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Week 13 Big Ten Power Poll: Balloons on Parade

The Big Ten - and BRT - are full of hot air.

Finally, Lil’ Red in the only habitat where that dumb, bouncing toddler makes sense.

As is tradition, the penultimate (thank God!) Power Poll of the year greedily stuffs itself with Thanksgiving references. We’ve done Thanksgiving Foods, had a time to Gif Thanks, and (one of my personal favorites) Terrible Things About Thanksgiving - two of which are headlined by one of my best-ever photoshops. As you can see, Kirk has emerged from the cranberry sauce to take up a different Thanksgiving occupation this year with a few of his closest friends. Brian is not pictured, as he is on a float celebrating “The Triumph of Mediocrity,” for which he is this year’s co-poster child. Congratulations Brian Ferentz!

Make way! Mediocre white guys coming through!

Last year’s Terrible Thanksgiving poll started out strong with some tidbits about the Macy’s Parade, and I found that sufficiently interesting to lean fully into the theme and bring a bit of balloonery to you all today. These are all historical balloons, because frankly, those are way more interesting than any old inflatable Pikachu. The Macy’s Parade began in 1924, and the balloons came along in 1928, replacing live zoo animals, which, uh, seems like a sensible idea. Initially, Macy’s created its own characters for the balloons, but licensed characters arrived on the scene within a couple of years, most being culled from the comics pages. Consequently, 1928’s balloons had names like “Bird,” “Tiger,” and “Sky Elephant,” the latter of which does sound kind of cool.

The popularity of licensed characters quickly grew, and from 1930 onward, the parade featured a mixture of popular characters as well as Macy’s original creations. As the decades marched on, some balloons also became corporatized - hence, Elsie the Cow (Borden Dairy Products) and the very special entry that Northwestern earned on this list.

This poll celebrates mostly early iterations of the balloons in this iconic parade, and I’ll just warn you now… much like watching any team in the B1G West this year, you won’t be able to un-see what you’re about to witness.

Thank you today and all season to WhiteSpeedReceiver for the graphs!

#1 - Ohio State: Morton, the Nantucket Sea Monster

Picture it: Nantucket, 1937. A local fisherman spots a sea monster amongst the waves. The townsfolk are skeptical until a second local also spots the creature. When massive footprints appear on the beach, it seems that something significant really is afoot in the sleepy coastal village.

That something? Morton, the Nantucket Sea Monster.

It turns out, people really had spotted a sea monster–but he was the rubbery creation of puppeteer and Macy’s balloon impresario Tony Sarg, a Guatemalan-born German-American who turned his passion for puppets into iconic balloon work for Macy’s. With an eye for spectacle, Sarg had staged the 125-foot Morton’s appearance to build buzz (whether for a local store or for Macy’s is unclear)

Like Morton (sorry, still not over the fact that that’s the name Sarg went with for a sea monster), Ohio State has promised spectacle from the first, striking terror into the hearts of opposing teams with its monstrous talent. However, in recent weeks, opponents have seemed to challenge the veracity of OSU’s rumors of monstrosity. Still, in spite of valiant efforts, no one has yet slain the beast - will Michigan fare any better this weekend, and show that the rumors of OSU greatness were just a bunch of hot air?

#2 - Michigan: Hugo, the Football Hero

Did I pick Hugo the Football Hero because it’s a football player with a giant M on his chest? Yes. Sorry, there are 14 of these. I do think it’s sort of funny that between the logo and the colors, it’s like OSU and Michigan had a baby, and that is pretty on-brand for those lovers.

However, there are further comparisons to be made. Hugo, cool as he was, only appeared in one Macy’s parade - that of 1941. That officially makes him a one-year wonder, an appellation that Michigan is desperately trying to avoid after its 2021 season of dreams (except for that one part with Georgia–shhhh.) If the Wolverines can beat OSU this weekend, they can officially claim more football heroics than Hugo the Football Hero. But without Blake Corum the Football Hero, it won’t be easy.

