December 22, 2013 at 9:34 am

Historic parade figures on display in 'Big Heads Take the Fisher'

Big Heads Take the Fisher
Big Heads Take the Fisher: Pure Detroit is sponsoring an exhibit of historic Thanksgiving Parade "Big Heads" from the 1940s and 1950s. These papier mache works of art are on display in the lobby of the Fisher Building until Jan. 31.

Ryan Patick Hooper describes the tour like a journey to the Island of Misfit Toys. He and his bosses, Pure Detroit co-owners Shawn Santo and her husband Kevin Borsay, were at the Parade Company recently to see if they could come up with an event the Detroit-centric retailer could co-sponsor with the non-profit producer of America's Thanksgiving Parade.

"We see this sort of dusty corner, a little unlit, blocked by a couple of floats, and we walk back there and there's just these gorgeous, intricately painted, beautiful papier-mache Big Heads," said Hooper, 24, who is Pure Detroit's creative director. "We were blown away."

The Big Heads are – well, big papier-mache heads – that marchers wear with matching costumes, making them look like giants.

Hooper, Santo and Borsay immediately knew they wanted to put them on display in the lobby of the Fisher Building, where Pure Detroit holds down a prime piece of retail real estate.

"They're not perfect; they're not mint condition," Hooper said. "They're a little dusty; they need a little help." But the 20 heads they selected to display are clearly works of art, especially the mammoth pirate crew sporting tattoos and gold earrings. A little clown in a harlequin costume pops from their treasure chest holding a pennant that reads "Viareggio," the town where these Big Heads were created. If you look closely you'll see pieces of Italian newspapers that make up the papier mache compositions peaking through cracks in their paint. They are even signed by the artist who made them.

There are pairs of animal heads: pandas, reindeer with badly cracked noses, bees and racoons keeping company with clowns and an alligator.

The blue hippo may be familiar from parades of recent years. But there's a seldom-seen Martian head from the ‘50s or ‘60s when space travel captured the American imagination. When it was featured in the Thanksgiving parade, the space man accompanied several fanciful astronauts and a space capsule.

Techniques from Tuscany

Where did they come from?

Back in the 1920s a Philadelphia department store sponsored the first American fantasy parade. Not to be outdone, Hudson's in Detroit and Macy's in New York planned parades of their own for Thanksgiving, 1924. Charles Wendel, head of display for Hudson's department store, was contemplating the new parade when he visited Viareggio, Italy, the home of some of the largest papier-mache creations in the world, fabricated for each year's carnevale.

When Wendel saw the papier-mache heads carried on the shoulders of parade participants in this coastal Italian town, "He said these are perfect…I have to bring this tradition back to Detroit," said Hooper. Detroiters at that first Thanksgiving Parade saw four Big Heads created in Viareggio march down Woodward Avenue in 1924.

They were such a hit that Hudson continued to import them from the little Tuscan town for decades, as late as the ‘70s (Hudson's relinquished control of the parade in 1979). The parade foundation brought a Viareggio artist to Detroit in 1989 to create a Big Head representing President George W. Bush. Detroit’s own artists learned the Italian techniques and began producing their own. Today the Parade Company owns about 300 of the delicate creations.

Over the years the Big Heads were overtaken by other displays, and not many were seen in the parades. But, according to Parade Company President and CEO Tony Michaels, Sean Moran, Jim Dailey and Steve Booher started the Big Head Corps about six years ago with a goal of preservation. This year 150 "young executive" volunteers each paid $200 for the privilege of wearing a Big Head and corresponding costume in the parade.

Michaels says some heads are restored each year, and for the Big Heads Take the Fisher exhibit, the Parade Company released some that are still awaiting TLC.

Preserving a piece of Detroit's History

It's kind of amazing that they are sitting right on the Fisher lobby's marble floor in reach of curious fingers.

"They had to be accessible," said Hooper. "People had to touch." And touch they do. Children give the reindeer and horses their toys to kiss. Even adults can't resist giving the giant sailor with outstretched arms a hug while they shoot a selfie with their phones.

"People had to see that these things needed some preservation, that they had a sense of history, that they'd been through something, that they needed to be discovered and put back on display," Hooper said.

There are more Big Heads in the Parade Company warehouse and Pure Detroit would like to see them restored and back in the parade. They're planning a fundraising event for some time in January to help the Parade Company do just that.

"We want people to adopt them," said Hooper. "So let's bring historic art from Viareggio, Italy into Detroit's largest art object, the Fisher Building," which was built in the ‘20s when Hudson's was sponsoring the first Thanksgiving parades.

"It's an amazing example of preservation in the city," Hooper said. "So let's continue taking a look back at the history of the city and keep preserving these things."

Who is Pure Detroit?

Shawn Santo and Kevin Borsay, whose roots are in urban planning, art, engineering and architecture, opened their first Pure Detroit shop in the vest pocket newstand in the David Whitney Building on Thanksgiving in 1998, selling hot chocolate to paradegoers. They were entrepreneurs believing that a shop focusing on all that is good and creative about Detroit could be a hit way before it was hip.
And they were right. That tiny storefront on Woodward Avenue has grown into three Pure Detroit shops — in the Fisher and Guardian buildings and the Renaissance Center. In the Fisher they also own the cafe Stella Good Coffee, Vera Jane women's clothing and now Workshop, a new business Borsay started with partner James Willer of Reclaim Detroit to make furniture with materials salvaged from deconstructed houses. In the Guardian Building they own another Stella and the Rowland cafe and espresso bar.
With this quietly growing "empire" they broke the ground for the current wave of locally sourced, pro-D businesses.
Santo and Borsay have built on that parade connection, helping sponsor the Big Head Corps for the past few years.

Pure Detroit is sponsoring an exhibit of historical Big Heads created for the Detroit Thanksgiving Parade. Many of them were crafted in the 1940s and 1950s and have been stored at the Parade Company warehouse for decades without ever being seen by the public. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
'As soon as we started bringing them in here people started interacting ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)