Curious George takes the lead in N.Y. parade

Macy's: More than 60 years after his introduction, the famous monkey gets this honor.

November 22, 2001|By Gwynn L. MacDonald | Gwynn L. MacDonald,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This is George. He lived in Africa. He was a good little monkey and always very curious.

More than 60 years ago, H.A. and Margret Rey introduced Curious George to the world, and today, the mischievous monkey will be floating down Broadway for the first time to lead the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

It's an awesome responsibility for a character known more for his adventures than for his ability to follow directions. But Houghton Mifflin, who recently celebrated George's 60th birthday with a new compilation of the seven original tales written by the Reys, believes George is up to the task.

"We were involved in the creative process to make the balloon look more like the book character," says Maire Gorman, vice president of HMCo. Special Markets. "And let's just say I am prepared to jump up and hold the ropes if I see the balloon handlers going astray!"

Anyone who has read Curious George Flies a Kite might wonder about the wisdom of having a giant 57-foot George filled with 11,600 cubic feet of helium and tethered to 60 or so handling lines. (George flies off with the kite in that story.)

But as one of the most widely licensed characters around, George is learning that corporate America can be an adventure, too.

In the past few years, Macy's has worked with an entertainment company or toy manufacturer to develop a Christmas program "that has as its centerpiece our plush animal mascot," said Robin Hall, vice president and director of Macy's Parade Annual Events.

"That plush animal mascot has generally been the lead balloon in the parade; he is on the 34th Street Marquee, which George is ... [and] is usually on our shopping bag," said Hall. "That has become the program, and there's a lot of interest in this because it is a very significant sales opportunity."

On this, its 75th anniversary, the parade draws 2.5 million to the streets of New York and another 50 million television viewers.

Both the Macy's Parade and Curious George share a certain cultural history. The parade began in 1924 at the initiation of 400 department store employees, most of whom were European immigrants. The employees wanted an event to celebrate their newfound prospects and their new country's Thanksgiving heritage.

It seems particularly apt then that this year the lead parade balloon is also a European refugee. In a dramatic escape from the Nazis, the Reys came to this country with few belongings but their Curious George manuscripts. More than 25 million copies of the original George, translated into 14 languages, have sold. At their deaths, the couple left a multimillion dollar estate pledged to philanthropy.

While both George and the Macy's Parade have grown from their humble beginnings into cultural symbols, the line in the parade these days between cultural symbols and corporate brands is mirthfully discarded.

It is after all the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Whereas earlier parades featured such character balloons as Felix the Cat, cartoonist Tony Sarg's Dragon, and the Big Bad Wolf and the Little Pig, this year's balloon cast includes Kraft Macaroni & Cheese's Cheesasaurus Rex, Honey Nut Cheerios' Buzzbee, Jeeves from the Internet Web site Ask Jeeves, and Vivendi's Universal Studio's Curious George.

The branding does not stop there. Hall points out that this year's 16-inch plush George and his balloon likeness are modeled on a new tale, Curious George in the Big City. In this book, a mini version of which comes with every Macy's plush toy, George and the Man with the Yellow Hat have come to the city to do their holiday shopping.

Is it any wonder then that the store in which they make their gift purchases looks suspiciously like ... Macy's?

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