If they don’t win… well, they can retool and try again. That’s what happened to the real Hugo balloon. While 1941 was his only year as Hugo, he was also in the 1940 parade as Superman:

At first glance, I thought he had three nipples.

Win or lose, Harbaugh’s sanctimonious self will be back again next year, fighting to create the type of lasting impression that Hugo would envy.

#3 - Penn State: Old Man Dragon

Tragically not making an appearance in last week’s Dragon-themed power poll, this geriatric serpent gets his day in the sun this week. It’s unclear to me why this dragon is designated as an old man, as he does not look especially elderly–but then, he also doesn’t look much like a dragon either. Maybe he only roasted and toasted old men? Maybe “Man Dragon” is a species, and he’s a particularly old example? The past is awfully hard to parse sometimes.

Appearing only in the 1929 parade, the Old Man Dragon holds the record for the longest parade balloon at 178 feet long. It’s unlikely it will ever be surpassed, as the city of New York has grown wary of having quite that much balloon moving down arterial streets and made some rules about that. The weather was also particularly windy in 1929, so Old Man Dragon was wrangled very close to the ground for the duration of the parade, making his only appearance lacking in the awe it might have otherwise inspired.

Penn State has also flown under the radar this season, overshadowed by the building stakes between Michigan and OSU. The Nits nearly made a splash by deflating OSU’s title hopes a few weeks ago, but the fourth quarter swept those dreams away faster than a 40-mph wind meeting a giant dragon balloon.

#4 - Iowa: Felix the Cat

First, let me say how dumb it is that all of your teams have let Iowa get back into this position. A few weeks ago they were in the bottom quarter of this poll, and weren’t we all having fun? But you’ve caused this instead. Way to go, Wisconsin. Way to go, Minnesota. Way to go, Purdue. This is on you guys.

Anyway. Because of all of your stupid teams, Iowa is Felix the Cat, one of the more iconic balloons of the Macy’s parade. Macy’s insists that Felix the Cat was the very first parade balloon, but parade aficionados (and I’ve learned while preparing this that there really is such a thing) find little evidence to support a pre-1931 launch date. Further mystery arises as to whether Felix debuted in 1931 or 1932 - officially, the 1931 balloon was just “The Cat by Macy’s” because fuck your copyright laws, with the balloon officially being re-dubbed Felix in 1932. Because I am a massive nerd and also a historian, I looked into this using digitized newspapers, and found that some 1931 papers did indeed refer to the balloon as Felix, so clearly the copyright infringement did its job.

Here is a cat that may or may not be Felix, so let’s just leave the lawyers out of this, mmmmkay?

Felix (or The Cat wink wink), was two stories tall and was moved along the route by being propped up large rods instead of floating on strings like a normal balloon due to his unbalanced nature. This is much like how Iowa’s offense is moved along in a weird and farcical manner, leading to a highly unbalanced team.

But this is not the end of the Felix Balloon drama! Felix, along with other early balloons, was simply released at the end of the parade route. The idea was that they’d come to rest in the outer boroughs and people could return them for cash prizes (I am sincerely curious how one would move 100-feet of giant balloon from Long Island to the Macy’s store–this may explain why almost none of the balloons disposed of this way were returned.) This was a predictably bad idea. Felix, upon his release in 1931, was “captured” by a barnstorming pilot, prompting other pilots to attempt to ensnare free-floating balloons the next year - the ultimate example of “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Then, to add to Felix’s woes, in either 1931 or 1932 (this is actually very difficult to verify), his rubberized carcass collided with power lines and burst into flames.

Will this be the weekend that the bloated carcass of Iowa is ripped to shreds by the propeller of a feisty opponent prepared to capitalize on the fact that they have an offense in merely an academic sense? Probably not, because the opponent is Nebraska. Instead, both teams are likely to burst into flames, putting on a show that will cause all nearby onlookers to gasp in horror.

Don’t watch this game, you guys. An actual balloon fire would be way more entertaining.

