Fantasies in Foam: Giovanni Calabrese’s Splendid Sculptures

In his Union City warehouse, Giovanni Calabrese sculpts out-of-this-world creations for the likes of Google, Oreo and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Mr. Big: A giant, smiling monster created for a trade show has taken up permanent residence at the Themendous studio in Union City, where Giovanni Calabrese and his team carve larger-than-life foam sculptures for Macy’s and other clients.
Photo by Christopher Lane

Ever wonder who makes those giant displays that awe patrons at retail stores and theme parks? In many cases, the answer can be found in a nondescript warehouse in Union City. Here, Weehawken native Giovanni Calabrese and his team create larger-than-life foam sculptures for clients as varied as Macy’s, Google, MTV and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurants.

Calabrese, 47, constructs his designs out of 8-foot-wide blocks of Styrofoam that he and his team carve, shave and shape. Then they coat each creation with a spray-on hard plastic shell and paint. The result can be anything from a shiny red Mustang to a life-sized Michael Jackson.

The Ridgefield resident got his start in the profession, known as theming, when he was a freshman at St. Peter’s College—now University—in Jersey City. Inspiration came when he attended a Halloween party as a sofa. “It looked like a real chair,” he says. “But I constructed it in such a way that I could sit and hide inside of it and could pop my head out. It was a hit.”

His costume was so well received that Calabrese decided to turn his love of art and design into a vocation. His goal: to make “every day into Halloween in terms of creating things.”

In 1994, just two years after starting his company—then called Custom Creations, now dubbed Themendous—Macy’s invited Calabrese to create a float for its Thanksgiving parade.

“One of my first jobs that I did for them was a Rip Van Winkle,” Calabrese says. “He was 20 feet long and 12 feet high, but in a crouched position against a tree.”

At the time, Macy’s artists were working primarily with fiberglass. Calabrese’s foam-and-plastic creations could be completed faster. “You can control it a lot better than fiberglass, chicken wire, and all that,” Calabrese says. “You can really get down to a lot of nice detail.”

Since that first commission, Calabrese has worked on nine floats for the parade. He also creates giant displays and props for Macy’s Herald Square. Last summer, Calabrese and his team carved a vintage tractor that dominated the basement retail floor. More recently, he created life-sized mannequins based on the children’s book Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus to be displayed during this holiday season.

Calabrese’s sculptures, scenic environments and oversized props can be seen all over the world. The giant dessert sculptures on the lawn of Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, are Themendous creations. In New York’s Times Square, the company’s pieces dress up Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar. Themendous also creates props for the film and commercial industries, including a giant Oreo cookie for a commercial featuring Eli and Peyton Manning and Venus and Serena Williams.

For Calabrese, the thrill of seeing his team’s work never wears off.

“It is exciting to see what you did and say, ‘Hey, I made that. We made that,’” he says.

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