March of the balloon animals
November 9, 2015 7:37 AM   Subscribe

Wow, for the first time I can say this completely truthfully and without irony

"Hey I can see my house from there!"
posted by The Whelk at 7:41 AM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Beautiful! I wanted it to go on forever! Sometimes the old signs on the buildings were as interesting as the parade.

My favorite shot was the Tin Woodsman pulling a groin muscle in 1939.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:50 AM on November 9, 2015

Going to the parade and seeing those huge balloon animals peek round the corner from Central Park South down Seventh Avenue* was one of the great thrills of my life. There's nothing, and all of a sudden, there's a big dog nose, or a green frog hand, or whatever. So exciting!

*I went before they changed the route from Seventh to Sixth Ave.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:12 AM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by jim in austin at 8:41 AM on November 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't know what it is about early-to-mid 20th century design when it comes to fun stuff and things made for kids to enjoy, but most of those inflatables and giant heads are pure unadulterated nightmare fuel.

What is even the deal with this thing, I have no idea.
posted by terretu at 8:42 AM on November 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

ThePinkSuperhero is right - there is no replacement for seeing the parade in real life. It's a totally different experience (for one thing,it's a parade,not a variety-show sequence of broadway acts and floats with soap opera stars on them singing songs). Nothing like being there - I've been many times and hope to go many more.
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on November 9, 2015

I usually watch the parade from inside Central Park, so I don't see the performances until later on my DVR. It's fun to follow the marching bands and balloons with no crowd, though.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:48 AM on November 9, 2015

I don't know what it is about early-to-mid 20th century design when it comes to fun stuff and things made for kids to enjoy, but most of those inflatables and giant heads are pure unadulterated nightmare fuel.

That's why Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa were so well-behaved as kids. They knew that their toys would rise up against them and drag them to the fiery pits of hell by their small intestines if they weren't. Laughing all the way, ha, ha, ha!
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:08 AM on November 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

1997 was the the only parade worth watching.

The crowd reaction to that is fascinating! It goes from sustained laughter and glee when watching Barney and his handlers struggle, coupled with the kind of ooh-aah that people do when watching a trapeze act, but then when they finally wrest Barney the ground and start deflating him, it sounds like the crowd turns and has the makings of an angry mob.

Now I want to read about the training that the balloon handlers get. It must be fairly involved, and they must have contingency plans for stuff like this. The two women, for example -- the one sitting down to put all of her body weight beneath the rope and the other woman basically sitting on her lap to contribute more weight -- is that something they practice?
posted by mudpuppie at 9:31 AM on November 9, 2015

Darn - I already used my Deflater Mouse joke on another post.
posted by lagomorphius at 10:23 AM on November 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Now I want to read about the training that the balloon handlers get. It must be fairly involved, and they must have contingency plans for stuff like this.

My mom was a balloon handler one year. Based on her experience, it seems like the training they get is mostly "here, hold this line! Now, walk!" It doesn't look like the balloon-body-weight manouever was standard because no one else does it. Now, it's possible Mom was in the 'light duty' group, but most of the handlers for each balloon are Macy's employees and volunteers - some who work at corporate offices and some who are the same staff who clerk on the floors, etc.. So they're not at all specialists - most were like "I saw a thing on the bulletin board and signed up!" - but they may have gotten more instruction than she did (she participated as press). In addition to the regular "hold this line" folks there are "balloon captains" - I think those might be the guys in all white in this video who end up actually rounding the thing up - and it may be they get more instruction or have more experience or something, but that's just conjecture. I don't know how you qualify as captain.

I can't remember what exact year she did it, but it was in the 90s, so I'd bet that safety management has greatly improved - at the least, I no longer fly the balloons in winds this high and they are on much shorter leash than they used to be as a result of the Barney debacle. Which is a little sad, since I remember them flying really high as a kid, but they're still so cool.
posted by Miko at 10:55 AM on November 9, 2015

The crying baby and the Pinocchio balloon remind me of Tim Burton's Batman.
posted by borborygmi at 11:23 AM on November 9, 2015

Looking the the crowds in the early pictures, the men greatly, greatly outnumber the women.

I guess the women had to stay at home to cook?
posted by Windigo at 12:11 PM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

OMG I want to hang so many of these on my wall - do they sell them as prints?
posted by Mchelly at 3:08 PM on November 9, 2015

Now I want to read about the training that the balloon handlers get. It must be fairly involved, and they must have contingency plans for stuff like this.

I was a balloon pilot in the parade. We ruled the skies.

In 2002 I had moved to NYC to work for Federated Merchandising Group, basically the parent company to Macy's and their sister brands. I was a corporate merchandiser for men's tailored clothing. They hadn't really brought up this benefit when I was recruited, but one day in the summer of my first year there, my boss' boss walked up and asked me if I wanted to pilot one of the balloons. Apparently he thought I had what it takes.

I remember feeling like this was as close as I would probably ever come to being called up to the Blue Angels. Anyway, having absolutely no idea what I was getting into, I of course responded "HELL YES I WILL DO THAT."

