Tony Sarg, who invented the Macy’s Parade balloons and dominated world of illustration in the early 20th century, in spotlight again at Rockwell Museum

By DON STEWART

For the Recorder

Published: 07-07-2023 12:34 PM

He is credited as the inventor of the comical, and quite enormous, gas-filled dirigible, since 1927 the symbol of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parades. Called “the father of modern American puppetry,” his productions toured the country and his staff later became teachers to such entertainers as Muppet master Jim Henson. He created animated silhouette films and was the author of more than two dozen children’s books as well as the designer of puzzles, toys, clothing and even wallpaper.

Tony Sarg (1880-1942) was a warm and friendly presence, yet in his later years he was involved in an event so monstrous that it lit up news services from coast to coast. Through Nov. 5, you can view four galleries of his works, including his highly detailed puppets and numerous examples of his art, at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. 

“What we’ve tried to do here is shine a spotlight and bring attention to a very influential illustrator,” museum director Laurie Moffat said during a press reception. “(He was) someone who deeply shaped the popular culture of his time.”

Indeed. With Sarg’s illustrations ranging from magazine covers to maps of the 1939 World’s Fair, in your grandparent’s time his name was as omnipresent as Martha Stewart, Oprah or any Disney product.

Artistic DNA

Sarg’s early years would be a geographical odyssey. He was born in Guatemala to a German diplomat and a British mother, who returned to his father’s homeland when he was 7. Following schooling at military academies, by age 17 Sarg was a lieutenant in the German army. Doubtless what profoundly shaped his artistic drive, however, was that his paternal grandmother was the English watercolorist Mary Ellen Best. Among her interests was a collection of mechanical toys, miniatures and marionettes that the illustrator later inherited.

Despite the rigidity of army life, Sarg, a self-taught artist, was naturally attracted to sketch and paint in his spare time. His early watercolors approach the standard of fine Impressionism.

During this same period he crossed romantic paths with American tourist Bertha McGowan, whom he would wed in 1909. Their daughter Mary later became a prominent painter and illustrator.

In his mid-twenties, Sarg bolted from army life and moved to London with the hope of becoming a freelance illustrator. He landed well. His humorous illustrations soon populated the funny papers and he was later chosen as the theatrical artist for “The Sketch,” a venerable society magazine. His depictions of people are unfailingly lively. A calendar he created for the London Tube displays numerous views of commuter activity from on high.

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“He had this fantastic way of doing bird’s-eye perspectives in his work,” the museum’s chief curator Stephanie Plunkett said. “It gave him the opportunity to show a wide spectrum of activity.”

Plunkett, in collaboration with Lenore Miller, curator emerita of the George Washington University Museum, authored the Rockwell exhibit’s catalogue: “Tony Sarg: Genius at Play” (Abbeville Press; $50). The full-color book, with contributing writers describing Sarg’s career, is definitive in tracing a multifaceted talent who knew no bounds.

“What I think that’s amazing about him is his entrepreneurial spirit,” Plunkett said. “It’s almost as if there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do or try.”

While in London and sketching famed puppeteer Thomas Holden, Sarg became fascinated by his performance. He attended at least 49 more shows, hoping to learn techniques that were as guarded as Taylor Swift’s phone number.

“It was highly secretive as to how the puppets actually worked, how to manipulate them,” Miller said. “He had to extrapolate the mechanical process from watching them.”

In time he mastered the art and when he and his family later moved to America, he organized a national touring company. He also produced two puppet theatricals on the Broadway stage and authored a tell-all book on puppetry techniques.

Although he was no longer pulling the puppet’s strings, he designed performances for marionette shows at the 1933 Century of Progress Expo in Chicago. It was estimated that some 3 million attendees saw the string and wooden-headed acts, although Tony enjoyed inflating that number to 10 million.

Thinking big

When The Great War erupted, Sarg was aware of growing anti-German sentiment in England and left for America. Within a few years of his arrival in New York in 1915, he began a career with Macy’s as a window display designer. He created mechanized fairy tale characters and imaginatively complex scenes that often caused traffic to be blocked by hordes of spectators.

The early Macy’s parades featured caged exotic animals from the local zoo and, given the surliness of the lions and other big cats, the idea failed grandly. Small children were terrified.

Sarg pioneered the idea of creating cartoonish, giant balloon figures filled with helium. For years, they were released to the heavens following the parade, and a prize of $100 was given to the fortunate few who found them. This highly questionable idea came to a skidding stop when a student pilot, attempting to snag one of the dirigibles on her biplane wing, almost crashed.

For the rest of his life, Sarg continued to design the balloons with characters, ranging from Mickey Mouse to a caterpillar a half-block in length. Not restricted to New York, the dirigibles could also be seen in Philadelphia and Boston parades.

In his lifetime, Sarg’s “brand” was a dominant facet of the American zeitgeist. In 1930 he ran businesses from nine different locations, many as studios and workshops. Two of his four stores were in Massachusetts — Marblehead and Nantucket. Sarg’s illustrations were on napkins, tablecloths, fabrics and writing paper, and he wrote and appeared in print advertisements for clients including Goodrich Tires and Gillette Razors.

“What is so integral to his history is his marketing ability,” Miller said. “Clearly he did major work in connecting with all the department stores in New York, New Jersey and the Midwest.”

His cheerful animal paintings could even be found on the walls of the Oasis Café at the Waldorf Astoria.

“His concept was to bring a sense of joy to the public,” Plunkett said. “It was really one of his desires.”

Island life

Beginning in 1920, the Sarg family spent summers on Nantucket, an island steeped in nautical lore. Among the stories regarding the illustrator’s time there was when a friend asked him to create a flag design for the Wharf Rat Club. As educator George Korn writes in the catalogue, “In two minutes Sarg drew a blind rat with a cane sitting on his haunches smoking a pipe.” This symbol for the social group remains to this day.

In August 1937, a Nantucket fisherman Bill Manville breathlessly told a local newspaperman that he had sighted “a green sea monster — which reared its head several times off his starboard before turning seaward.”

Newspapers ran photos of two fishermen measuring tracks over five feet in length on the South Shore beach.

There are countless creatures in the deep. The giant Pacific octopus may have an arm span of 14 feet and weigh 400 pounds. The Lion’s Mane jellyfish can have tentacles 120 feet long.

Throughout the country, news services ran wild with the sighting.

As Korn notes, “(A) few days later the sea serpent itself, in its entirety, washed ashore. It was indeed about 120 feet long, with large teeth … It was also a giant, inflatable balloon.”

The monster would have been recognized by anyone who’d attended a Macy’s parade. Sarg created this elaborate hoax to draw attention both to Nantucket and to his shop. His daughter and her friends had enjoyed sculpting the serpentine tracks in the sand.

For New York’s 1939 World’s Fair, the illustrator created several designs. Among them was a walking cane from which a site map unfurled. Sarg, however, lost money in this and other ventures and declared bankruptcy a few years before his passing at age 61.

“He was generous with his money and with his parties and good times and eventually it all ran down,” Miller said.

As to why Sarg is not a household name today, the curator was succinct. “I think every artist needs an advocate,” she said. “It’s very easy for someone’s name to fall from the public consciousness.”

“Tony Sarg: Genius at Play” continues through Nov. 5 and there are also two new Norman Rockwell exhibits. Admission: Adults $20; ages 18 and under, free. Online ticket reservations suggested at nrm.org. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Wednesdays.

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