A Great Shot Sells the Story

By | November 21, 2018

When Good Balloons Go Bad

A gargantuan monster gnashes his teeth, towering over miniature humans. His tongue curls out of his mouth from his exertion, and his antennae swirl to register all the commotion around him.  He seems less interested in gobbling human treats, however, then in the Godzilla-like freedom of storming through the streets of New York City. As captivating as he appears, he was, in fact, merely one of many such creatures born to appease a much bigger monster—corporate profits.

The Nantucket Sea Monster

On Saturday, August 7, 1937, Americans across the nation opened their newspapers to read that a Nantucket fisherman saw “a Dreadful Looking Creature with a Big Head and Glaring Eyes.” Four days later, readers’ anxiety spiked with the news that five-foot-long flipper prints had been found on the beach—accompanied by documentary photographs—and that Harvard scientists were taking it seriously. To everyone’s astonishment, the sea serpent washed ashore that next week and locals flocked to the beach for a firsthand view.

Photo courtesy Nantucket Historical Association

It was most certainly a sea monster—a 120-foot-long inflated rubber one named Morton the Sea Serpent.  The grand hoax was an ingenious marketing ploy. Later that year Morton was ecstatically welcomed at his encore invasion in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. His parade debut, however, came on the heels of a rollercoaster ride of marketing brainstorms and mishaps.

When Pigs Fly

The first Macy’s parade in 1924 was itself marked by a successful marketing gimmick. Employees, musicians, floats, and live animals “borrowed” from the Central Park Zoo were joined by a not-so-decorous crowd of 250,000 to parade from 145th Street to 34th Street and congregate at the retailer’s Herald Square flagship. Though the New York Times described it as “a retinue of clowns, freaks, animals and floats,” Macy’s declared it a success worthy of repeating. Three years into the event the parade’s artistic director and balloon-maker, Tony Sarq, had an idea. He created an oversized, air-filled balloon of Felix the Cat, followed the next year by four helium-filled characters. But no one had considered how to bring the over-sized animals back to the ground, so they were released and promptly exploded in a rush of gas. The next year slow release valves were added.

Morton The Nantucket Sea Serpent in the 1938 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Flush with success, Macy’s seized upon yet another golden marketing opportunity. The store attached a label to each balloon stating that, upon return to the store, Macy’s would transfer a reward of $50 (about $700 now) to the lucky person. It was a good idea in theory; balloons floating over the city would keep the store in mind during the shopping season. But it wasn’t such a good idea in practice. Felix the Cat wandered into some telephone wires and caught fire; a wind-tossed Martian and Jerry the Pig crashed into spectators and signs alike; and Tiamet the dragon was attacked by a little white dog. In 1931, a new Felix the Cat survived a tangle with an airplane, only to meet his predecessor’s fate—bursting into flames on a high-tension wire.. Souvenir hunters could be rough with the balloons, too. The next year, they tore Tom Kat to shreds, and Georgie the Drum Major was mobbed upon landing with 82 people trying to claim his reward money.

Annette Gipson

Not seeming to understand when too much success really is too much, the next year Macy’s merely asked pilots politely to leave the balloons alone—which was promptly ignored by a 22-year-old future ace pilot, Annette Gipson, and her instructor, Hugh Copeland. Gipson brazenly steered her plane into 60-foot-long Tom Kat and entered a tail spin when the cat wrapped around the plane.  With only 250 feet left above the horrified crowd, Copeland brought the plane under control and flew off to a nearby airport. Macy’s quietly announced that balloons would no longer be released. Rather, they would be simply deflated, crated, and stored in New Jersey like sensible shoes—safe, but not thrilling.

A Great Shot Sells the Story

Maybe all those marketing capers drew John Gutmann to photograph the Nantucket Sea Monster at his encore performance. Or, maybe he just found the visual delight of a 120-foot monster lumbering overhead irresistible. Gutmann was drawn to the subtle humor and idiosyncratic, often disarming, details of American life. A German Jew who fled to the United States in 1933, he took up photographing Americans as a foreign correspondent for the European illustrated press. Though Morton the Nantucket Sea Monster was hardly camera-shy, his appearance through Gutmann’s lens—the upward tilted perspective, close cropping, and tonal contrasts— perfectly captures the monster’s endearing charm not quite so evident in other photographs. Knowing the serpent’s ancestry, it’s a relief that Morton was able to escape the tragic cycle of his forebearers such as Jerry the Pig or Tom Kat.  If Macy’s Mad Men struggled with preserving Tom’s nine lives, thankfully they had found their footing in time for Morton’s arrival by sea.


Melissa Wolfe is curator and head of the department of American art at the Saint Louis Art Museum.