Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Turkey Dinner or Duck Soup?

 


 I doubt that the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade was as much an American pop culture institution in 1935 as it is today. Remember, there was no television, so that made it strictly a local event. If you wanted to see it live, you had to be living in, or at least visiting, the tri-state area (New Jersey/New York/Connecticut--though some would add the northeastern most part of Pennsylvania, in which case it becomes the quad-state area.) To encourage the natives or tourists to get out of their houses or hotel rooms on what is often a cold November day, full-page advertisements such as the one above were placed in local papers. Perusing this ad--I saw a larger version that I unfortunately can't reproduce here without taking out the sidebar--one difference from the more modern version stands out: the starting time. 2 o'clock? Are they talking PM? For as long as I can remember, going back to the days when Lorne Greene and Betty White were the parade's television emcees, it started sometime in the morning and was over by noon, and at that point the network was turned over to either the NFL or the Big Ten. Of course, no television, no football game, unless you lived near a stadium. Other than when it began or ended, the parade seems not to have changed all that much. There's floats and big balloons and marching bands and celebrities. Santa, of course, at the end, but in 1935 there were other renowned visitors that you won't see on TV this Thanksgiving, so let's see who they were back then.


In the ad's upper-right-hand corner, to the immediate right of the big exclamation point, there's a small photograph of someone named Tony Sarg. Mr. Sarg may have been well-known in his day, but he's long since fallen into obscurity (even I had to look him up, accepting all kinds of so-called "cookies" to do so.) A German immigrant, Sarg wore many hats during his colorful career, including that of animator, magazine cartoonist, illustrator, designer, and, especially, puppeteer, an art form he helped popularize in the United States, eventually becoming known as the Father of North America Puppetry. Perhaps he also should be known as the Father of North American Ballooners. Sarg was already involved with Macy's as the designer of the department store's robotic window displays when, in 1927, he was asked to come up with some ideas for the Thanksgiving parade, which got its start three years earlier. His idea was the now-familiar but back then quite novel giant balloon, which was essentially a huge helium-filled reverse-marionette, the puppeteers maneuvering the blimp from the ground up. Initially, these balloons were stock figures like toy soldiers or various animals, but as the annual parade gained in popularity, owners of copyrighted characters such as the animated cartoon star Felix the Cat took notice, and let Sarg inflate the characters for publicity's stake. More about one such character, now much more well-known than Felix, in a moment (and if you examined the above ad closely, I'm sure you've already guessed who it is.) Sarg died in 1942, and that I never heard of him is my loss. There's actually quite a bit about him online, so I don't regret accepting--HEY, WHY IS MY COMPUTER RINGING AND WHAT'S ALL THESE BOXES POPPING UP ON THE SCREEN?!



Uh, give me a second, will ya?...










OK, I finally got all that under control. Shall we continue?



You'll have to scroll up a bit to get back to it, but to the left of that avian dirigible in that Macy's ad you'll find the photo of our next celebrity, bandleader Paul Whiteman. Him I've heard of, though I can't say I've followed his career all that closely. He was once referred to as The King of Jazz, but that sobriquet has been grumpily disputed, derided, denounced, and disproven by several generations of outraged jazz aficionados. Like Bill Haley a quarter of a century later, Whiteman was a--no pun intended (by me, anyway)--white man who made black music palatable for white audiences by draining it of its blackness. To be fair to Mr. Whiteman, I went to YouTube to sample some of his musical offerings. What I heard sounded closer to a high school marching band than anything that came from Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway. But then I like all music, even high school marching bands (sometimes more than whatever game is being played), so I can't say I wasn't entertained. We'll just leave the musical critiques at that. John Philip Sousa's  Paul Whiteman's heyday was the 1920s, but he was still a musical force to be reckoned with in the decade that followed. At least on Broadway, where he and his band provided orchestration to several musicals, including Rodgers and Hart's 1935 hit Jumbo. The story of a struggling circus, the show featured actual circus acts, and ended each night with Jimmy Durante lying down on a stage and having his face gently tapped by an elephant's foot! (If you're familiar with the once-famous Durante's once-famous nose, you may wonder if it looked like that before the elephant tapped him. I'll have to look it up, but only if I don't have to accept any more cookies.) As for Whiteman, he was at the parade to promote Jumbo. Jimmy Durante wasn't, and that may be all for the best. Who knows how that elephant would have reacted in front of all those unruly paradegoers?


