Dudley on Parade

In 1995, Dudley had another opportunity to be in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This time, he would appear as a $350,000 balloon: 65-feet tall, 28-feet wide, 45-feet long wearing 20-foot sneakers. And he would lead the parade! Behind him would trail 22 floats, 14 marching bands, 1,000 cheerleaders and marchers, and 17 other large inflated characters. It was all very exciting.

After a two-and-a-half mile trip, arriving at Macy’s in Herald Square, Dudley would float before the cameras of NBC-TV. Fame awaited the character, and for the merchandisers, fortune. Or so it was hoped.

Three weeks before the parade, the regular-sized Dudley was supposed to attract attention outside NBC’s ground-level studio at Rockefeller Center during the morning Today Show. Unfortunately, his scheduled appearance was pre-empted by a funeral. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated two days earlier (November 4); so the event was still top media coverage.

Meanwhile, the Dudley balloon was pumped up for a trial run on November 5. Manny Bass, Macy’s head balloon designer, noted, “He fits right into New York, doesn’t he? Looks like he just came out of a steam pipe.” The successful test run was captured on video. This, as it turned out, was a good thing.

The day of the parade, November 23, the balloon was reinflated to its full 65-foot glory. Just as the parade began, the wind blew it into tree and a lamppost on Columbus Circle. It snagged, causing a gash. Out came the helium, and Dudley quickly deflated, as did the hopes of the merchandisers, who had expected the dragon to appear before millions of viewers.

Meridian CEO Robert Stone, flabbergasted by the balloon’s collapse, received a call from his mother: “Congratulations, I saw Dudley in the parade. He looked great. He was floating high. It was a beautiful shot.”

NBC, which had been televising the event, had quickly switched to footage of the balloon from its trial run. Parade hosts Willard Scott and Katie Couric remarked about the balloon as if nothing had happened. NBC, meanwhile, had covered itself with a disclaimer superimposed at the beginning of the program: “Portions Prerecorded.”

The parade’s organizer and producer, Jean McFaddin, told New York Magazine, “There is nothing as disappointing as running a blank space and saying, ‘We’re sorry, the balloon didn’t make it.’ Nobody wants to hear that on Thanksgiving.”

Dudley was not invited back to Macy’s. The following year, McFaddin said, “Poor Dudley. He’s taking the parade off.” The reason, she said, was, “We wanted to find the balloons that the kids love the most.”

First photo: AP Photo by Mark Lenihan. Licensed by Associated Press.

Second and third photos: © Breakthrough Films & Television Inc. Photos by Randy Brooke. Used with permission.

Sources: Peter M. Nichols, New York Times, November 19, 1995, ; Emily Prager, New York Times, November 19, 1995, “He’s the Master of Inflation,” p. 53; Norman Vanamee, New York Magazine, vol. 28, no. 49, December 11, 1995, “Miracle on 34th Street II,” p. 22; Richard Murphy, compiling from wire services, The Wichita Eagle, December 17, 1995, “What You’re Seeing May Not Really Be There,” p. 23A; Associated Press, The Press of Atlantic City, (NJ) November 28, 1996, “For This Dragon, Parade’s a Big Letdown; Once upon a time, a lovable Canadian dragon named Dudley came to the Big City for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” p. B2.