From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
In John Piper's view, his job requires two traits: "You need some engineering background," he says. "And you have to be a kid."

When this year's Macy's Thanks-giving Day Parade, the 75th, heads down Manhattan's Central Park West toward Macy's flagship store on 34th Street, it will mark the debut not only of four characters—including Curious George and Pikachu—but also of Piper, 45, the parade's new studio manager. Ensuring that everything flies right—and avoiding accidents like the one in 1997 in which a bystander was badly injured after high winds drove a balloon into a lamppost—he is designer, engineer and ringmaster. "I love anything that flies," says Piper, a weekend hot-air balloonist, "and I love cartoons."

A native of Cincinnati, Piper came east in 1980 to pursue a graduate degree in theatrical design. Instead he took a job as a carpenter at the parade studio. He has been there ever since, getting the top slot in January. Piper, says parade executive producer Robin Hall, "understands how to keep the traditions alive."

On Nov. 21 Piper will oversee the trucking of the 26 uninflated balloons from Macy's Hoboken, N.J., warehouse to Manhattan. "When we inflate them, people cheer each balloon." He won't sit down to Thanksgiving dinner until Friday—and not in the Maplewood, N.J., home he shares with wife Maureen, 44, but in the warehouse with 30 or so employees and their families. "We inflate smaller balloons, and the kids run around," he says. "It's a time of great thanksgiving for us."