Now, if you're willing to scroll back up to that ad and look to the right of the big inflatable waterfowl, you'll see a celebrity that I'm not only aware of but am actually a fan of, as well as a fan of the comedy team of which he was a member, Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers. He and his sibs Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo had spent the first half of the 1930s at Depression-wracked Paramount Pictures, but just now had moved to the ritzier digs of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where money grew on papier-mâché trees. How long Harpo, Groucho, and Chico would be allowed to stay at those ritzier digs (for all its supposed excess cash flow, Metro balked at an extra dressing room for Zeppo) all depended on the sucess of their new movie. At Paramount, the outside world, the world of order and restraint, served merely as a backdrop to the boys' anarchic antics, but MGM exec Irving Thalberg thought there were more comic possibilities in having the brothers confront the world of order and restraint head-on. Film buffs may argue about whether the Paramount approach or the Thalberg approach produced the funnier pictures, but their first MGM outing, A Night at the Opera (only in a Marx Brothers movie could opera convincingly represent the world of order and restraint) became and would remain the boys biggest box office hit, and today is still their best-known film. But in November of 1935, that still remained to be seen, and that's why Harpo was there, to promote the flick. (Incidentally, Thanksgiving fell on the 28th that year, and Harpo's birthday was five days earlier, close enough for him to have candles in that pumpkin pie.)

Speaking of Harpo, here's Harpo speaking: 

 

 
 Nothing to do with Thanksgiving, other than my way of giving thanks to a comedy god.



Our final celebrity is the one that dominates that Macy's ad, Donald Duck, looking as he did in 1935. Though for marketing reasons Donald was never able to replace Mickey Mouse as the studio mascot, Walt Disney realized before the moviegoing public did that Mickey's cartoons were destined to reach a creative dead-end, and so subtly, and then not-so-subtly, shifted his company's focus to the duck. As he was so often during his remarkable career, Walt was proved right. Donald was a much funnier character than Mickey, had a much more comedically-adaptive personality than Mickey. Donald appeared in many more cartoon shorts than Mickey, and throughout the 1940s and beyond, was the Disney studio's highest-grossing star. If that wasn't enough, Donald was a major star of comic books as well, in the days before that art form became solely dedicated to superheroes. However, in 1935, all that was still in the future. Donald Duck made his animated debut only a year earlier, and had yet to appear in a cartoon as anything other than a supporting player. So, it was quite an honor for him to appear for the first time in a Macy's parade (Mickey had made his Macy's debut the previous year, as had one of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.)  If you look at the picture at the left, you'll see Donald had a long thin neck back in the day, and almost looks like he could be a baby ostrich instead of a duck.

  

 
 
The balloon followed suit. Unfortunately, it was rainy and windy that day, causing that long neck to sway. Donald sure doesn't look happy about it, does he? This was not only the first, but also the last Thanksgiving for that particular balloon.


27 years later, in 1962, a new Donald appeared at the parade. The long neck had long since disappeared from the cartoons and comic books, and so too from the balloon. Donald looks pleased. This version ran until 1971, and then was retired due to wear and tear, though it did make one more appearance in 1984 to celebrate the duck's 50th birthday. Since that time, while there's been much smaller Donalds seen on floats, there's been no balloon. According to Macy's own Thanksgiving parade web site, licensing issues may be what's holding things up. Which reminds me...


I give thanks for that every time I post on this blog. 

And I'm thankful for whoever drops by to look at this stuff. Enjoy the holiday, folks.






19 comments:

  1. I don’t think I ever missed a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade when I was a kid. My lucky brother had ring-side seats three years in a row.

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    1. The Kid Brother got to see it live, Mitchell? Did he take pictures?

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  2. Hi, Kirk!

    Thanks for doing this essay on the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and the stars of yesteryear and today that were featured in the spectacle during its earliest years. The Macy's Parade was must see TV when I was a boy. The whole family gathered to watch it. We also never missed the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day, The Miss America Pageant hosted by Bert Parks and the World Series. In recent decades I have paid little or no attention to any of those events. Parades have changed significantly since those early years in the 1930s. For one thing, I don't remember speeding cars plowing into people.

    I was not familiar with the name Tony Sarg. Thanks for telling us about his pioneering in the areas of puppetry and ballooning. I was familiar with bandleader Paul Whiteman, the so-called King of Jazz, but appreciated learning more about him. I was shocked to hear Harpo Marx speak. His mute character in the movies was so convincing that I didn't think he was even able to speak. Remember Lucy Ball imitating Harpo? I watched many Marx Brothers comedies and also was a regular viewer of Groucho's You Bet Your Life TV quiz show.

    I will gladly accept those cookies. (I will tag my comment with my shipping address.)

    It's interesting how differently many animal cartoon characters looked when they were introduced compared to how they are drawn today. Woody Woodpecker, Donald Duck and others have transform from more natural and realistic to cute and whimsical. I can't say that I like the trend.

    Thanks for giving us plenty of interesting background on the Macy's Parade, good buddy Kirk. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

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    1. Shady, I do remember that I Love Lucy episode. Of course, the whole bit with the mirror is a sly reference to Duck Soup, where Groucho and Harpo (disguised as Groucho) perform that classic scene.

