The Peanuts comic strip characters Woodstock and Snoopy balloons are a traditional feature in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.(Photo: Gannett News Service)
MOONACHIE, N.J. - There are long wooden tables. Workers sanding and sweeping. A garland-clad locomotive, a wonderfully unusual rocking horse, a row of gingerbread men and a hearty Christmas tree wrapped with lights.
Visitors might think they're at a certain North Pole workshop.
But this is North Jersey.
With its sprawling highways, noisy truck traffic and used car dealerships, the area here is more Tony Soprano than Santa Claus. Once inside this cavernous workshop, though, the gritty environment disappears.
A large green dragon with outspread wings dangles over welders, woodworkers and 27-foot orca whales. Nearby, a catapult shoots off rainbow-hued confetti.
This is Macy's Parade Studio, the place where the magic of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade begins. On Thursday, about 50 million Americans are likely to tune in to at least part of the parade, which is not only a family tradition for many, but also the unofficial kickoff to the holiday season.
A man in a bright turquoise shirt and red suspenders creates rope netting for the new Cirque du Soleil float. Another man perched high on a ladder patches up imperfections in the wood-carved waves for the SeaWorld float.
Asked what kind of machine can turn planks of wood into such a smooth, rounded wave shape, Studio Vice President John Piper smiles and says he'll show studio visitors such a "machine" - and points to the worker on the ladder.
These men are among the 28 full-time studio employees who create and care for the dozens of balloons and floats that will bask in the spotlight Thursday.
These painters, carpenters, sculptors, welders and engineers bring fantastical ideas - such as a supersize Spider-Man balloon or an intricately carved Mount Rushmore-themed float - into a towering reality.
They do large-scale construction and fine-detail artistry. They camouflage the floats' massive hinges with meticulous painting and brainstorm how to get three-story structures through the Lincoln Tunnel and up to the parade's staging area on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
They help organize the parade components for the trip to Manhattan, get them set up for showtime and then haul everything back out again.
Beginning Wednesday afternoon and working throughout the night, these staffers - along with other Macy's employees, temporary studio workers and volunteers - will assemble 30 large floats and inflate 16 giant balloons. They'll get dozens of other parade elements, such as that confetti-shooting catapult, ready to go for the 9 a.m. parade start time.
Then, after it all winds its way through the 2.5-mile parade route from 77th Street along Central Park West and down 6th Avenue to Macy's Herald Square at 34th Street and 7th Avenue, they deflate, disassemble, repack and bring everything back to New Jersey.
The studio workers return to their families just about the time most Americans are digesting their second helping of pumpkin pie.
"We go home and collapse," says design studio director Jerry Ospa.
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG, IT'S BIG
As the clock ticks down, the pressure ratchets up. The parade is a high-profile event for Macy's and the organizations that sponsor balloons and floats.
Any big hitches can have devastating consequences. In 1997, winds drove a Cat in the Hat balloon into a metal pole. The ensuing damage left a woman in a coma for almost a month before she recovered. In 2005, an M&M balloon knocked over a streetlight, injuring two sisters.
A messy winter storm moving into the East Coast appeared to be a threat to ground the balloons this year. The balloons may not lift off Thursday if sustained winds exceed 23 mph and gusts exceed 34 mph, according to city rules enacted after 1997's accident. Current forecasts call for sustained winds of 20 mph and gusts of 36 mph.
"At this time, it is too early to make any determinations on the flight of the giant balloons," said Macy's spokesman Orlando Veras. "On Thanksgiving morning, Macy's works closely with the NYPD, who, based on real time weather data and the official regulations, determine if the balloons will fly and at what heights."
Balloons have only been grounded once in the parade's 87-year history, when bad weather kept them from flying in 1971. They're set to be inflated in Manhattan on Wednesday evening.
Also, there is political contention swirling around two floats.
Animal rights activists are upset that a SeaWorld float, which features two large orcas, is in the parade. They claim SeaWorld doesn't treat its whales well.
And ranchers were riled up that singer Joan Jett was slated to perform on the South Dakota tourism float, saying the vegetarian and animal-rights activist wasn't a good representative for their beef-producing state. Although she's off the float, she'll still be in the parade.
Parade studio workers are more involved with putty and polyurethane than such political flaps, but they do have to worry about other big, brewing issues - such as wind, rain or other harsh weather.
"We prepare for the worst and we hope for the best," Ospa says.
They must deal with whatever comes on Thursday, says studio Vice President Piper.
"This is the day," he says. "It can't be moved inside and there is no change of date."
PARADE'S STORIED HISTORY
The festivities have greatly evolved from the first Macy's Christmas Parade on Thanksgiving Day in 1924.
