Joy VanBuhler/Flickr

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 Parade Company warehouse and work space in Detroit. (Joy VanBuhler/Flickr)

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.

Joy VanBuhler/Flickr

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.”

Joy VanBuhler/Flickr
Joy VanBuhler/Flickr
Ben Piddington/Flickr
Joy VanBuhler/Flickr
A Healthier Michigan/Flickr

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A map of apartment searches in the U.S.
    Maps

    Where America’s Renters Want to Move Next

    A new report that tracks apartment searches between U.S. cities reveals the moving aspirations of a certain set of renters.

  2. Equity

    Housing Can’t Be Both Affordable and a Good Investment

    The two pillars of American housing policy are fundamentally at odds.

  3. A rendering of a co-living building in San Jose.
    Life

    The Largest Co-Living Building in the World Is Coming to San Jose

    The startup Starcity plans to build an 800-unit, 18-story “dorm for adults” to help affordably house Silicon Valley’s booming workforce.

  4. a photo of yellow vest protesters in Paris, France.
    Equity

    To Understand American Political Anger, Look to ‘Peripheral France’

    French geographer Christophe Guilluy has a controversial diagnosis of working-class resentment in the age of Trump, Brexit, and the Yellow Vests.

  5. a screenshot of a video about Baltimore's Metro
    Transportation

    It’s Time to Celebrate Baltimore’s Much-Maligned Metro

    In 1987, the Maryland Transit Administration busted out a brass band to open a subway that never had a chance.

×