Something is wrong with my eyes. Before me stands a fully-inflated, 30-foot tall Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. But instead of the typical riot of color, all I see are shades of gray: six hues to be precise.
It’s not me, it turns out, this black-and-white throwback is the brainchild of Macy’s and collaborator 20th Century Fox.
“I love the paradox of it,” says Macy’s Studio’s VP John Piper as he leads me around the “Harold the Baseball Player” balloon standing in the corner of a cavernous New Jersey studio.
Piper’s referring to the fact that Harold, a slightly-smaller, but otherwise near pitch-perfect recreation of the parade balloon that appeared in the 1947 holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street, was certainly not black-and-white when the film’s producers captured it for the black-and-white film. However, now it’s a purposely so, and about to be immortalized all over again — this time on color video for the upcoming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade telecast.
Highlighting one balloon from an immortal holiday film etched in the minds of multiple generations to celebrate its 70th birthday is surely a gimmick, or it would be if the histories of the film and parade weren’t so deeply intertwined. Together, they form a Mobius strip of Thanksgiving Day pomp, celebration, and nostalgia.
“What’s so clever about Miracle on 34th Street is it deals with a little girl who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, indoctrinated into thinking about that by a single working mother, rare for a 1940s Hollywood movie, who was all business and has not a drop of sentiment in her DNA,” said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “It’s a great premise and it’s beautifully executed with a perfect cast,” he added.
If you’re among the six people who haven’t seen the film, spoiler alert: Miracle on 34th Street is, at its warm, cozy core, the story of a young, disbelieving girl, named Susan Walker, played by Natalie Wood, who meets a Macy’s store Santa (Edmund Gwenn) who changes her mind about the existence of the North Pole’s most famous resident. The Macy’s store Santa makes her mother, Doris, (played by Maureen O’Hara who died in 2015), and, ultimately, an entire city, believe, too.
It’s a simple tale, elevated by a smart script and an incredible collection of tiny performances, one more memorable than the next: the Dutch World War II orphan, the Macy’s shopper whom Santa sends to Gimbels, young employee Alfred. The movie, which was a hit when it was released months before the holiday season, is a fantasy that’s also notable for its verisimilitude.
Out of the studio
Writer/Director George Seaton shot primarily on location in New York City and even inside Macy’s Flagship Store on 34th Street and 6th Avenue. Santa’s workshop and the seat where Gwenn’s Santa greeted children was on the same floor as what is now Macy’s corporate headquarters.
“As a native New Yorker who attended that parade when I was a little kid in person, I could tell it was the real parade,” recalled Maltin, who added that, prior to World War II, it was rare for Hollywood studios to shoot on location.
Seaton not only shot around the parade, he shot in it, stationing his movie Santa in a sled atop a rolling workshop float.
Harold the Baseball Player is not a Seaton creation. The giant balloon was already part of the 1946 parade when it played a pivotal role in the film.
Early in the movie, Susan is watching the parade from a West 77th Street apartment window, not a projection of the parade shot months earlier by a second unit, but the actual November 1946 Thanksgiving Day Parade.
When Fred Gailey (John Payne), Susan’s neighbor and her mother’s love interest, comments that the balloon handlers appear to be having trouble with the baseball player, Susan remarks that it was a clown last year. That wasn’t movie magic. Harold the Baseball Player had been Harold the Clown at the real parade the year before and Harold the Fireman the year before that.
According to Macy’s, that’s what the parade organizers did back then. Instead of almost two dozen big balloons, the parade had just six and some were repurposed year after year. Macy’s has previously recreated Harold in his various careers, but never in black and white.
A turning point
The movie struck a chord with moviegoers who also, perhaps for the first time, got a glimpse of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which, up until then, had been a mostly local phenomenon. The movie made it nationally, some might say internationally, famous.
No one is arguing that Harold the Baseball Player is somehow the hidden star of Miracle on 34th Street, but its appearance in the film does introduce a key plot point: Susan Walker’s disbelief in all fable and fantasy. When Gailey calls Harold “giant,” Susan seriously reminds him, “There are no giants, Mr. Gailey.”
With all the movie’s top-bill cast gone, Harold is a sort of touchstone between that post-war parade and the technicolor broadcast extravaganza of today.
