Anthony Sarg: America’s Puppet Master


Anthony Sarg: America’s Puppet Master

Every year, thousands of fans line up to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York and millions of viewers watch the parade at home. Who inspired and designed those astonishing massive balloons we see?  Meet the father of the parade balloons: Anthony Sarg.

Sonic the Hedgehog

An Intro to Anthony Sarg

Anthony Frederick Sarg was a German American puppeteer and illustrator. He’s often referred to as “America’s Puppet Master”, and is often called the father of modern puppetry in North America.

Sarg was born in 1880 in Cobán, Guatemala, the son of the German consul and an English mother. The family returned to the German Empire in 1887.

He was lucky enough to grew up in a creative household. His father was an artist, his grandfather a woodcarver and his grandmother a painter who gave him a collection of mechanical toys that may have inspired his imagination. She also gave him dolls, marionettes and miniature houses. When Sarg saw a performance by the famous puppeteer Thomas Holden, who invented the marionette, he realized this was his calling.

“Every little movement has a meaning of its own.”

—Tony Sarg

Sarg attended a military academy and was commissioned as a lieutenant at the age of 17. He also began to visit publishers to show them his portfolio of drawings.

Early Adulthood

In 1905, in his mid-20s, Sarg resigned his commission and moved to the United Kingdom. Four years later he married American Bertha McGowan. After they married in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, they returned to England where their daughter Mary was born two years later.

He used the marionettes he inherited from his grandmother’s collection and began performing. In 1914, when World War I began, he resettled his family in New York City. Within two years, Sarg was in demand both as an illustrator and puppeteer. His illustrations appeared in the prestigious Saturday Evening Post.

Career as a Designer

He began to experiment with puppet designs and stagings around 1917. His sophisticated puppet shows included performances of Faust and Don Quixote. After World War I, Sarg earned a reputation as both a practical joker and a focused worker. His creativity was unquestionable. His work as a designer, inventor, and illustrator appeared in cartoons, children’s books, mechanical toys, advertising, puzzles, window displays, and balloons.

At the peak of his popularity during the Great Depression, Sarg was earning $80,000 per year. He became so well-known that his face appeared in product advertising. However, his lifelong fascination was with puppetry. This hobby finally became his profession in 1917. In 1920, Sarg became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

The Sargs had been living in New York City for nine years when Sarg first got involved with the Macy’s department store chain. Sarg put his talent to work with the first ever Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. He designed the sets and the displays, and was responsible for its noted success.

Anthony Sarg Reptile BalloonIn the parade’s fourth year, as interest began to die down some, Macy’s knew that they needed a new feature. They commissioned Sarg to create rubberized silk animal balloons for the parade. He then dreamed up and designed the giant balloons that are now so iconic of the Macy’s parade. At the time, his balloons were filled up with oxygen and around 50 Macy’s “puppeteers”—normally just Macy’s employees re-purposed for this task—held them up.

In 1935, Sarg created the first Macy’s puppet-related animated Christmas windows. He also opened a small chain of toy stores and curiosity shops, and a restaurant named Bohemia where his “puppets entertained nightly and the celebrities of the stage and literary fame flock,” according to The Tuscaloosa News.

Sarg’s Unfortunate Decline

Sarg peaked at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair at which his displays reached an audience of three million people. Unfortunately, after this, other puppeteers gained ground on him, and his fortunes began declining. He was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1939 and mounted his last production the same year.

The Academy Film Archive has preserved several of Tony Sarg’s films, including “The Original Movie,” “When the Whale Was Jonahed,” and “Why Adam Walked the Floor”.

Without this English immigrant, we would not have had the immense balloons that are now a hallmark of Thanksgiving and of the Macy’s Parade. We appreciate his #WeAreImmigrant contributions to the United States!

Nisha Katti

About Nisha Katti

Nisha Katti is BlueTone's Marketing Coordinator. She specializes in content writing and social media management, among other activities. Nisha is a native of Atlanta, yet her heart will always lie with the magnificent magnolias of Athens, Georgia, where she attended the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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