Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The painted busts march down Woodward Avenue as part of the holiday parade.
Dave Danielson stood on a ladder, studying a face bigger than his whole body. He balled damp newspaper into the shape of an eyeball, molded nostrils, and smoothed the top of a lip.
In the Parade Company warehouse in Detroit—a lofty 200,000 square feet of floats and costumes in various stages of construction—Danielson, the company’s former art director, was fashioning a papier-mâché bust of former Lions football star Barry Sanders. Sanders’s larger-than-life likeness was slated to walk in the Thanksgiving parade on the shoulders of a member of the Big Heads Corps, a battalion of local professionals who pony up with donations to score a spot among the parade’s cast of characters tromping along Woodward Avenue.
The oversized heads have the look of boardwalk caricature sketches: long necks, bugged-out eyes, huge, toothy grins. How do you make the characters identifiable to the fans in the nosebleed seats at the top of the grandstands? “You have to find those things that really make [them] stick out and look like [themselves],” Danielson explained to local TV station WDIV last year.
The enormous heads—first imported from the town of Viareggio, Italy—joined Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving parade in 1940s. By the 1970s, their numbers had dwindled. The delicate items fell into disrepair and didn’t get out much until a restoration effort in 2013, the Detroit News reported. Some of the hundreds back in rotation date to the first wave of imports; others were crafted more recently by Parade Company artisans who learned the trade.
Characters include an ostrich, chipmunk, Gordie Howe, Diana Ross, Tom Selleck, Henry Ford, and Bob Segar.
This year, 150 heads will shuffle down the street. The newest addition pays homage to comedian Gilda Radner, a Detroit native.
For many locals, the heads are a point of pride. One member of the Big Head Corps explained their parade cachet this way: “Other than Santa, I think we’re the favorites.”