Macy's balloon man puts dreams in flight


NEW YORK -- It is early Sunday morning a few weeks before Thanksgiving, in front of Macy's on Herald Square. Manny Bass, Macy's head balloon designer -- master of "cold air inflatables" as he calls them -- is overseeing the test flight of his latest creation.

Dudley the Dragon, a 60-foot replica of the character from the children's show on PBS, is lying flat as a pancake on a tarp spread across Broadway, ready to be inflated. Mr. Bass, a handsome man of 60 with snow-white hair and twinkling light-blue eyes, excitedly traverses the edge of the tarp, advising the staff on the helium truck and instructing new balloon handlers.

"A balloon takes about three months from design to completion," he said a few days later at Macy's colorful balloon and float workshop in Hoboken, N.J. "First I make a half-inch-scale fiberglass model," he said sitting in his Santa's workshop office. "I take a sketch I've made and try to capture the motion."

"The 'raptor over there," he added, gesturing toward a dangling velociraptor, "he got so excited he ran right down to the parade when he heard there were other dragons in it."

"Every balloon," Mr. Bass said, smiling, "has a reason for moving."

Mr. Bass has happily journeyed between fantasy and reality since he joined Macy's, 35 years ago. He grew up in New Jersey, and his obsession with parades began in kindergarten.

"They had a box of crayons about 6 feet long and when I saw it, I freaked," he said. "I started to draw a train. I drew one car, then another and another, and the teacher gave me more and more paper and soon it was taped all around the room."

Mr. Bass, who also designs floats for the parade, employs a staff of 25 sculptors, artists and welders in the 30,000-square-foot studio.

Back on Broadway, Dudley has been hooked up to the helium truck and begins taking shape. The proper balance between the helium inside the balloon and the air outside depends on things like temperature, wind velocity and the balloon's contours. On parade day, he constantly listens to marine aviation radio and fine-tunes the air mixture for each balloon to make sure it flies safely.

Dudley is up and inflated. Underneath him, handlers run this way and that, learning to turn him. Mr. Bass is right after them, calling instructions. The flight is a success: it flies perfectly.

Mr. Bass pauses to look up at Dudley, who is slowly bouncing against a background of skyscrapers. "He fits right into New York, doesn't he?" Mr. Bass says of the giant dragon. "Looks like he just came out of a steam pipe."

The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade will be broadcast live from 9 a.m. to noon today on NBC (WBAL, Channel 11). Santa Claus' arrival at the end of the parade ushers in the holiday season.

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