Spirit of Thanksgiving Parade Rises at Balloon School

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Image credit: Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

It can take 30 people to wrangle those 3 story Thanksgiving parade balloons. How do they do it? Enter Balloon School.

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Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET
Dawn Uhl-Zifilippo/WDET

The Thanksgiving Day holiday traditionally brings with it parades and balloons.

Really BIG balloons that scrape the skyline in cities like New York or Detroit.

And there’s special training for those tasked with keeping the balloons from floating away.

It takes place in a massive Detroit parking lot, where a star is rising.

It’s a happy star. You can tell by the grin painted on it.

It’s a balloon ready to be used by those practicing for the upcoming Thanksgiving Day parade.

Balloon school is in session. The man in charge here is Don Morris.

Just feel the balloon again, have the rope in your hand,” Morris said. “I don’t think people are used to having something 3,000 cubic feet of mass above their head and that can be moving all over the place.

It can take as many as 30 people to pull and prod a three-story tall balloon.

Newbie handlers like Kelley Marcaccio say it makes for a full-body workout.

It’s windy, it’s awkward, it’s like a giant kite. Couple times the balloon wanted to crawl away from us or fly away from us,” she said. “(We just) held on tight and prayed.”

The balloons soar as high as 40 feet above ground.  

Don Morris says back in 1990, one balloon here soared quite a bit higher.

Morris said, “Three balloons let go at once. We were able to catch two. The one that was in the middle of everything – it was the penguin balloon – unfortunately all of a sudden we just watched him rise up and…”

Morris shakes his head at the memory.

We went to the Detroit Police Department and said you’re going to have to let planes in the area know that we have this 3,000 cubic foot mass floating in the air somewhere.”

The penguin balloon, called Chili Willy, eventually crashed in a lake 25 miles away.

There’s a new penguin now inside the Parade Company’s expansive warehouse, a place stuffed with floats and costumes.

It’s where balloon school holds what in essence is its final exams.

Handlers are assigned to balloons with names like Gingerbread, Kermit, Clownie and Captain Underpants.

And, of course, the infamous Penguin – a balloon parade officials say tends to still attract a lot of attention.

Even veterans like Chris Matus, who says he married into a family of balloon handlers, sometimes need a refresher course.

He said, “There was one year where the ropes got tangled and one year a friend of mine got his hand caught in the rope and the captain had to cut it out. Saw (a balloon) once caught on a street lamp. But nothing’s ever broken. No one’s ever gotten seriously hurt. I mean it’s part of the fun right?  Kind of the controlled chaos of the moment. Keeps it exciting.”

There is a real sense of family among the volunteer handlers.

Actually handler Jeff Scheumann says he’s here because of his late mother.

She was somebody that enjoyed the holidays,” Scheumann said. “She liked making other people smile. And so for me it’s like, you know what? I’m out here making everybody smile.”

And as the school winds down, Instructors have one last lesson to impart. It’s not all about flying these balloons.

As one stressed to the assembled handlers, “Nobody is done until that balloon is rolled up and in the bag. We really need you to stay with the balloon…help us deflate it. A lot of people have fun with that.”

But the spirits of the hundreds of handlers are anything but deflated as they eagerly await the chance to showcase their balloon on the Thanksgiving parade stage.

Quinn Klinefelter, Senior News Editor

Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.


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