Since beginning in the year 1924, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade has established itself as an essential part of the Thanksgiving season. Every autumn, the leaves turn, and the nation prepares itself for the Thanksgiving traditions we've come to love: sky-high airfare prices, drawing hand turkeys, and watching a massive Pikachu float over the head of bystanders like a benevolent electric rat-god descended from some sort of Pokemon Olympus.
Unfortunately, the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade has not gone off without its share of hitches throughout the years. If I had to attribute one source to most of these problems, I would point to the difficulty of attempting to float gigantic, unwieldy balloons through New York City, an environment made almost entirely of obstacles. But this is America, and we are a country that thrives on an ill-advised spectacle like no other! Every year, we celebrate our independence with a combination of alcohol and low-grade explosives that seems designed to decrease the number of fingers in this country by as much as possible. And we'd have it no other way.
Now, most of these parade hiccups don't go any further than your run-of-the-mill deflations and impromptu tree-branch balloon amputations. Beyond a rapidly deflating Spongebob Squarepants giving your youngest child nightmares of a body-horror Bikini Bottom, they're more of an "Aw, dang," than an "Oh, the humanity!" Related: Was the Hindenburg the worst balloon of all time? I would argue, yes.
However, the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade has had a handful of mishaps that have crossed over from the merely hugely inconvenient to the genuinely dangerous, and in some cases, tragic ...
Felix the Cat is an icon in the world of animation, hitting peak popularity in the 1920s with children whose entertainment alternatives included hoop-and-stick and contracting polio. You may be familiar with Felix from his continued appearances throughout pop culture, from t-shirts to Funko Pops, or as the creepy clock from your aunt's house.
So, in 1927, Felix was a perfect candidate for the first-ever giant balloon featured in the Macy's Day Parade. However, the engineers and designers responsible fell into the classic scientific trap of being too focused on if they COULD make a gigantic Felix the Cat balloon, and not whether they SHOULD make a gigantic Felix the Cat balloon. The answer to the second question turned out to be "no," as the Felix the Cat float, in the span of a single day, became both the first giant balloon to be featured in the Macy's Day Parade and the first giant balloon in the Macy's Day Parade to collide with telephone lines and burst into flames.
Thankfully, the flames were quickly extinguished without further incident, likely because in 1927, buildings were made entirely out of asbestos. Horrific-smelling blaze aside, one has to appreciate the dedication to making giant balloons happen, even after the first attempt literally blew up in their faces. They didn't even take a year off. They just got back together and said, "Again! This time with less fire!"
It takes courage, pluck, and a pinch of disregard for public safety to establish a tradition of this magnitude. It's because of these heroes that we are able to salute a giant Goku drifting through our country's most populous city every year.
The year was 1932, and absolutely no one had learned anything. Another essential thing to know about the early days of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is that until the year 1932, at the end of the parade, they just ... released the floats. Deflation was not part of the game plan. When they'd finish their route, they'd simply let go of the balloons and celebrate a job well done with a healthy unfiltered cigarette. Then, they'd watch as a gigantic helium-filled cereal mascot floated off towards the horizon, probably on its way to land on and smother a cow on a farm somewhere.
But, Macy's did want the balloons back at some point, which led them to offer a bounty of $100 for their safe return. Now, first of all, remember that $100, adjusted for inflation, would be equivalent to about $1700 today. Second, remember that this is the middle of the Great Depression. So, finding a deflated Macy's balloon in your yard was like winning a weird, wind-based lottery and may have meant that you were having Christmas after all this year.
So how did this lead to disaster? The astute among you might have noticed that we are talking about a disaster in 1932, and that they stopped releasing the floats in 1932. You may be wondering if that is a coincidence. It is not.
After a long afternoon of making children cry, the inflatable terror pictured above, known as the "Tom-Cat," was floating listlessly through the air post-release when it was spotted by student pilot Annette Gipson. Dreams of a single Benjamin swimming in her head, Annette decided to get closer to try to capture the cursed but profitable object.
Unfortunately, planes are complex and delicate pieces of equipment, and intensely dislike having a 60-foot cat balloon wrapped around one of their wings. Which is what happened, promptly sending Annette into a tailspin. Her plane came within 250 feet of the rooftops before her instructor managed to take control and make one of the most embarrassing emergency landings in aviation history.
