One of my favorite childhood memories is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade at balloon-eye-level from my cousin’s elegant Art Deco Century apartment building in New York City. One of my favorite books during those same youthful years was Tony Sarg’s New York, a collection of full-page illustrations looking down on well-known New York City attractions, including one at the intersection of 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Little did I know in my youth that these two favorites would come together in artistic unity.
Sarg, a whimsical illustrator, puppeteer and designer—a very visible fixture on the New York popular art scene—was among the initial designers of original Thanksgiving Day Parade floats and balloons. He was also a prolific mapmaker for events like the 1939 New York World’s Fair and other distinctly NYC spectaculars. Long forgotten by many, his art and career get a gust of new life in the exhibition opening tomorrow at the Norman Rockwell Museum, presented by chief curator Stephanie Haboush Plunkett and guest curator Lenore D. Miller.
“Exploring themes relating to Sarg’s prolific career and ongoing influence, this theatrical installation serves as a window into the creative process and achievements of an exceptional American artist and showman,” says Plunkett. Exhibition themes include: London to New York: Sarg as Illustrator; Moving Images: Sarg’s Animations; Balloons Over Broadway: Macy’s on Parade; Puppets on Tour: Sarg’s Marionettes; Humor, Fantasy and the Turning Page; The Big Stage: Illustrated Maps, Architectural Projects and Two World’s Fairs; Whimsical Art for Commerce; Sarg’s Nantucket Adventures; and The Artist’s Legacy. An exhibition video and audio tour featuring noted commentators enhance the visitor experience, and a richly illustrated catalog (Abbeville Press) accompanies the show.
Born in Guatemala in 1880 to a diplomatic family, his life was peripatetic. While living in New York, Sarg immersed himself in the worlds of art and publishing and received illustration commissions from The Saturday Evening Post, Boy’s Life, American Girl, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Vanity Fair, among others, but he distinguished himself from other artists through puppetry, giving his first performance in his studio in the famed Flatiron Building. In 1917, he began performances of Franz von Pocci’s The Three Wishes, and in 1919, The Rose and the Ring opened on Broadway. In 1921, Rip Van Winkle became the first of his large touring shows, followed by Don Quixote, Treasure Island, The Chinese Willow Plate and Ali Baba. His production of Alice in Wonderland was especially popular, playing to millions at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933. Sinbad the Sailor, Robinson Crusoe and The Mikado were among his other productions, with Robin Hood (1939) as the last, due to the company’s financial challenges.
Sarg also designed murals and products for prominent New York hotels and department stores and opened popular toy shops in New York City. Of his body of work, puppeteer and historian Paul McPharlin noted that it “set up an ideal of American puppetry: a good play, as a rule, based on a familiar tale, with production details carefully worked out and integrated. Puppetry, scenery, lights, properties, and even the printed program, exhibited artistry. His bent for gaiety and humor, his love of odd effects, animals and the marvelous, found just the right combination.”