll see Kermit the Frog's inflated arm hanging outside the entrance of the exhibit.

They used to let the balloons go

The huge baloons in Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day parade were the idea of a children's book designer and puppeteer named Tony Sarg.

Macy's hired Mr. Sarg in the 1920s to help create a parade. According to Rob DelBagno of the New York Historical Society, the idea was to attract children (and their parents) to Macy's newly expanded toy department.

Sarg wanted to feature something that everyone could see - even paradegoers stuck in the back row. What about ... balloons? Felix the Cat (a popular cartoon character of the day) and a dragon first appeared in the 1927 parade. They weren't really balloons, though - just huge, air-filled puppets held aloft with long poles.

Helium-filled balloons, or "upside down marionettes," debuted in 1928. People called them "ballooniacs" at first, until everyone decided that "balloons" was fine.

Seventy-five years after the first parade, you won't find any toys in Macy's. But the parade tradition continues.

Some other traditions, however, have changed. From 1927 to 1932, Macy's released the balloons into the sky after the parade and offered a $75 reward to anyone who returned them intact.

That first year, no one remembered the fact that helium-filled balloons expand as they rise through the atmosphere. All the balloons rose, exploded, and fell to earth.

In 1931, flying ace Clarence Chambrain lassoed a Jerry the Pig balloon over Brooklyn using a rope. The balloon hunt ended the next year, when a less-experienced pilot crashed while trying to snag a giant cat.

Today, the balloons are deflated and stored in the warehouse for another year.

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