Along with feasting on succulent baked birds and hiding in your bedroom from your in-laws with an oversized goblet of Cabernet, nothing says Thanksgiving like a massive holiday parade filled with clowns, cheerleaders, house-sized helium balloons in the shape of video game characters and elaborate floats topped with lip-syncing pop stars.
We’re referring, of course, to the glittering grande dame of Thanksgiving Day parades, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a beloved American institution that’s been going strong since 1924 when it was known as the Macy’s Christmas Parade.
Although many of us tune in for the three-hour spectacle — more than 50 million of us, plus another 3 million who go in person — that kicks off at 9 a.m. in midtown Manhattan, the parade itself boasts a rich history filled with fascinating tidbits that you may not know about. So before you get your televised parade on this year, familiarize yourself with these eight interesting factoids about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Because of all the hoopla surrounding the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, you'd think that it would be America’s oldest Thanksgiving Day parade. Well, it’s not. The annual Macy’s event in New York City is tied for the nation’s second oldest, along with America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit.
The honor of the oldest Thanksgiving Day parade goes to what was originally known as the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia, which kicked off in 1920, a full four years before a handful of Macy’s employees, largely immigrants, unleashed their own mobile holiday jamboree. The Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade has gone through a handful of name changes and corporate sponsors since the once-mighty Gimbels chain of department stores closed in 1987. These days, it’s called the 6abc Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
From 1924 though 1926, an assortment of live animals on loan from the Central Park Zoo including lions, bears, camels and elephants, accompanied the procession of floats, clowns and marching bands down the parade’s original six-mile route: 145th Street in Harlem to the Macy’s flagship department store in Herald Square. Due to frightened children (and most likely some formidable obstacles for the marching bands in the form of elephant dung), the zoo animals were nixed in 1927 and replaced with the parade’s first giant balloon, Felix the Cat. Two of the parade’s most endearing anthropomorphic balloon animals, Mickey Mouse and Snoopy, were introduced in 1934 and 1968, respectively.
Here’s something that would never happen today: Starting in 1928, the parade’s massive, helium-filled character balloons were outfitted with special safety valves and released into the air during the parade’s climax. And no, they didn’t just float around the atmosphere for a few hours but a few days. “Look honey, what’s that in the sky?” “Why I do believe it’s a giant dachshund!” Provided the balloons didn’t land in the middle of the ocean, each was affixed with a return address label so that those who recovered them days later could send them back to Macy’s for a prize.
This practice came to an end in 1933 over public safety concerns when a pilot nearly crashed his plane when attempting to capture a cat-shaped balloon. Mercifully, this was several years before a terrifying balloon resembling legendary song and dance man Eddie Cantor (the only balloon produced to resemble an actual person) made its first appearance. Just imagine being a young child and spotting this hovering above your backyard.
Helium is readied for balloon inflation for the Macy's Parade. (Photo: David Pfeffer/flickr)
Since its inception in 1924, the only years that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade did not happen were from 1942 to 1944 due to World War II (a cancellation was considered in 1963 as the parade was to happen just a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy Jr., but Macy’s ultimately decided that the show must go on). More specifically, the WWII-era parades were canceled because of helium (Macy’s is the country’s second largest consumer of helium after the U.S. government) and rubber shortages. Many of the parade’s existing balloons were handed over to the U.S. military, providing more than 650 pounds of colorful scrap rubber to the war effort. In 1958, the parade faced another helium shortage but instead of ditching the balloons completely, they were lifted by cranes down the parade route.
The parade, balloons and all, returned with a splash, following a new and much shorter route starting at 77th Street and Central Park West that’s still followed today (with a few recent tweaks). The parade was locally televised in 1946 and started to appear on TV screens nationwide in 1947, the same year that the event was immortalized in “Miracle on 34th Street.”
When it comes to televised hosting duties and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, most of us think of the familiar stable of morning news personalities from NBC, the parade’s official broadcast partner since 1955: Al Roker, Matt Lauer and, for what seemed like eternity, Willard Scott (1987-1998) along with a random assortment of co-hosts like Meredith Vieira, Mary Hart and former Wheat Thins-hawker Sandy Duncan.
But get this: From 1962 to 1971, NBC’s coverage was hosted by none other than MNN’s favorite animal-loving nonagenarian, Betty White, along with “Bonanza” actor Lorne Greene. We love you Al and Matt, but we’re thinking that NBC should bring Betty back … or at least bestow her with her very own float.
Blustery weather has long served as a challenge for the trained handlers of the giant balloons, but the 1997 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade went down in history as one of the annual event’s more havoc-filled editions as NYPD officers were deployed to stab both Barney and the Pink Panther over safety concerns due to high winds. Read more about that fateful year here: 6 epic holiday parade balloon fails.
Ever wonder where the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade’s sizable fleet of floats, balloons, falloons (floats with balloons on top) and balloonicles (self-powered balloon vehicles) are assembled? We’d always imagined they were produced in a magical, glitter-strewn workshop buried deep underneath Macy’s massive store on 34th Street.
Well, the truth isn’t that exciting. Since 1969, the Macy’s Parade Studio had been located in a nondescript warehouse in gritty Hoboken, N.J. However, a much larger (an upgrade of more than 30,000 square feet), more state-of-the-art and LEED-certified facility in nearby Moonachie, N.J., officially opened for business in October 2011. That's where the Macy’s Parade Studio team prepares for the parade.
Giving the Macy’s Day Parade’s nonstop barrage of singing and dancing, Broadway has long played a major role in the annual holiday spectacle. During the 2003 parade, gravelly voiced actor and activist Harvey Fierstein channeled Mrs. Claus while dressed in drag as Edna Turnblad, the plus-sized Baltimore housewife he portrayed in the Broadway hit “Hairspray.” Wrote Fierstein in a New York Times op-ed piece the day before the parade: “ … tomorrow, to the delight of millions of little children (not to mention the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court), the Santa in New York's great parade will be half of a same-sex couple. And guess who the other half will be? Me! Harvey Fierstein, nice Jewish boy from Bensonhurst, dressed in holiday finery portraying the one and only Mrs. Claus.”
Fierstein’s gender-bending Mrs. Claus getup and politically charged op-ed (interestingly enough, former longtime parade producer Jean McFaddin wed her longtime partner Susan Falk in Connecticut in 2010) were not without controversy even though he didn’t actually accompany Mr. Claus on the main Santa sleigh float (that role was given to a biological woman).