After this incident, the people in charge rethought their post-parade strategy, which is to say, actually thought about it for the first time. Without going deep into historical records, I would also guess that Annette Gipson did not receive her pilot's license. Not because she crashed a plane, just because it was 1932, and they probably considered women of "too fickle a disposition" to fly.
Here we make a bit of a time-jump into the 90s, where the parade has gotten somewhat safer because of the invention of things like "safety regulations" and "lawsuits." It's 1993, and Sonic, the charismatic blue hedgehog responsible for single-handedly carrying the Sega Genesis to profitability, is being featured in the Macy's Day Parade.
Now, anyone giving the idea of yanking giant balloons down New York City streets a passing thought will quickly arrive at the question, "But what about all the lamp posts?" And they would be right to! Unsurprisingly, throughout the entirety of the parade's existence, lamp posts have been the nemesis of these helium-filled leviathans. This would prove no different as Sonic did his best to Go Fast down the Manhattan streets. Now that we've entered the modern era, we are even blessed to have video footage of the result:
"Well, the balloon was a bust, but at least those games are great and always will be."
- Sonic fans in 1993, before everything went wrong.
The strong winds pre-parade prompted the Sonic float's captain to say that they were "making things more difficult than usual." This difficulty came to a climax as the Sonic balloon slammed its beloved face directly into a lamppost, popping the balloon and knocking off the lamp, which fell into the crowd and sent an off-duty police officer to the hospital in a rare incident of blue-on-blue violence. A young girl was also hurt, but thankfully both recovered with only minor injuries.
Chaos did ensue, however, due to the absolutely massive downpour of golden rings released into the crowd from the injured Sonic. Just a quick fun joke since the next section is decidedly ... less so.
Like a Shih-Tzu that continues to bite people unreprimanded because of its adorable appearance, everyone seemed to consider a couple ripped balloons and shattered streetlights as simply the cost of doing business, balloon-parade-wise.
In 1997, though, as if to prove a point and finally demand respect, an unruly Thanksgiving float did cause serious bodily harm. The danger began when a lamp post (who could have seen this coming?!) was damaged by the Peter Rabbit float. The lamp post managed to hold itself upright until subsequently struck by the Cat in the Hat float, at which point a portion of the lamppost weighing 100 pounds snapped off and fell to the ground, injuring 4 parade-goers. One victim, Kathy Coronna, was so grievously injured that she spent almost a month in a coma due to the accident. She would later sue Macy's and, unsurprisingly, settle out of court. I assume Macy's defense of "this only happens all the time" was considered less than bulletproof by their legal team.
There is video of this incident as well, as seen in this news clip. It's certainly not as chuckle-worthy as the other examples in this article, though that didn't stop the news graphics team from layering a shockingly chipper cartoon turkey over footage of a woman being knocked unconscious.
That preachy fish is never gonna let him hear the end of this.
The staff quickly deflated and retired the Cat in the Hat balloon, which is a quietly hilarious thing to do because it implies that the balloon itself needed to be punished. However, the Cat in the Hat wasn't the only balloon causing problems this year, as elsewhere, the Barney balloon had begun to blow around wildly before, against all odds ... colliding with a lamp post.
After the collision, NYPD officers rushed the balloon and began to stab and deflate it "for public safety," though some may see it as a brutal extrajudicial killing in retribution for Sonic's ruthless attack on law enforcement four years earlier.
Yes, there's video.
... though a few terrified shrieks do spice up that annoying song.
Quelle surprise! In 2005, the M&Ms float ... let's see our notes here ... got caught on a lamppost and knocked a large piece of it off, striking two young girls. One did require stitches, but both got away with only minor injuries. Below, a video of the event, which only everybody could have expected:
Seriously, are they making lamp posts out of balsa wood?
Given that I'm writing this article in the year 2020, amid a global pandemic, one can assume that we won't be seeing any throngs of observers beneath these anthropomorphic aerial harbingers of doom. More likely, we'll all be watching from the comfort of our couch.
But in years to come, if you decide you'd like to make the trip and see the parade in person, please, make me one promise: Don't stand under a goddamn lamppost.
Top image: Scott Cornell/Shutterstock