      Shady, cartoon characters get redesigned for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it has to do with changes in animation styles. Take Mickey Mouse. From 1928 to 1939, he looks basically the same, with only some minor tweaking. This is the "Classic Mickey", that a lot of people (including myself) prefer. So why was he changed? In order to boost his sagging popularity, it was decided to give Mickey his own segment in Fantasia. But that movie's animation was much more lush, more fulsome, than any cartoon short Mickey had previously appeared in, and it was thought his original style would look out of place. So, among other things, they got rid of those wonderful oblong dot eyes of his, replacing them with circles with pupils. That way he looked more realistic--or at least as realistic as a mouse the size of a human child battling walking brooms carrying pails of water could look.

      However, the main reason these characters change, especially in regards to becoming cute and whimsical, has to do with a changing target audience. Originally, animated cartoons weren't particularly meant for children. Remember, these were shorts that, along with newsreels and travelogues, appeared before the main feature in a movie theater. That main feature may have been, probably was, targeted for adults. The Woody Woodpecker cartoons that you mentioned were distributed by Universal Pictures. Though it made all kinds of movies, Universal's specialty was horror. If the main attraction is Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, you don't really need to see a cute and whimsical woodpecker beforehand.

      As time went on, though, animated cartoons were seen as being primarily for children. I think this partly was because the characters could be spun off as toys and comic books. And Walt Disney and others increasingly used fairy tales and children literature in general as source material. But the main reason was television. Sometime in the 1950s, TV programmers figured out that on Saturday mornings it was mainly children plopped in front of the set, and the easiest way to keep them entertained (and remained plopped in front of that set) was to show them all those cartoons made during the 1930s and '40s, whether those cartoons were originally meant for kids or not. And from there you soon get cartoons made directly for television, as well as made directly for children (enter the Hanna-Barbara era.) Animated shorts were still made and shown before theatrical movies as late as 1972, but makers of those shorts (such as Woody Woodpecker's Walter Lantz) had to know that those shorts were destined for television, children's television, and made them kid-friendly, as well as cute and whimsical, the better to have a cute and whimsical stuffed character tie-in for Junior to cuddle with in his bed.

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  3. I still watch the parade...but it's too sing song and celebrities now. Don't they already get exposure during the year??? I enjoy looking at the old photos of the parade and the magic it had. The Philadelphia parade, or the Gimbels Parade originally.... still has it charm... Just floats bands and balloons and some mummers. It's lovely

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    1. Maddie, is there still a Gimbels? I always think of that scene in Miracle on 34th Street where Edmund Gwenn-as-Santa suggests to Thelma Ritter where she can find a cheaper toy, and Thelma replies "Macy's is sending me to Gimbels?"

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  4. The original Donald Duck balloon looks like a mean mofo! Happy Thanksgiving!

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    1. Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Debra, and you're right, he does look mean!

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  5. Hello Kirk, Although I am aware of its reputation, and bits and pieces of info have reached me over the years, I have never seen a Macy's parade. I can imagine that, as the comment above has state, that most of the innocence and charm of the early years has gone. However, as you have instructed us, those early years, charming and inventive as they were, were still part of a commercial effort.
    --Jim

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    1. Oh, yeah, Jim, pop culture nostalgia always makes the pop culture past look less commercial than the pop culture present, but it just ain't so! Pop culture IS commercial culture. I like to think that it occasionally rises to the level of art, or else I wouldn't be doing this blog, or doing something else on this blog, but to quote a line from a post I once did about Star Trek, as far as the owners of the means of production--the movie studios, the TV networks, the comic book publishers, the comic strip syndicates, the record labels, etc--are concerned, pop culture is a product to be bought and sold. That leaves it up to us "consumers". If you want art, you have to demand art, whether that demand comes in the form of Nielsen ratings or box office receipts. A little cosplay at a convention doesn't hurt, either. Just ask any Trekkie.

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  6. Thank you for reading Barers Of Maple Valley and for pointing out that small error. I have corrected it, acknowledging your comment.

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    1. No problem, Mike. I don't like to nitpick, but it sort of jumped out at me.

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  7. Harpo sure doesn't sound like a Harpo.

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    1. Mike, in that second YouTube video he sounds like an aging Borsht Belt comic.

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  8. So many names from the past, so I know, some I don't. I thought Felix the Cat was terrific and Donald was my favourite Disney creature, although I kind of admired Scrooge. So Macy's parade is still alive and well. That is so good for kids, and perhaps the not so young.

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    1. Andrew, did you know that Scrooge McDuck, Donald's rich uncle, originated in a comic book? Created by Carl Barks sometime in the 1940s, it wasn't until 1983, in Mickey's Christmas Carol, that he made his animation debut.

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  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  10. Hope you have a good one Kirk :-D

    I grew up on Duck Soup...the movie haha. And all the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy and other oldies!

    30th is St Andrews Day over here in Bonnie Scotland!

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  11. Happy St Andrews Day, Ananka.

    I believe Bonnie Scotland is the name of a Laurel and Hardy movie.

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In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.