Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade


Thanksgiving Day means homes filled with the scent of roasting turkey and warming pies, family and friends gathering to feast (and maybe argue over politics) and, of course, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But how much do the expected 50 million television viewers and 3.5 million paradegoers know about this tradition, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year?

Not much, according to Stephen Silverman, author of the recently released Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: A New York City Holiday Tradition, although he calls the parade as “traditional as a turkey in the oven.” So before you tune in for the three-hour event or head into the city to see the parade up close and personal, here are some fun facts and milestones about the spectacle that has ushered in the holiday season across America for close to a  century.


The idea for a holiday parade actually started with the workers of Macy’s, many of whom were immigrants and wanted to “show their gratitude for being in America,” explained Silverman, whose book showcases contemporary photos by Matt Harnick and some dreamy vintage prints from the Macy’s archives. Though these workers’ original idea was to create more of a holiday market or street fair akin to holiday traditions in their native Europe, the first parade in 1924 started a brand-new Thanksgiving tradition in America. Today, hundreds of Macy’s employees and volunteers are still integral to running the show, said parade executive producer Amy Kule: “The clowns and balloon handlers that you see, the majority are Macy’s employees.” And the lucky children who get to ride on the floats? “Most are kids of employees,” Kule said.
90th anniversary?

Though this year marks 90 parades, it’s not 90 parades in a row. The Macy’s parade started in 1924 but was put on hold during World War II, when commodities like helium and rubber were in short supply (Macy’s actually donated the rubber balloons to the war effort). However, the year the parade returned, after the Allied victory, the parade’s crowd actually doubled in size. “It represented home,” Silverman said. And in the years after the war, two of the parade’s big claims to fame came along: In 1947, the parade had a starring role in the classic holiday movie Miracle on 34th Street, and in 1948 it was televised nationally for the first time.

Actor Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle greets actress Natalie


Actor Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle greets actress Natalie Wood in a scene from the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.” (Photo: AP Photo/Fox Home Entertainment)

Though the towering balloons are the hallmark of today’s parade, the first Macy’s parade actually used live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. Bears, tigers, lions, camels, donkeys and elephants meandered through the streets of Manhattan (giraffes, however, didn’t make the cut, as they might have bumped their heads, or worse, on elevated train tracks along the route). And these animals had a long way to walk, as the original parade route started all the way up at 145th Street in Harlem and clocked in at 5.5 miles (in contrast, today’s parade route, which starts by Central Park, is only 2.5 miles).
Bring on the balloons

The tradition of colossal cartoon-character balloons started just three years after the first Macy’s parade (the live animals apparently scared some of the children). Felix the Cat, the cartoon star of the day, was the first balloon to fly through the parade. “They wanted to appeal to the kids, but weren’t sure how it would be received,” Silverman said. Apparently the Felix balloon, which didn’t even use helium and was maneuvered more like a kite on sticks, was a hit. Look out for the Felix the Cat balloon in this year’s procession — the parade organizers are bringing back “the balloon that started it all,” according to Kule.
Felix the Cat was the first balloon, debuting in 1927.

Felix the Cat was the first balloon, debuting in 1927. (Photo: Courtesy of Macy’s)


What’s in a name?

From 1924 to 1933, the parade was actually called Macy’s Christmas Parade, and in 1934 it was called the Macy’s Santa Claus Parade. Historically, Santa Claus is the last float, welcoming in the winter holiday season. But in 1933, Santa was the first float, the only year this has ever happened. “It must not have worked out well,” Kule commented with a laugh.

Santa Claus is always the last float of the Macy’s


Santa Claus is always the last float of the Macy’s parade – except for one year. (Photo: Courtesy of Macy’s)

Balloon masters
The artistry and grandeur of balloons and floats are the parade’s biggest claim to fame. But Silverman says that most paradegoers don’t know the name of the artist who masterminded the larger-than-life puppets that started the tradition: Tony Sarg. Sarg was a master puppeteer, illustrator and designer (he also designed the intricate Christmas window displays for Macy’s). Silverman thinks Sarg and his legacy “should be paid his due,” especially since “all [the puppets] were done by hand, they were playing it by eye and ear” back in Sarg’s day, unlike the sophisticated digital technology that aids today’s Macy’s Parade Studio staff.

A more recognized name, Walt Disney, also designed a few balloons — but before he was a household name. He first participated in the parade when he assembled a Mickey Mouse balloon for the 1934 parade.

Walt Disney’s first contribution to the parade, a Mickey


Walt Disney’s first contribution to the parade, a Mickey Mouse balloon. (Photo: Courtesy of Macy’s)

Bringing home the balloons
In the mood for a scavenger hunt? At the end of the parade, balloons used to be released into the air, where they’d float for days. Those who found and returned the colossal cartoon figures to Macy’s were given a reward of a $25 Macy’s gift card. This aspect of the parade ended in 1932 when an overeager pilot almost crashed trying to claim the in-flight prize.

