Frightening and beautiful, they’re known simply as the “Big Heads” to longtime Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade-goers. In fact, these giant papier-mâché puppets date back to the origins of the parade itself.
ome are pirates. Some are Martians. Some are animals. And the oldest ones—arguably the most elaborate and haunting—are Italian. Italian, because in the mid-1920s, Charles Wendel, then-director of displays at Hudson’s department store in Detroit, had recently returned from a European trip where he’d witnessed the Carnival of Viareggio with his own eyes. There, enormous, intricate, and often emotionally intense papier-mâché masks and heads danced in the streets in a rite that goes back to the 1800s. With one look, he decided it was a perfect tradition to bring back to Detroit, where he had been mulling over the idea of a downtown holiday parade to get people in the Christmas spirit—and revved up for the imminent holiday shopping season.
Thus, the Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade was born, and Wendel collaborated with the puppet artisans in Viareggio, Italy to bring the first Hudson’s-ordered “Big Heads” to the inaugural parade on Thanksgiving Day, 1924. They were a huge hit, and over the years, the Detroit Parade Company’s ever-expanding collection of giant puppets has grown to more than 300. Detroit-based artists who’ve trained with the papier-mâché masters in Viareggio have continued the tradition in more recent decades, crafting their own big-head style puppets, often of local Detroit celebrities. (This year’s addition is a likeness of Gordie Howe.) The old ones can always be discerned from the new with one simple trick: On the inside of the vintage puppets, all the yellowing papier-mâché newsprint is in Italian.
The Big Heads are still part of the Thanksgiving Day Parade in Detroit, though some of the older Italian-born puppets have been retired and fallen into various states of disrepair. Now through January 15, about a dozen of the oldest Big Heads will be on display in the lobby of the Fisher Building in Detroit, giving the public the most intimate look yet at these intense Italian marvels. The Parade Company is also hoping the public display will inspire donors to help in the cause of carefully restoring the oldest generation of Big Heads—now covered by cracks and fading paint—to their former glory.
To find out more, contact Pure Detroit’s Fisher Building location at 313-873-7873.