That procession featured four bands, floats with themes such as the Old Lady in the Shoe and Little Miss Muffet, and Central Park Zoo animals, according to Robert Grippo, author of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
"It was a big hullabaloo," he says.
This year, there will be 16 huge balloons, 36 smaller balloons, 30 full-size floats, 11 marching bands, 900 clowns and 1,600 cheerleaders and dancers,
More than 50 million people saw at least part of the parade on TV last year and about 3.5 million watched it live.
For those who get to see it in person, it's an amazing experience, says Grippo.
"Everyone gets into the spirit of this thing," he says. "There's a joy. For three hours, you forget about the problems of the world, the hectic pace and the tension."
From 1927 to 1983, the crowd-wowing balloons such as Underdog and Popeye were made by Goodyear Tire & Rubber. Since then, parade balloons have been produced by Macy's and by Sioux Falls, S.D., manufacturer Raven Aerostar, which makes most of the larger balloons.
The models for each giant balloon begin as a lump of reddish-brown clay that is sculpted into an exact scale model of the full-size balloon.
That design is used to create casts that produce miniature replicas of each new balloon. One replica is typically marked up with technical information, such as marks representing where the inflation ports and balloon lines will go. Another replica is painted in the exact colors that will be on the parade balloon.
Next, actual-size pieces are cut from polyurethane-coated fabric and heat-sealed to form the balloon's shape.
Learning how the balloons were created "was magnificent," says Jimmy Artle, who began his studio tenure in the early 1980s and was trained by Goodyear engineers. "They taught us every little nuance about the balloons."
He fell in love with the craft. Decades later, his craft helped him fall in love.
Fourteen years ago, he had to repair the foot of the Big Bird balloon and needed help. He asked an inflation crew volunteer named Sandy to help because she was small enough to fit into the balloon chamber with him.
"We spent about two hours in the balloon and I don't know why, but I turned and kissed her," he says. "She kissed back and we've been together ever since."
ROOM FOR CREATIVITY
Like many studio workers, Artle began in the previous workspace, a former Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken, N.J., that housed the team from 1968 to 2010. It moved to the 72,000-square-foot Moonachie building in 2011.
The new facility is a space big enough to construct towering floats, fully inflate massive balloons and organize thousands of costumes.
Pieces of past year's parade props, such as big M&M candy characters and a gigantic keyboard, are part of the new studio's decor. There are also the 2- to 3-foot models of past balloons - Snoopy, SpongeBob SquarePants, Kung Fu Panda and Garfield among them - which dangle from overhead wires, and dozens of float models lined up on shelves.
Workers here use the same line when asked about the techniques used to blow up the balloons. "We never 'blow up' balloons, we 'inflate' them," they say with a smile.
They're also quick to share details about their work techniques and to relate some history.
Most of the floats and balloons begin with a simple line drawing that is transformed into technical renderings and then a series of models.
Couching by the metallic fringe on a partly completed float, Piper offers up some background on that particular decoration.
"Going back to medieval times, they would cover the wheels of pageant wagons so you couldn't see them," Piper says. "That's where they got their name. They're floats because they come floating into view."
IDEAS PLUCKED FROM THIN AIR
In the stressful weeks leading up to the parade, several workers here make a proclamation you don't hear much these days: "I love my job."
"It's the best place to work as a craftsman," says painter and head scenic artist Beth Lucas, who joined the studio in 1984.
These people spend all year working on the Thanksgiving Day parade, but they also must squeeze in other duties, such as making props for the Macy's Flower Show, the Fourth of July fireworks and in-store Christmas events.
Working closely together has helped form a tight bond, making them much more than co-workers, Lucas says.
"I call them my brothers," she says, gesturing to the men around her.
On Friday, studio workers will gather in the third-floor costume department to share a catered Thanksgiving meal. Everyone will "talk about what transpired, the positives and negatives, and say, 'Couldn't we do this next year?'" says parade executive producer Amy Kule. "The ideas start percolating."
With each year, the crew's skills improve, says balloon technician Artle.
The workers here care about their craft and the other craftspeople. "When a new person comes in, the old hands, so to speak, take them under their wing," he says.
And soon, everyone feels like family.
Artle has Lou Gehrig's disease. When it progressed to the point that he had to use a wheelchair, studio workers went to his home and built a ramp.
"When one of us gets cut," he says, "we all bleed."
On Thursday, he and Sandy will take on new roles: parade spectators rather than workers.
"It's been one hell of a run," Artle says, while the SpongeBob and Toothless the dragon fly above.
"Of everything I've done in my life, I don't think I've done anything that I've loved more than working on the parade."