North Jersey’s parade history
The Macy’s Parade Studio, where the famous balloons and floats are designed and created, is in Moonachie; Silverman calls it an “overgrown whimsical toy shop.” And the balloons, just like many New Jersey residents, have to make their way through the Lincoln Tunnel to make their big debut. “The parade really webs New York and New Jersey,” Silverman said. Before the Moonachie location, the Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken was the birthplace of these balloons for decades.

Regardless of changing customs and parade stars, the show goes on, getting bigger and bolder every year. “It’s in the culture and it’s part of our fabric, it’s an irresistible tradition,” said Silverman, who, coincidentally, was born on Thanksgiving.


Felix the Cat is returning this year, having been the first balloon in the parade, in 1924. (Photo: Dave Kotinsky, Getty Images)

THE 2016 PARADE INSIDER’S GUIDE
Each year, the floats and balloons get bigger and more over-the-top. This year, there are 16 character balloons, 27 novelty/ornament balloons, 26 floats, 1,100 cheerleaders and dancers, more than 1,000 clowns and 16 marching bands and performance groups.
The stars: Tony Bennett, who is also 90 years old, will perform in this year’s parade, with many other entertainers, including Kelsea Ballerini, Brett Eldredge, Ben Rector, Regina Spektor, the cast and Muppets of Sesame Street, plus many more.
New balloons on the block: The three new character balloons this year are Charlie Brown, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and a multi-character Trolls balloon. Felix the Cat, the parade’s first-ever balloon, will also be returning, carried on sticks sans helium, just like during his first parade run in 1927.

The new King’s Hawaiian float features a working waterfall. (Photo: Courtesy of Macy’s)

New floats: Four new floats, which each take up to six months to complete, will appear in Thursday’s parade: “The Aloha Spirit” by King’s Hawaiian features a functioning waterfall, while the “Deck the Halls” float by Balsam Hill has a fully operating merry-go-round, which 10 lucky children will get to ride. The Girl Scouts of the USA’s “Building a Better World” float, as well as the “Fun House” by Krazy Glue, will also make their way down the 2.5-mile parade route for the first time.

Charlie Brown will make his debut at the parade this year. (Photo: Dave Kotinsky, Getty Images)

Snoopy: Those expecting a Snoopy balloon will instead find Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts characters on a “Snoopy’s Doghouse” float, while Charlie Brown will represent the Peanuts gang from up above as a balloon. Snoopy was one of the longest-running balloons in the parade.
Performers: The customary marching bands will set the tune of the parade; this year there are a dozen groups from around the country. Dancers and cheerleaders will also keep the party going; look out for Bergenfield’s Nunbetter Dance Theatre dancers, who will appear in a new parade float called “Mother Ginger,” representing “The Nutcracker.” Today’s Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker will host, and viewers can expect performances from Broadway shows, the Radio City Rockettes, and even a sneak peek of NBC’s Hairspray Live!, which premieres Dec. 7.

Spectator tips
For those viewing the parade up close and personal from the Manhattan streets, here are some viewing tips:
“The best thing anybody could do is be a part of it,” said parade executive producer Kule, whether that’s volunteering or experiencing the tons of interactive material Macy’s has prepared.

Learn more about the history of the spectacle with a 360-degree decade-by-decade rundown, complete with old photos and a studio tour at social.macys.com/parade. There is also the Macy’s Parade Time Traveler app, downloadable for free on the iTunes Store or from Google Play, where fans can experience the parade’s past with virtual reality assets, like taking a selfie in a past parade. Another app, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade stickers app, lets people text parade-themed images. And, of course, follow along on social media @Macys and use the official hashtag #MacysParade.
Parade executive producer Amy Kule.

Parade executive producer Amy Kule. (Photo: Carol Seitz)

While the parade route is 2.5 miles long, with great views from Central Park West and Columbus Circle, Kule’s favorite spot to watch is along Sixth Avenue, as it’s a “wide street with lots of energy.”
Get to your spot early! The parade starts at 9 a.m. ET, but people line up quite early to get the best views.
Though we’ve been having a warm fall, Kule said that dressing warmly is a good bet, as those who stick out the whole event will be there for more than three hours.
Another tip to keep things running smoothly: “Be kind to the people next to you,” Kule said. Spread that holiday cheer around to the people you’ll be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with for hours.
And of course, Kule said, make sure to keep cheering on the performers, volunteers and balloon handlers.
Follow Sophia F. Gottfried on Twitter: @sophiafgott

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