#5 - Illinois - Herr Inspektor

Since I just wrote 5,000 words about Felix the Cat and Iowa Football, let’s move this show along. Herr Inspektor was a character in The Katzenjammer Kids, a popular comic strip of the 1920s and the source of what were probably the first legally licensed character balloons in the parade. Herr Inspektor proved a troublesome balloon though - it was difficult to keep him upright, and handlers had a hard time floating him down the parade route, and he kept face-planting more than the Illini football in the past few years/Bret Bielema doing the Hog Walk.

Desperate for a solution, the handlers ripped off large portions of Herr Inspektor’s beard (see above), lightening his top half enough to allow him to fly toward the heavens once again. This trajectory is not unlike the Illini ditching the magnificently bearded Lovie Smith in order to pursue their dreams of upward trajectory in the Big Ten.

However, while Illinois, like Herr Inspektor, has managed to remain upright for longer stretches this season than most thought possible, the overall effect has not been the triumph the Illini appeared poised to enjoy early on. Herr Inspektor was retired after only a year on the parade route, and while Illinois remains in the fight, they’ve ceded power for their fate to… Nebraska. Which is not a great idea.

Honorable mention: I almost gave Illinois this truly bonkers balloon, The Two-Headed Pirate, because you never know which Illinois you’re going to get...but I was lured by the chance to fit in one last beard joke, so Herr Inspektor it is.

#6 - Purdue: George the Giant Drum Major

For whatever reason, Chorus refuses to post a pic of this. I promise it’s not that scary—but you can see George here.

The fandom wiki for Macy’s Parade (yes, this exists) refers to George as “the obscure bandleader,” which feels a little mean, but relevant for a team that was once [redacted]. Mean or not, it appears little is known about George, and he didn’t build a particularly fervent fanbase.

Still, for a team that gains a great deal of pride from possessing a notoriously gargantuan drum, the Giant Drum Major was the only choice.

I have no further jokes about Giant Drums/majors, so here is the incomparable video from a couple of weeks ago of Purdue’s little train breaking down on the field, getting swarmed by the Iowa football team, and finally pushed off the field:

This is the greatest thing Purdue has ever contributed to society. I mean, the moon landing was cool, but this is hilarious.

#7 - Maryland: Rainbow Fish/Flying Fish

Variations on a Fish has been a mainstay of the Macy’s parade since its early years, probably because the shape of a fish lends itself easily to street-wending ballooning. As a result, it’s difficult to tell the difference between fish editions, because the same balloon would be repainted and brought back in a different guise.

But there’s something pretty weird about the 1950s versions of the fish. Namely, the lips on this thing which look like… well, this is a family blog, so I won’t elaborate. Instead, I’ll just say that this fish looks like it could be on Real Housewives of New York with that much lip filler:

This year’s Maryland team looks like a slightly gussied up version of Maryland teams of the past - September success has carried into November, albeit unevenly. While we like to mock the Terps for looking crazier than a fish filled with Juvederm, it’s hard to deny that they’re a periodically fun team to watch this year (except when they’re playing Penn State.) Like a fish balloon, they’re not a standout - but it’s November, they’ve secured a bowl berth, and they face Rutgers this weekend for a great chance to end the regular season on a high note. There are worse balloons–and football teams–to be.

#8 - Wisconsin: Colicky Kid

Deprive a baby of his cheese curds, and you’re going to hear about it.

Now this is a good balloon - it’s funny, it’s random, and it was the first balloon to have accompanying sound effects (a bawling baby playing on loop, of course!) Surprisingly, the Colicky Kid only made it through two parades (1933 and 1934) - I’d have expected him to be more of a crowd favorite.

While Colicky Kid’s performance is a bit underwhelming, that’s nothing compared to what Wisconsin has presented its fans with this season. To be fair, any season that involves firing your head coach halfway through should probably come with significantly lowered expectations, but it’s fair to say that recent performances in the Quadrangle have been pretty disappointing. The Badgers clinched bowl eligibility with a last-minute win against the hapless Huskers last week, and have a chance to make PJ Fleck’s seat nice and toasty this weekend… but a bad result there could have Badger fans feeling pretty fussy heading into bowl season.

#9 - Minnesota: Carnivorous Goldfish

This is from 1928, but it sort of eerily anticipates WWII nose art.

