Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Has Roots In Cincinnati

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On Thanksgiving morning, it is a tradition across America to tune into coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the television flickering as the turkey is stuffed and potatoes peeled. While New Yorkers, dispersed across the globe, hold special pride in this gala (which they call the “Macy’s Day Parade”), Cincinnati should share in some of the glow as well.

Illustrations of Tony Sarg's "Rip Van Winkle" marionettes at the Cincinnati Zoo appeared in the Cincinnati Post on 22 August 1921.
Illustrations of Tony Sarg’s “Rip Van Winkle” marionettes at the Cincinnati Zoo appeared in the Cincinnati Post on 22 August 1921.

From Cincinnati Post 22 August 1921; Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Macy’s is now headquartered in the Queen City, but that is not the only connection. The iconic giant balloons that float above the parade as it wends from Central Park to Herald Square originated with a man named Tony Sarg who has an excellent claim to be called a Cincinnatian. He is, in fact, buried here.

Anthony Frederick “Tony” Sarg was not born in Cincinnati. He came into this world in 1880 in Cobán, Guatemala, as the son of a German diplomat named Francis Charles Sarg and his English wife, Mary Elizabeth Parker. The Sargs moved from Guatemala to Germany when young Tony started school. He was educated in Germany and joined the German army.

Love brought him to London and, eventually, to Cincinnati. An American tourist named Bertha Elanore McGowan caught his eye as she traveled the continent. Sarg followed her to London to continue his courtship. Ms. McGowan certainly had the resources to travel through Europe and the British Isles; her father was John H. McGowan, president and general manager of the John H. McGowan Company of Cincinnati. The McGowan company, located on Central Avenue just a stone’s throw from the Ohio River, manufactured a variety of pumps and other plumbing supplies.

Tony Sarg, aged 28 and listing his occupation as “artist,” and Bertha McGowan, aged 34 and listing her home address in Pleasant Ridge, were joined in matrimony at her parent’s home on 20 January 1909. Officiating was L.O. Hartman, pastor of Cincinnati’s Christie Methodist Episcopal Chapel.

Tony and “Bert” returned to England where his career as an artist and illustrator was starting to take off. It was in England where Tony cultivated a childhood interest in marionettes into a side career as a performing puppeteer.

When the First World War erupted, Tony sent Bert and their young daughter, Mary, to Cincinnati. He joined them briefly in Cincinnati and then moved the family to New York, where he transplanted his career as an illustrator and puppeteer. Soon, Tony was publishing books for children including “Tony Sarg’s Book For Children From Six To Sixty” (1924) and “Up and Down New York” (1926). Tony also provided illustrations for several books by Kentucky-born humorist Irvin S. Cobb.

Throughout this time, Tony Sarg was a regular visitor to Cincinnati. For several years, he had a week-long engagement at the Cincinnati Zoo, where his “Rip Van Winkle” and “A Night In Greenwich Village” earned highly positive reviews in the local newspapers. Here is The Cincinnati Enquirer [22 Aug 1921]:

“Nothing is spared either in the way of costumes or settings to make the performance a creditable one. Many of the scenes are of undeniable artistic value, particularly the scene in the Catskill Mountains, where Rip joins in the fantastic revels of the queer little gnomes, whose liquor induces his 20-year slumber. The lighting effects are carefully arranged so that all the scenes show up to the best advantage.”

By that year, Tony was doing so well – in addition to books and advertising and puppets he was now designing display windows for New York stores – that he bought a house in Nantucket. Tireless and endlessly creative, Tony designed mechanical toys, opened toy stores in several towns, and created some pioneering cinematic cartoons. He even opened a restaurant at which his puppets entertained.

Macy’s produced its first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924. For the first years the highlight of the parade was live animals on loan from New York’s Central Park Zoo. The maestro in charge of this annual extravaganza was Tony Sarg, who not only staged the parade, but coordinated it with the Macy’s animated holiday window displays which he designed as well.

For the fourth parade, in 1927, Tony drew on his puppeteering skills to create gigantic, inflated marionettes. Instead of hanging down on threads, these mammoth puppets, blown up with air and not helium, were held upwards by wooden rods. Robert M. Grippo and Christopher Hoskins, in their recent book on the parade[“Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Arcadia Press 2004], report on the immediate success of the balloons puppets:

“The lion’s share of the press coverage was devoted to the premiere of the giant balloons. The press noted, ‘Following the police vanguard of the pageant was a human behemoth,’ a balloon 21 feet tall. Much was made of the fact that this human greeted spectators at second-story windows along the route. Because of its height, the balloon had to be lowered so that it could ‘crawl’ under the elevated train line at 66th Street and Broadway. The show-stopping figure of the parade was the 60-foot dinosaur, escorted by a tribe of cavemen.” That dinosaur seems to have originated in one of Tony Sarg’s cartoons, which played Cincinnati’s motion-picture emporiums.

Photos of Tony Sarg’s early Macy’s balloons can be found online here.

After their debut year, inflated with compressed air, balloons were filled with helium, and released into the air at the end of the parade, with Macy’s offering rewards for their recovery.

After decades of success, and expansions into he designed jigsaw puzzles, musical blocks, and a line of pantry-storage boxes, Tony Sarg fell on hard times and had to declare bankruptcy. He underwent surgery in 1942 for a ruptured appendix and died of complications three weeks later. He was 61 years old.

Tony Sarg, creator of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is buried with his wife and her family in Spring Grove Cemetery.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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