Apparently the most coveted positions are celebrity escorts, so you get to help Celine Dion or Ricky Martin or whoever from their suburban onto their float for their performance or whatever. They seemed to have a harder time finding people willing to hold the fate of the treasured balloons and the safety of the general public in their completely un-specialized hands. There is also something of a cabal of those who have tenured positions as many-years long pilots, who want first pick of the newest and biggest balloons.

Each of the bigger balloons these days (read: when I was doing it a decade or so ago) has a cadre of folks responsible for getting the balloon safely from the museum down to Herald Square. I recall something approaching a classroom session in the Herald Square building where Macy's East had their flagship store on the first 9 floors and their corporate offices on the 10 or so floors above that. This explained to those of us who would become balloon pilots and captains what our jobs were, theoretically. This would be followed up by a practical session in the parking lot of the Meadowlands (where the NY Jets / Giants football stadium was over in NJ), come a Saturday morning in late-October (to best simulate potential conditions in Manhattan in late-November).

Pilots and captains both get white jumpsuits. This is so that they stand out to the larger group of line-handlers which are generally Macy's store employees and their friends and families that they invite to hold down a line and be in the parade. The captains are there to coordinate the line handlers - generally for the bigger balloons there is a captain for the front quarter or so of line handlers, one for each side, and one for the back quarter. The captains (and pilots) all have orange gloves as the handlers are taught to follow hand signals in addition to voice commands, and both the captains and pilots all are on (or should be on) constant walkie-talkie local radio via headsets they are wearing so they can coordinate with each other.

Underneath the big balloons nowadays, there are also two John-Deere largish golf cart type mobiles with no roofs (2 or 4 seaters) - these both have specialized rigs mounted on to them that are designed to hold a thick guage nautical rope (think 4x as thick as tying off your 20' sailboat but half as thick as the big-ass rope a ferry boat would use). These carts and the rope attached to the balloon basically act as an anchor, and one that can bring down the balloon in a hurry. You can see in the Barney video that he doesn't have these carts and their related anchor point, hence how long it took them to bring him down. With my balloons (I had the Where the Wild Things Are balloon my first year, Clifford the Big Red Dog my second, and Big Bird my third), they all had these carts. All I had to do was call out an emergency descent on the radio and the back cart would lock it's brakes while the front cart motored forward. Both of the ropes are attached to essentially the same point at the base of the balloon so the natural effect of the carts driving away from each other would be to pull the rope down in a triangular direction until basically the triangle was flat and the balloon was on the ground. And of course the captains would have to get all the handlers out of the way so they weren't crushed.

The pilots are there to actually steer and control the balloon. There is one co-pilot that walks out ahead of the the whole balloon and rest of the crew that stays under the balloon. His job is to get into each intersection ahead of the balloon with an anemometer, so that he can measure the cross-wind speed at the intersection and radio it back to the pilot. If the wind speed is above some pre-determined level, we would wait to go through the intersection, while parade command would slowly begin to escalate their level of freak-out over the radio with the pilot (who was also wired into parade command in addition to his balloon crew). There's another co-pilot at the back of the balloon so he can coordinate with pilot who's at the front of the balloon what the hell the ass of the balloon is up to in real time.

Then there's the pilot, the dude who walks the entire way downtown basically backwards, because he's watching his captains and co-pilots, all his handlers, his carts, his police officers assigned to his balloon, obstacles along the route, and oh yeah - the actual balloon itself. He's talking to everyone and using hand signals to get people to stop, go, turn, reel in or out, etc.. This was my job.

We would all get up at 4am to head into the city and get our jumpsuits and equipment at a hotel a block over from the Herald Square store by 5am, to get buses up to the UWS to get in line with our balloons, some of them still being inflated at that point. I could then walk around inside the parade and meet some of the celebrities - met Bare Naked Ladies this way. Also one of the guys from first season of America's Got Talent I think? Anyway you didn't have much time before you needed to be back at your balloon to coordinate your pilot/captain team and then get all the handlers warmed up and introduced to their captain, then practice and basic instructions.

That was all they got, there is no specialized training and even the people commanding the balloon have day jobs deciding what herringbone pattern pants your uncle will buy at the department store next fall. That's it. Well, the people in charge have some basic training in how to bring the balloon down in a hurry, how to cut a line if they needed to in a hurry to get it untangled, etc.. When I was struggling one year by Central Park to get my pocket knife open with the damn orange gloves on, so I could get get a line out of a tree, one of my cops whipped out a completely not-standard-issue switchblade and handed it to me, but he made me give it back.

The barney video is particularly frightening because they are not in an intersection, they are somewhere in mid-town, mid-block, and so basically the wind was whipping south-to-north up the block and there was precious little the pilot could do to control the balloon let alone bring it down in those winds. You can see him wandering about kind of helplessly in the video. This never happened to me, but I had two particularly frightening experiences, neither of which to my knowledge made it onto TV or YouTube (to be fair, they try not to show Barney et. al. being eviscerated on national TV - in fact you'll hardly ever see the handlers if TV is all you get to see).