What? Another fish on the list? Indeed, and this one doesn’t even look like a bachelor party accessory. However, it also looks a lot less cool than the name “Carnivorous Goldfish” would imply.

I get that the parade is mostly marketed toward children, and creating a truly terrifying mutant goldfish might have been a bridge too far, but 1920s kids were tougher, and I think they could have handled it. Besides, they put the adjective “carnivorous” on this thing–you know they wanted to go there. Commit to the bit, Macy’s.

While the carnivorous goldfish ultimately sounded much cooler than it ended up being, Minnesota can relate, as this season initially looked so much cooler for the Gophers than it has turned out to be. Appearing early on to be the likely favorites of the division, the Goofs stumbled into some disappointing results, most recently to Iowa. They can recapture some goodwill by beating Wisconsin and giving Mo Ibrahim a W for his troubles, but overall, this Carnivorous Goldie(fish) has significantly underwhelmed.

#10 - Michigan State: Hobo Clown

What’s green and white and kinda sad all over? Michigan State football and its fanbase. And also in 1949, Hobo Clown Balloon. I don’t think that Hobo Clown was necessarily intended to be sad, but like most clown images, it has not aged particularly well as we’ve moved into the 21st century. Blame Stephen King.

Hobo Clown is not an otherwise noteworthy balloon, except that it was fairly long-running by balloon standards, holding down the gig for three straight years. In 1952, Hobo Clown was repainted to bear a film advertisement reading “The Greatest Show on Earth” on his belly. While Michigan State is certainly nowhere near the greatest show on earth right now, the signage is reminiscent of how fans were treated to last week as they approached parts of the stadium warning them to “Please avoid this section because it has no water.” Cool, cool.

#11 - Nebraska: Boob McNutt

Boob McNutt was allegedly a balloon featured in the 1930 Macy’s Parade, although it is the rare example of a balloon that has no photographic evidence on the internet. Was its glorious existence a real thing that happened, or naught but a dream? Am I talking about Boob McNutt the Balloon, or Nebraska existing as a non-terrible football team? Who knows!

Anyway, back to Boob. Boob McNutt was a comic strip drawn by Rube Goldberg from 1918-1934 and it featured the well-meaning but invariably inept title character who was entrusted with basic tasks which he was invariably incapable of successfully carrying out. I say “basic tasks,” but they included things like protecting priceless paintings and guarding the Elixir of Life, so it does feel like maybe the problem was less that Boob was a failure and more that those around him inexcusably and repeatedly greatly overestimated his capacity for success. Anyway, Boob would inevitably fail at his task and would be punished, sometimes to death, because the 1920s were hardcore.

Happily for Boob, he did get a love-story arc in the mid-1920s which saw him not only pursue, but win over his true love, Pearl. But don’t awwww too hard. They soon divorced. And then married again. And then divorced again. Because Boob is basically a failure. In 1923, Gilbert Seldes, an American cultural critic, deemed Boob McNutt “he least worthy of Rube Goldberg’s astonishing creations.”

I assume I do not need to spell out the many unfortunate parallels between this kindly-but-doomed perpetual failure of a football team and Boob McNutt… right?

#12 - Indiana: Wobbly Head

The Wobbly Head was an early balloon that clearly showed Tony Sarg’s puppetry background. Privileging the grotesque over the cute, Wobbly Head bumbled down the street just ahead of the Carnivorous Fish in 1928. As you can see, he wasn’t much to look at, but that’s just coming at you…

…because Wobbly Head was a two-sided balloon! I couldn’t find a photo of Wobbly Head’s backside, but rumor has it that he sported a grin on the back as he passed by parade-goers, giving them a truly Jekyll/Hyde experience.

Indiana has largely been leading with the Hyde experience this season too. However, a victory over a reeling MSU might leave Indiana fans with at least the ghost of a smile on their faces as this football season marches to its conclusion. But by any measure, Wobbly Head wasn’t a terribly successful balloon, and Indiana isn’t a very successful football team.

