Monday, November 07, 2011

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade by Melissa Sweet

From the time he was a little boy, Tony Sarg loved to figure out how to make things move. He once said he became a marionette man when he was only six years old.

It all started when Tony got the job of feeding the chickens at 6:30 in the morning.

Tony preferred to stay in his warm bed. But every morning the chickens had to be let out of the coop to eat. Problem? No problem!

Tony quickly rigged a couple of well-placed pulleys to enable him to pull the door of the coop open from his room so that the hungry hens could get at the pre-positioned chicken feed! And Tony Sarg's future was set.

As Tony grew, he became fascinated with marionettes, collected examples from all over the world, and grew up to become well-known as a puppet master. Then he got his big break.

Macy's Department Store in New York was known as the largest in the world, and they hired Tony to do something extraordinary with their big display windows. Tony put his engineering skills together with his marionettes and created the first mechanized holiday windows for Macy's. His "Wondertown" windows were a sensation.

But Macy's soon had another assignment for their creative genius: New York City and Macy's own staff were made up of immigrants who missed the festive holiday parades of their homelands, and Tony was commissioned to plan a giant Thanksgiving Day parade for Macy's, completed with marching bands, horse-drawn, animated "Wonderland" floats, and large animals from the Central Park Zoo. The first parade in 1924 was a big success--except for one problem: the lions and tigers and other large beasts were downright scary to the little kids.

Tony saw the solution in his fertile mind. What if he could devise giant animated creatures that could be carried through the streets and made to move with long rods carried by marchers? Blimps were big news in those days, and Tony designed rubberized silk inflated figures of enormous proportions and amazing colors and configurations. But he had one more problem. How could he give them the lifelike movement that he gave his famous marionettes? Then he had an inspiration:

With a marionette the controls are above and the puppet was DOWN....

But what if the controls were below and the puppet could rise UP?

On Thanksgiving Day in 1928 Tony Sarg's giant helium-filled marionettes, floating high enough to be seen by even the smallest of spectators from the back row and animated by guy ropes controlled by his trained marchers, took to the streets for the first time, and Thanksgiving morning has never been quite the same since.

Caldecott honoree Melissa Sweet's Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade (Houghton Mifflin, 2011), brings us the story of an inventive and artistic genius. Tony Sarg loved his job and once described his life's work by saying of himself, "I have never done a stroke of work in my life." And in that spirit noted artist Melissa Sweet brings to this amazing book design a mastery of media, watercolored line drawings, collages of found materials, a variety of fonts, speech balloons, and a lively narrative that emphasizes the playful approach to creation that was the theme of Sarg's work. This book should become a staple of the Thanksgiving lineup, a eye-pleasing history of an event that characterizes the joyous ingenuity which is part of our national character, making Tony Sarg's amazing parade a regular part of our own Turkey Day celebration.

Sweet's appended notes point out that Sarg trained Bill Baird, who in turn trained Bill Henson, whose Muppets are still with us today. Her bibliography and source notes round out the backmatter of this solid nonfiction book.

Appropriately, Kirkus gives this book a starred review and says, “This clever marriage of information and illustration soars high."

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  • Is there an email address so I can contact you directly? I would like to speak with you about a book review. - Tamara

    By Blogger Tamara, at 12:16 PM  

  • Tamara,

    Your e-mail contact did not work for some reason.

    By Blogger GTC, at 10:37 AM  

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