Every balloon has to make a transition in the middle of Times Square to stay on Broadway as it crosses over 7th Ave. In my era at least, street crews would remove all of the attachments to any light pole so that you didn't have pesky lamps poking out into the street (what eventually dealt Barney the fatal blow in the video, for example). But they couldn't uninstall the whole pole itself that was cemented into the ground, so you still had the poles along each side of the road the whole way. As I brought Big Bird into Times Square one year, we were stopped before the transition by the parade traffic. Once balloon command gave me the go-ahead, we started back up to make the transition, but a tail-wind caught us. Big bird's big eye was immediately pushed hard onto the top of one of the poles in the middle of Times Square, and the crowd swelled as I nearly killed the bird in the eye. Fortunately right there in a specially-roped off part of the sidewalk were a bunch of Army guys who I could only assume got priority seating having just returned from a tour of duty. They didn't even wait for an order, they just swarmed my handlers in unison, grabbing their lines with them and hauling BB backwards, away from facial puncture. Everyone cheered. The bird survived and at the south side of TS a police chief asked if I could stop the balloon so that one of his guys could propose to his girl friend in front of it. I told him to fuck off, I'm a balloon pilot with an important job to do FFS.

Just kidding, the guy proposed and she said yes.

The year I had Clifford, the damn disobedient mutt nearly got loose and killed Katie Couric and Matt Lauer (Big Bird gave this a shot too but didn't get as close). We were rounding the dreaded corner of 34th and Broadway, right at the Herald Square store, and NBC sets up their broadcast desk on a raised platform right at the southeast corner of that intersection where they can see the shows taking place and the parade going back up Broadway in the background. It's the only place you have to turn a corner in the parade since when you turned off of the side of the museum onto CPW, and you have to do it in the wind in front of basically the entire world. Well, that year Clifford's big red nose caught the corner wind pretty hard and the whole balloon lurched way out over the handlers and basically straight at their booth. I screamed for the back cart to stop and the front cart and handlers to all run into the turn harder. And then I ran towards the booth in time to watch his big read head come within a foot of slamming into their booth before it ever so slowly was dragged into the turn to 34th. I guess they must have a delayed broadcast, because I could swear I heard Matt scream something unfit for America's children over the screams of the crowd.

Once you're up 34th, you make a right turn back onto 7th where you descend the balloon onto tarps and then instruct everyone on how to carefully open the 5-foot long zipper flaps to let the helium out. If they're not careful, they get a full facial blast and can pass on the spot and hurt themselves. We may or may not have experimented with this on occasion.

Ah the life of a balloon jockey. We ruled the skies.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:29 PM on November 9, 2015 [178 favorites]

posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:40 PM on November 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

You ask a question, you get an answer. Flagged as fantastic.
posted by Miko at 6:46 PM on November 9, 2015

Sidebar, sidebar!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:01 PM on November 9, 2015

Wow -- asked and answered! (And awesome.)
posted by mudpuppie at 10:16 AM on November 10, 2015

I was a line handler last year. There were training videos online, and a test-run day, but I missed the training day because it was weeks in advance and I was only flying into state for Thanksgiving. So I watched the videos carefully because I had never done it before. The instruction was mostly things like how to let out or take in the right amount of line (as directed by the captain) in a safe way, how to pay attention to the captain, hand signals, etc.

On the day, they wanted an experienced line-handler heading the lines holding an arm, and somehow I got put there (?!). Then (as allkindsoftime said) the captain drilled us on technique (which was a refresher for me thanks to the video, but I think not everyone had seen it), and after a few hours of standing still freezing in the cold (it snowed a bit too. yay), we were away.

It turned out that our balloon was wider than some of the gaps between the trees on either side of one of the streets, so the captain was quickly denied his intention that his balloon would have not a scratch. We brought down a few twigs and branches. Elsewhere the trees were offset so we ended up playing something like a video game - rushing back and forth across the road trying to zig-zag the balloon through the gaps.

People cheer the balloon by name as it passes, so from our perspective the crowd was entirely cheering for our balloon the entire parade. That was fun.

Sometimes the wind would catch the arm I was attached to, and it would go up and down and kids would say "He's waving!" and I would be "waving" too because my arms would be drawn up by it because of the line. WE'RE BOTH WAVING! I CAN'T STOP MYSELF! :)

We got a little badge and certificate to show we participated. We were instructed not to take photos once the balloon was up (for safety), but I saw this widely if not universally disregarded because MACY'S PARADE SELFIE HOLDING GIANT BALLOON! A woman with us had dozens of different badges on her hats - parade years going back decades. Maybe she should have been on the line instead of me, but as Nameless Line Holder I think I did a good job, and the balloon survived to fly another day. :)
posted by anonymisc at 3:29 PM on November 10, 2015 [21 favorites]

posted by growabrain at 7:53 PM on November 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

« Older Is this a joke? It feels like a joke.   |   Regency Dances Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments