December 13, 2011  |  Artists, Collection & Exhibitions
Tim Burton Takes Flight in the Thanksgiving Day Parade

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade winds through New York City with B.

This past Thanksgiving I had the privilege of taking part in a time-honored New York City tradition, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I was one of 35 handlers assigned to a balloon new to the 85th edition of the parade. The balloon, B., was a character designed by Tim Burton as part of Macy’s Blue Sky Gallery, a subseries of the parade that invites modern artists to create works for the event. Past commissioned artists include Jeff Koons, who created Rabbit for the parade in 2007, and Takashi Murakami, who contributed two balloons, Kaikai and Kiki, last year. When the Macy’s parade officials visited MoMA’s Tim Burton exhibition in 2010, they saw Balloon Boy (2009) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Tasked with this new commission, Burton conceived a character with a back story as melancholy as any of Burton’s well-known works. This “B. Boy,” constructed of discarded party balloons, lives in the basement of a children’s hospital in London. Inspired by Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 French film Le Ballon rouge (The Red Balloon) (which happens to be in MoMA’s film collection), he dreams of one day flying in the air. Adapting his themes to a new medium, Burton’s B., a misunderstood character with grand ambitions, is rendered in red, white, and blue in, perhaps, a knowing wink at the wholly American tradition of Thanksgiving.

Balloon Boy on view in MoMA’s Agnes Gund Lobby during the Tim Burton exhibition

The Red Balloon. 1956. France. Directed by Albert Lamorisse. Photo courtesy Lopert/Photofest. © Lopert Pictures

Last summer, when I first heard of this new work, I immediately knew I wanted to be part of the balloon’s march through Manhattan. For several months, I eagerly anticipated Thanksgiving Day—so much so that I didn’t think I would be able to sleep the night before. Turned out, not sleeping would have been a good option as I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to report for the parade at 34th Street. When I arrived, I was greeted by a massive line of balloon handlers that stretched around the block and down an avenue. Attempting to avoid the line by getting coffee at McDonald’s, I found a comparably massive line of other parade participants at the fast food depot similarly attempting to avoid the parade lines. After a few hours of pre-dawn waiting, I finally made my way up to the parade costume area in the New Yorker Hotel, where I found my outfit for the day: a blue jumpsuit covered with hand-painted black stitches and a large red “B.” painted on the back. After changing, I was ushered into one of several buses waiting to take the parade folk to the starting line on the Upper West Side. As I rode with the other colorfully clothed participants up the West Side Highway, I couldn’t help but marvel at the surrealism of the experience, as the Kermits chatted with the Smurfs who sat next to the Sugar Plum Fairies.

B. balloon handlers

The Burton balloon was scheduled to march toward the end of the parade, sandwiched between a Pokemon character and Hello Kitty about 20 minutes ahead of Santa’s grand finale. We didn’t leave the 81st Street staging area until about an hour after the start of the parade. When it was B.’s turn to take flight, I picked up the balloon handle and felt a similar “eagerness” as the balloon tugged at its tether. It was finally time to go!

As we marched down 47 blocks and past several million people, I was awestruck by the audience. There was engagement and glee from children and adults alike. (We were met with shouts of “Who is that? Who is that!” to which we chanted, “Who are we!  We are B.!” and in response, the crowd erupted in cheers). I felt spectacle and community combined and distilled into a sheer sense of enjoyment. As we walked through the canyon of Times Square and approached the end of the parade at Herald Square, we encountered a crescendo of excitement. B. finally made its way to the NBC cameras and Tim Burton and his family waved as we walked by, fulfilling B. Boy’s (and my) ambition to march in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. As a New Yorker, it was a magnificent experience to be able to take part in this quintessentially New York act.

MoMA’s Tim Burton exhibition was on view at MoMA from November 22, 2009, through April 26, 2010; at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne from June 24 through October 10, 2010; at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto from November 26, 2010, through April 17, 2011; and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from May 29 through October 31, 2011. The exhibition opens at La Cinémathèque française in Paris on March 7, 2012.