Plastic Spectacle in NYC

I’ve researched a lot more now into the Macy’s Christmas Parade and have gotten more interesting ideas on where this study can head into. Here is a quick summary of what I’ve discovered in terms of the parade:

In the 1920s, many of Macy’s department store employees were first-generation immigrants. Being proud of their newfound American heritage, they wanted to celebrate the American holiday, Thanksgiving, with the type of festivities their parents always loved in Europe. So in 1924, the first Macy’s parade started in New York City with employees marching to Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street dressed in vibrant costumes. It was pretty grand with floats, professional bands and live animals even from the Central Park Zoo. At the end of the first parade, and has been the same for every parade since, Santa Claus was welcomed into Herald Square. It was such a success that after the first parade, Macy’s declared it would be an annual event.

Tony Sarg( ) was a popular puppeteer and owned his own marionette business in NYC where he perform with his puppets on the street. Macy’s heard about his talent and asked him to design balloons for the parade. Since then, this became the hallmark of the parade; giant 40 foot balloons of different characters floating through the city. The balloons come in three varieties; the first and oldest are the novelty balloon class, consisting of smaller balloons, some of which fit on the heads of the performers. The largest of the novelty balloons typically require 30 handlers. The second, and most famous, is the full-size balloon class, primarily consisting of licensed pop-culture characters (Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street, Disney etc), each of these are handled by 90 people. The third is the “Blue Sky Gallery”, a program that transforms the works of contemporary artists into full-size balloons on display (Jeff Koons, Tim Burton).

The other hybrids in the parade are the Falloon (a float-based balloon) and Balloonicle (a self-powered balloon vehicle). That sums up to four types of designs within the parade itself (balloons, floats, falloons and balloonicles).

In 1928, the balloons were released into the sky at the grand finale where they unexpectedly burst. The following year they were redesigned with slow-leak safety valves that allow them to float for a few days. Address labels were sewn into them, so that whoever found and mailed back the discarded balloon would receive a gift from Macy’s. I thought this was pretty clever in terms of recollecting back traces of the parade. There were a couple of accidents that happened with the balloons as well ( ) and mostly due to crosswinds in the walking route ( ).

The parade originally started from 145th Street in Harlem and ended at Herald Square, making a 6-mile (9.7 km) route over a 3 hour programme.

In the 1930s, the balloons were inflated in the area of 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue near St. John the Divine Cathedral. The parade proceeded South on Amsterdam Avenue to 106th Street and turned east. At Columbus Avenue, the balloons had to be lowered to go under the Ninth Avenue El. Past the El tracks, the parade proceeded through 106th Street to Central Park West and turned south to terminate at Macy’s Department Store.

A new route was established for the 2009 parade. From 77th Street and Central Park West, the route went south along Central Park to Columbus Circle, then east along Central Park South. The parade would then make a right turn at 7th Avenue and go south to Times Square. At 42nd Street, the parade turned left and went east, then at 6th Avenue turned right again at Bryant Park. Heading south on 6th Avenue, the parade turned right at 34th Street (at Herald Square) and proceeded west to the terminating point at 7th Avenue where the floats are taken down. The 2009 route change eliminated Broadway completely, where the parade has traveled down for decades. The City of New York said that the new route would provide more space for the parade, and more viewing space for spectators. Another reason for implementing the route change is the city’s plan to turn Broadway into a pedestrian-only zone at Times Square.

Another new route was introduced with the 2012 parade. This change is similar to the 2009 route, but eliminated Times Square altogether and rerouted the parade down Sixth Avenue, a move that was protested by the Times Square BID, Broadway theatre owners and other groups.

It is not advised to view the parade from Columbus Circle, as balloon teams race through it due to higher winds in this flat area. New York City officials preview the parade route and try to eliminate as many potential obstacles as possible, including rotating overhead traffic signals out of the way.

With all these data, what I am working on in terms of drawings are the route establishment (and in more detail of site study for the exploration study; crosswinds etc) and I am starting to catalogue the different types of balloons, according to timeline, first (covering floats, falloons and balloonicles after this) and coming out with a forensic drawing (I was very inspired by the exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery) of its lifespan, death and eventual reincarnation the next year. Here are the screenshots of the types of drawings in progress:

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I’ve found out the parade will be taking place on the 26th of November this year and I am still researching on people to contact for the event. Hopefully I will be able to find something soon! It would be great if you can comment on how I could develop this further (maybe in terms of drawing and formatting the research into the portfolio), I am also looking into drawings that I can develop for the tech exploration study, aiming to draw up the balloon valves and the crosswind site analysis.


One thought on “Plastic Spectacle in NYC

  1. How do you start to draw the parade’s impact on the city – the amount of people who attend, the amount of people who work on it, the amount of plastic used to construct the spectacle, the time it takes to organise vs. the event itself. How do you draw the intensity of the event?

    Continue drawing the routes and show in your drawing the intensity of repetition in the original route, and the increasing intensity in the more recent, changed routes which will have been traversed by the procession much less. Can you show the different speeds at which the balloon teams move through the different areas? Mapping the repetition of routes and speeds they are traversed at will start be a nice move on from your record studies and the dimension of speeds of revolution (RPM) in their playback.

    Think back to the architectural scores we discussed in week 1 – those types of time based drawings are great to document the multifaceted, simultaneous nature of the event. You have done lots of research but all that data of the history of the event doesnt seem to have worked its way into the drawings. What about the techniques we discussed on tuesday of photocopying the route as many times as the parade has happened? Some sort of classification of all the different types of balloons, falloons and balloonicles would be good to draw as well as a more detailed study of the route that includes the preparation areas as well as the route itself. At the moment all the drawings still feel a bit stuck in last week’s Manhattan Transcripts version – your ideas and your portfolio to date has a stronger style so think how to reintroduce that into the drawings. We also talked about decay of the individual pieces – the things that fall apart before the parade is even over and the debris that long outlasts the parade and becomes embedded into the city fabric – try to find examples of this and document it as evidence within the portfolio. The story about the deflated balloons that people could find and return to get a free gift is great – how do you recreate this in your portfolio as fabricated evidence to tell this story?

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