In the summer of 1937, Nantucket’s newspaper of record, The Inquirer and Mirror, reported that a local fisherman had spotted a sea monster off the coast. A day later, the paper published a follow-up story, this time with photographic evidence, about two other fishermen who had stumbled across unidentifiable, impossibly large tracks—about five and a half feet long by four feet wide—in the sands of Madaket Beach. The news went out on the wires and was printed in papers from Massachusetts to California.
Locally, the news items were met with a mix of terror and disbelief—terror by those steeped in the menacing folklore of their seafaring ancestors, tales of sea creatures that had bedeviled coastal New Englanders since the days of whaleboats and harpoons; disbelief by those who knew that fishermen (and ancestors) tend to fable their way through boredom.
As it turns out, these fishermen weren’t so much lying as they were playing pawns in a marketing scheme.
They’d been enlisted by Tony Sarg, the most acclaimed puppeteer in America, to plant the story. In a masterful publicity sleight of hand, Sarg suggested the presence of a hellish creature, but delivered something altogether different onto Nantucket’s South Beach that August: a spellbinding, if slightly terrifying, rubberized silk balloon that would draw astonished onlookers and drum up buzz for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, an event he had helped create for the department store in 1924.
Sarg’s reputation was as formidable as the inky, tumefied, 100-foot-long mass: he was not just a mischievous puppet master and marketer extraordinaire but a whimsical artist, a charming author, and an astute designer of everything from clothing to children’s barbershops.
A Life of the Party
Born in Guatemala in 1880 to a German-consul father and an English mother, Sarg’s first job was as an officer in the German military. Unfortunately, the attributes that would make him so successful later in his career, such as a sense of humor and a reputation for being the life of the party, made him an outcast rather than a standout.
In 1905, he resigned his commission and moved to London to work as an illustrator for the major newspapers. It was there that the artistic life for which he was genetically predisposed—his father was a painter, his grandfather a wood-carver, and his grandmother a collector of wooden toys and marionettes—began to take shape.
The defining moment of Sarg’s time in London came when he was assigned to draw a marionette show put on by Thomas Holden, then the crown prince of English puppetry. Sarg, transfixed by the performance, rushed backstage full of questions and wonder, only to find out that Holden and other puppeteers of his day fiercely guarded the secrets of their craft.
Undeterred, Sarg attended the production more than 50 times, sketching through each one to work out the mechanics of Holden’s marionettes. He finally deciphered the puzzling inner workings of the dolls—they were hollow in the midsection to allow for more lifelike movements—and replicated them for himself. But Sarg wasn’t content to simply rip off the puppets; he redesigned the controlling apparatus so they could be steered to perform actions as complicated as smoking a pipe.
In 1915, with anti-German sentiment engulfing England, Sarg moved to New York City with his American wife, Bertha McGowan, and their daughter, and expanded upon the success he’d found in London, drawing for magazines and newspapers from Boys’ Life and Vanity Fair to The New York Times.
Once in New York, Sarg realized that he could differentiate himself as an artist through puppetry, and he began staging elaborate, technically complicated productions of tales such as Faust and Don Quixote.
Sarg’s eponymous company, which he started in 1917, found a home at the Charles Hopkins Theatre, just off Times Square, where it quickly became known for innovative puppet and marionette plays.
Between the shows and his other business concerns—directing such films as The First Circus, authoring children’s books, and designing wallpaper, furniture for kids, and interiors for department stores and restaurants, including the Waldorf Astoria’s supper club and the murals in the front room of Manhattan’s Monkey Bar—Sarg became a mogul of enchantment, turning the delight of others into a profitable business model.
It was no surprise, then, that in 1924 Macy’s asked Sarg to help with their Thanksgiving Day Parade. The task was simple: design holiday window displays to captivate and delight parade-goers. For three consecutive years, Sarg took the instruction as a challenge, and by 1927 the windows had become so elaborate that the parade itself paled in comparison.
In a stroke of genius, Sarg suggested introducing inflatable balloons to the parade. He was certain these upside-down marionettes would turn the event into living theater. The procession of smooth, dreamlike forms would float through the canyons of New York, enchanting adults and children alike not with the commercial appeal of today’s Macy’s parade but with the distended crudeness of a child’s fantasy liberated from the pages of a sketchbook and filled with gas.
That year, the Macy’s parade featured balloons of Felix the Cat, a 60-foot-tall toy soldier, and a 20-foot-long elephant, all manufactured by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, in Akron, Ohio. The helium inflatables, a bit more fearsome than those of today, grew larger and more complicated with each passing year. Some contained their own sound effects—like a barking dachshund—and others needed as many as 50 handlers on the ground, with a Pinocchio requiring 20 handlers for his nose alone.
Eventually, the balloons were fitted with slow-release valves so they could be let loose into the sky at the end of the parade, averting a logistical nightmare on the ground and simultaneously creating an airborne sensation.
In another feat of well-calculated promotion, Sarg offered a reward to anyone who returned a wayward balloon to Macy’s. The ensuing races to find and give them back were so heated that they became news in their own right—one woman, trying to catch Felix the Cat on the wing of her biplane while aloft, crash-landed her way onto the front page of the next day’s New York Times.
By 1939, Sarg himself had crashed. He was bankrupt, selling puppets and giving them to his workers to settle debts, despite an ostensibly good year designing merchandise for the World’s Fair. He would die three years later at the age of 61 after an emergency appendectomy.
But his ignominious end is justly eclipsed by the legacy he left behind. Sarg brought entire towns, and cities, together for extravagant spectacles that were as riveting as they were unpredictable. He was a man who devoted his entire life to making a reality out of the mythical, to vivifying the inanimate, and to inspiring people with imaginations less robust than his own. If he should be remembered for anything, it’s for making people delight in even the things they feared.
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for Air Mail