John Breunig (opinion): Stamford's forgotten balloon parades of the 1950s. When Santa didn't finish the route.

Photo of John Breunig
An ad for Stamford's holiday parade in the Stamford Advocate on Nov. 21, 1955.

An ad for Stamford's holiday parade in the Stamford Advocate on Nov. 21, 1955.

File photo
Lights strung across Atlantic Street in Stamford during the holiday season in 1956.

Lights strung across Atlantic Street in Stamford during the holiday season in 1956.

File photo
A balloon inflation party was held Nov. 28, 1955 before Stamford's Yule Parade marched through downtown Stamford later that day.

A balloon inflation party was held Nov. 28, 1955 before Stamford's Yule Parade marched through downtown Stamford later that day.

File Photo
The front page of the Stamford Advocate after the first holiday parade in 1955.

The front page of the Stamford Advocate after the first holiday parade in 1955.

File photo
A Stamford Advocate advertisement promoting Stamford's second holiday parade in 1956.

A Stamford Advocate advertisement promoting Stamford's second holiday parade in 1956.

File photo

If you’re going to Sunday’s Stamford Downtown Parade Spectacular, please take notes.

Or photos.

Or video.

Share them on … well, not Twitter. That could vanish before the crew finishes cleaning up after the horses.

2022 parade

The 29th Stamford Downtown Parade Spectacular will be on Sunday, Nov. 20. The parade will begin at noon.

Parades, it seems, can be forgotten as quickly as the last password you changed (now you’re thinking about it, aren’t you?). The Stamford parade returns Sunday, Nov. 20, for the first time since 2019 after a COVID hiatus. You wouldn’t expect area residents to forget an event that previously ran uninterrupted since 1993, but let me demonstrate that history can be ephemeral.

Stamford had balloon parades from 1955-57. I know because I read it in the newspaper (remember those?). Archives reveal they weren’t small either, unlike the first modern Stamford parade on Black Friday in which marchers repeated the loop to double the five-minute running time.

Even the balloons back then outnumbered their modern ancestors. This Sunday’s parade promised 15 inflatables. Back in 1955, there were 35. Today they tend to be branded characters that insist on using full birth names (Daniel Tiger, Thomas the Tank Engine, Clifford the Big Red Dog. I don’t know why he’s not Robert the Builder). Back then most of the inflatables were generic characters, save for the likes of Elmer the Monkey and Porky the Pig.

And here’s a twist: Parades of the Ike years took place at night. The minds eye can’t help but summon the likes of flickering back-and-white images on a Philco TV set. Try a little harder. Imagine something akin to “Miracle on 34th Street” being instantly colorized as then Mayor Thomas Quigley declared the start of shopping season by ordering on the illumination of the lights draped across Atlantic Street and its intersections. Boom, flourishes of color bathing downtown Stamford.

It doesn’t help that the mayor’s pomp and circumstance was limited to a pedestrian “OK” signal  to launch the parade. It also doesn’t help that this is the part when I should be able to quote an eyewitness. Some trusty Stamford voice who was a mere child at the time, still able to paint a word picture with Spielbergian attention to period detail.

“……” she said. “…………!"

That’s right, I got nothin’.

Since first finding clips about The Fifties’ parades two decades ago, I have routinely  asked longtime Stamford residents if they were there. I’ve had zero success, so this week I lit a fuse to try to spread the word around the city, confident that one of the reportedly 25,000 people in attendance could put words where those ellipses appear.

I reached out to the Stamford Senior Center to poll members.

“They don’t seem to recall,”  reported Gina Compolattaro, assistant to the director.

It seemed serendipitous that U.S. Rep. Chris Shays dropped me a note Thursday because he happened to be in town to address the Senior Men's Association. It wasn’t.

Dan Burke at the Stamford Historical Society struck out asking some seniors, so he pivoted to the “If you’re really from Stamford, you’d know . . .” Facebook group.

I’m starting to wonder if anyone is really from Stamford.

Renee Kahn, who is synonymous with preservation in Stamford, arrived in the city just after the parades. Carmen Domonkos directed me to a fellow longtime Board of Representatives member, Philip Giordano, whose brother Bruno was once mayor. Giordano recalled he had just started with the fire department in those years and might have been on call.

“I’m 95 and I don’t remember it,” he said Friday. “But I look forward to reading your article.”

So do I.

Rick Redniss, a native and land use planner, suggested several possible sources. The closest we came to success was the ever-trusty Al Koproski, a lifetime resident who was serving in the U.S. Army at the time and stationed in nearby Staten Island.

“I do vaguely remember the Balloon Parade but it was nothing like what we have today,” Koproski wrote back.

Redniss also asked if I had done the obvious and checked in with the Downtown Special Services District, which pulls the strings on the modern parade.

I told them about it years ago, I explained.

"We thought we were inventing a wheel, not reinventing one," former DSSD impresario Sandy Goldstein said at the time.

So I went back to my most reliable source, the newspaper. During our exchange, Redness mentioned that his uncle, Arnold Walter, had been a Stamford Advocate photographer for several years, but he wasn’t sure of the time period.

For each of the parade’s three years, all photos from the “inflation party” and the parade are credited to “Walter.”

There were some fun ideas at the “Yule Parade,” including a 7-foot “magic mailbox” volunteers used for letters to Santa collected from the crowd. But the text reveals a few possible reasons the event didn’t survive into the 1960s. Dumbo and some other balloons couldn’t navigate corners. A couple of them wound up being transported in severed body parts. After several balloons in the inaugural parade quickly deflated, a “transfusion” station was set up in Year Two at Hoyt and Summer streets.

A massive orange organ that introduced Santa that first year lost a wheel at the post office and collided with the eight reindeer, so they had to skip the final third of the route before it ended on Broad Street.

In the second year, the float carrying Santa & Co. lost two wheels, leaving them stalled in the middle of the route. Wheels indeed needed to be reinvented.

In 1957, the rechristened “Winter Phantasy” was moved to daylight hours. Perhaps organizers just wanted to increase the odds the main attraction (no, not Elmer the Monkey) would make it to the finish line this time. That strategy backfired.

“To the consternation of parents, and bewilderment of children, there were five Santa Clauses, necessitating some quick thinking,” the paper reported.

The kids decided the First Fidelity Santa was the real deal, since he was the only one with elves and gifts.

It’s hard to believe they even made it to a threequel. A letter to the editor deems the first edition “the most discouraging spectacle of the season” and “a prelude to dismay” as the balloons were filled with “hot gas” and dragged around the streets. Even worse, before the wheels fell off Santa’s float in Year Two, they crushed the big toe of a 9-year-old boy.  

He may be my only hope for a memory. Keep on the lookout for a 75-year-old with a limp. 

Surely no one would forget having a toe mashed by Santa, right? 

John Breunig is editorial page editor of the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time. jbreunig@scni.com; twitter.com/johnbreunig.