Time Machine

Time Machine: Giant balloons once floated above Cedar Rapids streets

Representatives from Alliant Energy pull a giant Santa Claus balloon down Second Avenue SE in the Nov. 23, 2002, Cedar R
Representatives from Alliant Energy pull a giant Santa Claus balloon down Second Avenue SE in the Nov. 23, 2002, Cedar Rapids Holiday Parade. “An All-American Holiday” was the parade’s theme that year. (Gazette archives)
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Holiday parades marched along Cedar Rapids streets as early as 1916, when a Mother Goose parade sponsored by Killian’s department store featured floats and Santa.

The 1929 parade featured bands, walking trees, decorated cars, floats and Santa and five of his reindeer. The parade, sponsored by the Mercantile Bureau and the Cedar Rapids Gazette and Republican, wound through the downtown, ending at the Rock Island freight office where Santa greeted parade participants before heading to the Home for Aged Women and the Home for the Friendless.

In 1933, Miss Mary Christmas rode in a car filled with large helium balloons that she released one by one to float over the crowd. She was followed by Santa in his own log cabin, who took up a post on Municipal Island (now May’s Island) to greet children, while chimes rang out from the Veterans Memorial Building.

In 1939, Santa’s parade route started at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 1 at B Avenue and Fifth Street NE in a light rain. Participants looped through the downtown and ended at Greene Square Park, where spectators could see reindeer, sled dogs, a double-humped camel, clowns, elves and storybook characters. Three drum and bugle corps provided music.

Tradition was followed pretty closely in holiday parades in Cedar Rapids until 1948.

That was the year that Santa arrived, not in a sleigh, but in a midget racer mounted on a float. Its little old driver was portly enough that he couldn’t quite fit both legs in the racer.

Balloons Added in 1950

Giant balloons were introduced in the 1950 Christmas parade, with 40 giant balloons leased from the Jean Gros Co. of Pittsburgh, Pa.

More than 200 boys were recruited from the city’s four high schools — Franklin, Wilson, Roosevelt and McKinley — to maneuver the balloons along the parade route.

A crowd “freely estimated” at 60,000, jammed the 10-block parade route to watch 18 floats, six bands and the bobbing balloons, one of which was a half-block-long pipe organ.

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The parade that year was sponsored by the Young Men’s Bureau and the Retail Merchants Bureau of the Chamber of Commerce,

The next year, a 350-foot-long balloon train was part of the parade, along with a 45-foot alligator.

The temperature was in the mid-20s for the parade, which meant the balloons had to have more air added before they started the route. Even then, by the end of the parade, an inflated fish was dragging its tail, and a small boy was struggling to keep a sagging totem pole balloon from falling over.

In 1953, the parade was televised for the first time. Santa sat down amid youngsters for a five-minute stop in front of the cameras from KCRI (later KCRG).

In 1954, in lieu of a parade, the kids in Cedar Rapids were invited to Memorial Coliseum to one of four “Santa’s Christmas Party.”

Parades Return in 1984

After that, the Christmas parade disappeared until Lindale Mall offered a holiday balloon parade in 1967. People gathered in the mall parking lot to see the parade, which never left mall property. That effort lasted only a couple of years.

In 1984, a parade touted as the first Christmas parade in more than 20 years — actually more than 30, if you don’t count the Lindale version — was scheduled for Nov. 17.

The parade, sponsored by the Central Retail Committee, was held in tandem with the Shriners state convention in Cedar Rapids. The parade led off with the Emerald Knights Drum and Bugle Corps and included Shriner parade units from across the state.

Santa’s “reindeer” were costumed helpers who threw candy to kids in the crowd.

It took three years before a balloon was added to the parade. The 15-foot inflated Hills Bros. Coffee can was the first balloon that had to deal with Cedar Rapids’ skywalks. It had to be lowered out of a pickup truck to clear the skywalks.

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In 2000, a 25-foot Santa balloon entertained spectators by doing the limbo under the skywalks and rail crossing signals. The same dilemma challenged handlers of a giant gingerbread man.

A giant lighted balloon ornament strolled the lighted streets of the 2008 Holiday DeLight parade. In 2015, a jolly snowman balloon, wearing a red top hat, was in the Fire & Ice Festival parade.

No big holiday balloons will be flying in Cedar Rapids any time soon. The last Fire & Ice Festival was Dec. 3, 2016.

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