Two years ago, as the 70th anniversary of the film approached, Macy’s and 20th Century Fox started discussing how they might honor the film and its unique connection to the parade. “Bringing back a balloon that hasn’t been seen in 70 years,” said Jordan Dabby, VP of partnership for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, was a perfect way to honor the legacy. (The studio is also issuing a 70th Anniversary DVD/Blue-ray/Digital release of the film on October 10.)
“From our standpoint,” said Macy’s Studio’s Piper, “we jumped to [Harold the Baseball Player] immediately. Not only because he’s in the film. Also, because we love jumping to our bullpen, or archives.”
Because Harold was a real Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, which was retired after the 1946 parade, they had the original plans.
Design of the times
Harold is smaller than most of the parade’s far more elaborate, modern balloons — he’s called a ‘medium-size” balloon — but with still-Paul-Bunyan-esque proportions. His nose is three feet long and his cartoon eyes are almost two-feet tall. Atop his gum-drop-shaped head is a size-207.5 baseball cap and Harold stands in size-180 triple-wide shoes.
With just black, white, six shades of gray, and only the most basic shapes and lines, Harold is not Macy’s most attractive Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. However, the balloon’s simplistic design is a product of when it was originally designed.
There were, obviously, no computers in 1946, explained Piper. All the drawings were to scale and the calculations to figure out how to join the spheres, rods, and cones together had to be done by hand.
For the new Harold, Piper said it took roughly five months to build the balloon, which will hold 3,500 cubic feet of helium when it goes flying on November 23.
It wasn’t a lock that Harold would be black and white, but after some internal discussion, it was clear monochrome was the way to go, especially since that’s the only way people remember it (we will not mention the unspeakable colorized movie versions).
To get those shades of gray right, the team used as reference the movie and black-and-white photographs from the 1946 parade. Piper said the paint was all standard, but “the team did do a little extra mixing to get the specific variations of gray tones.” And, of course, they had to paint every single surface. Even the iconic Macy’s Star in the middle of Harold’s jersey is painted black instead of red.
Standing in the mostly gray Studio warehouse, Harold is a study in white, black, and gray. I take a step back and realize that the entire scene before me would fit in a classic black-and-white movie if it weren’t for a pair of red Macy’s balloons placed strategically near Harold’s feet. They help snap me back to my full-color reality.
When Harold is inflated with helium (always say “inflated” around Piper’s team, and never “blown up” – “that’s for fireworks”) it will float almost vertically above a team of 18 handlers.
I notice that in the original photo of Harold at the 1946 parade, which hangs on a wall in the Studio’s waiting room, the balloon handlers are also dressed as baseball players. Will the 2017 edition of Harold get the same treatment? “No,” Dabby tells me this year’s handlers will be dressed like all the other handlers, in a sort of Macy’s on-brand uniform, but then he pauses, looks at the photo again and seems to reconsider for a moment. “It is kind of cool.”
NBC, which telecasts the parade each year, will mark Harold’s appearance with a special black-and-white sequence.
It’s silly, but I believe
“One of the reasons [Miracle on 34th Street] holds up especially well, it actually confronts something very contemporary: cynicism,” said Maltin.
At USC School of Cinematic Arts where Maltin teaches a film history class, he said that “sweetness is a tough sell” for his students. “Film noir, they get right away, because we live in a more cynical time than the golden age of Hollywood.”
Maltin, however, thinks that Miracle on 34th Street was, in some ways ahead of its time. The single, independent, working mother, people who don’t just believe something out of hand. “It’s a big reason the film still seems so fresh.”
When I remind him that Maureen O’Hara’s character’s story arc leads her to belief, marriage and a new home with the lawyer boyfriend who’s been trying to soften her, he says, “We can’t pretend that it’s not a 70-year-old movie, so you can’t judge it by 2017 standards. I think given that it’s a 70-year old movie, it is surprisingly and refreshingly modern,” said Maltin.
As I exit the Studio where craftsmen and women are arc-welding frames, making palm fronds out of foam and carving what appears to be a giant out of Styrofoam — literally making magic — I realize that that’s the beauty of Miracle on 34th Street: It simultaneously pulls back the curtain on the artifice of a cherished holiday tradition, while somehow elevating it to something more inspiring.
When Harold the Baseball Player floats down 6th Avenue, it’ll be a monochromatic reminder of that sentiment, taking viewers back to a time when we first watched Miracle on 34th Street and, if you were of a certain age, considered it a documentary.