#13 - Rutgers: Horse with Passenger

For no real reason, my favorite part of this balloon is that the human on top is called a “passenger” not a “rider” as would be standard in English. This implies a special level of passivity and lack of initiative that come to think of it, works really well for Rutgers.

Rutgers knows a thing or two about horses and passengers, as one of their home mascots is a live horse and a (presumably) live rider representing the Scarlet Knight. Horses are pretty cool, and I must salute Rutgers for finding a way to have a live one take part in the festivities. For nearly four decades, this role was served by a horse named Lord Nelson, which is a great horse name, who had the additional distinction of being the only horse to ever be penalized during a college football game. In 1994, he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after streaking down the sideline of a game. Rutgers fans and players were reportedly jealous of the horses’ ability to move swiftly and unrestrainedly downfield.

But maybe… maybe Rutgers doesn’t deserve a noble steed like Lord Nelson. Maybe, instead, they deserve something closer to Horse with Passenger. Watch a few minutes of that horse in action in the 1928 parade video above and tell me that dopily grinning monstrosity blobbing its way down the street isn’t a better representation of modern-day Rutgers. And don’t even get me started on the “passenger”—like Rutgers along for the ride of Big Ten riches, that guy is doing the least.

#14 - Northwestern: Jeeves

Please take a moment and delight that for the first time in Power Poll’s illustrious history, we’ve finally gotten to give Northwestern an honest-to-god butler. Everything, finally, has come full circle for us and our most tired joke.

Jeeves’ parade history began in 1999 as a mere float, but he was elevated to balloon status the following year. As the first internet-born character to get the balloon treatment, Jeeves has a special place in Macy’s Parade history. But you know what hasn’t aged well? Macy’s 1930s-era balloon called “The Turk.” And also, AskJeeves.

I teach college students and I’m humbled daily by the bits of everyday life from a mere two decades ago that I have to explain to them. So, for any youths reading this, AskJeeves was a behemoth of the early internet age. The site depicted a butler (Jeeves), and you’d type in your question for Jeeves, and he’d “serve” you your answer.

“But wait,” you may be wondering if you are a youth, “isn’t that just… Google?”

It is. And that’s what ended Jeeves’ run as a ubiquitous part of internet culture. Now, Googling something is a common verb, and Jeeves is consigned to the dustbin of internet history.

Also outdated and unable to adapt to change is Pat Fitzgerald and the Northwestern Wildcats. Something worked once, and Patty F is ready to do it forever and ever, even if the results have proven to not be replicable. There is a non-zero chance that Fitzy is still using a Wayback Machine version of AskJeeves instead of using Google.

Furthermore, the Ask company’s decision to invest in a giant inflatable butler balloon now appears laughably ill-advised, a monument to the hubris of the first wave of the dotcom companies. Northwestern’s forthcoming $1 billion new stadium seems like a similarly ill-advised splash of cash given the product that’s being put on the field these days.

*******************

And that’s a wrap on another year of regular-season Power Polls! Thanks as always for reading this increasingly niche and weird feature, and have a happy and safe Thanksgiving! May all of your teams lose except for mine.

Poll

Which balloon do you most wish you could have seen lurching down the streets of NYC/getting caught by an airplane?

  • 11%
    Morton, the Nantucket Sea Monster
    (17 votes)
  • 4%
    Hugo, the Football Hero
    (6 votes)
  • 8%
    Old Man Dragon
    (12 votes)
  • 11%
    Felix the Cat (any version, but especially aflame)
    (17 votes)
  • 2%
    Herr Inspektor
    (4 votes)
  • 5%
    Double-Headed Pirate
    (8 votes)
  • 2%
    George, the Giant Drum Major
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Real Housewife Fish
    (1 vote)
  • 7%
    Colicky Kid
    (11 votes)
  • 4%
    Carnivorous Goldfish
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    Hobo Clown
    (3 votes)
  • 24%
    Boob McNutt
    (36 votes)
  • 2%
    Wobbly Head
    (3 votes)
  • 1%
    Horse with Passenger
    (2 votes)
  • 12%
    Jeeves
    (18 votes)
148 votes total Vote Now