Tucked away in the northwest corner of Hoboken, between Spina's Auto Body and Riverfront Car Wash, exists an ostensibly inconsequential warehouse. Bounded by barbed wire, it looks just like the rest of the buildings that make up the city's industrial landscape. A couple of days each year, however, some telltale signs - like a towering penguin named Percy - expose the façade's real raison d'etre, which is to house the more than 20 artists and balloon technicians who create the colossal characters that cruise above the streets of Manhattan each Thanksgiving.
Since 1968, all of the balloons and floats that make up the venerated Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade have been designed and constructed in Hoboken. The studio is also responsible for coordinating other annual events, like the Macy's Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza and the Macy's Flower Show.
Each fall, the department store abandons the deliberate reticence that shrouds the studio, and, for one day only, offers the press an opportunity to preview the attractions. Last Wednesday was that day.
Along with the rest of the media, including a Today Show crew and a Christian Science Monitor reporter, I made my way to the Willow Avenue warehouse - which was once a Tootsie Roll factory - and was greeted by a 34-foot tall inflatable toy soldier. Between the resplendent displays and the buoyant workers, the studio was more like Santa's workshop than a typical Hoboken warehouse.
John Piper, an Ohio-born artist with a background in theatrical design, runs the studio. With ruddy cheeks and a cheery comportment, Piper is much like Santa, only slimmer.
"In 1980 I answered a job posting on a call board for a carpenter," said Piper, who, despite having conducted countless interviews, was able to magically maintain his enthusiasm. "I met Manfred Bass, the legendary designer of the parade for 40 years, and started drafting for him." Eventually, Piper was promoted to technical coordinator. "I worked hand in hand with Bass from 1980 to 1988, when I moved back to the Midwest. But I came back for all of the parades and other events, like the Fourth of July fireworks. And last year, when Manfred Bass announced that he was going to retire, he called me and said, 'It's time to come home.'"
Despite the shift in power, parade goers can expect the usual suspects like Snoopy, Barney and Cloe the Holiday Clown. This year there will also be five new balloons including Curious George, Cheesasaurus Rex and Pikachu, the parade's first Pokemon balloon. Piper insists that he doesn't have a favorite.
"How can you?" he said. "They're all so cool."
All in all, the parade will feature 28 floats, 15 novelty balloons and 15 giant helium balloons, along with clowns, high school marching bands and the Radio City Rockettes.
"I was hesitant about taking the reins from Manfred, who is such a great artist and leader," Piper said. "But at the same time, I couldn't wait to come back. I love this place. I love this staff. They make magic in everything they do."
The 75th annual Thanksgiving Day Parade will begin at 77th Street and Central Park West on Thursday, Nov. 22 at 9 a.m. The parade will wind its way down to Herald Square and the Macy's Department Store. For more information call (212) 494-4495.
Historical Museum presents Macy's exhibit
T he Hoboken Historical Museum is currently presenting Macy's Studio, Hoboken, NJ, an exhibition celebrating the city's 33-year contribution to the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The exhibit features artifacts from the parade studio archives, including giant puppets, scale models, drawings, sculptures, and photographs of the people, many of whom are from Hoboken, who make these amazing creations.
"I'm very proud of the fact that the Hoboken Historical Museum is putting a major emphasis of their display, not only on the 75 years, but especially on the artist who work here in Hoboken," John Piper, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade's chief designer, said last week. "Because they are the behind-the-scenes unsung warriors. They are the best."
The Hoboken Historical Museum, located at 1301 Hudson St., Hoboken, is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. There is a suggested $2 admission fee for adults. Children are free. The exhibit will run through Feb. 25. For more information call 656-2240 or visit the museum's web site at hobokenmuseum.org.