Tony Sarg was the most acclaimed puppeteer in America and in 1924 he was enlisted by Macy’s for their Thanksgiving Day Parade.
According to Nathan King in Airmail, Tony Sarg was born in Guatemala in 1880 Sarg’s first job was as an officer in the German military. In 1905, he resigned his commission and moved to London to work as an illustrator for the major newspapers. In 1915, with anti-German sentiment engulfing England, Sarg moved to NYC with his American wife and their daughter. He began drawing for publications like Boys’ Life, Vanity Fair and The New York Times.
Sarg created a a puppetry company in 1917 at the Charles Hopkins Theatre, just off Times Square where it became known for puppetry and marionette plays.
Sarg also authored children’s books, designed wallpaper and furniture for kids, interiors for department stores and restaurants, including the Waldorf Astoria’s supper club and the murals in the Monkey Bar.
In 1924 Macy’s asked Sarg to help with their Thanksgiving Day Parade by designing windows and by 1927 they had become so elaborate the parade was being overshadowed.
Sarg then suggested introducing inflatable balloons to the parade and Macy’s featured a balloon of Felix the Cat, a 60-foot-tall toy soldier, and a 20-foot-long elephant, all manufactured by Goodyear.
Some contained their own sound effects—like a barking dachshund—and others needed as many as 50 handlers on the ground, with a Pinocchio requiring 20 handlers just for his nose.
The balloons were eventually equipped with slow-release valves so they could be let loose into the sky at the end of the parade, preventing a logistical nightmare on the ground while creating an airborne spectacle.
Sarg then offered a reward to anyone who returned a balloon to Macy’s. One woman, trying to catch Felix on the wing of her biplane while aloft, crash-landed and was on the front page of the next day’s New York Times.
Today’s a day for giving thanks, so THANK YOU, Tony Sarg! Artists can & do change the world.
(Photos, Nantucket Historical Association, New York Historical Society, via Airmail)