Back in the day when my three children were growing up, the Macy’s parade was a big part of our Thanksgiving tradition. We watched it on television, and when a willing grandparent—my father—volunteered as escort, the kids had the real parade experience—watching it “in person” while I cooked our turkey.
This operation wasn’t as simple as it might seem. The crowds were always huge and the weather was often cold—that’s all part of the in-person experience. So is getting up early (it’s wise to claim a spot about 7 a.m. or earlier, well before the parade starts at 9 a.m.)
As the willing grandparent was only able to lift one child at a time on his shoulders, there were complaints that all the kids could see were people’s legs and knees. And yet, whenever they returned home from one of these outings, they were filled with stories, about the parade itself—the balloons, the floats, the clowns, and yes, Santa himself. About the cold—and also about the valiant ways in which my father defended their vantage point from pushy ladies with umbrellas and people who knocked into them without apologizing.
Now my dad is gone and the children are grown and have homes of their own, but I still watch the parade on NBC. Apparently 50 million other Americans do, too, making this the most watched program on television (even more than turkey day football!).
This year, Macy’s is gearing up for its 89th parade, which will take place on November 24th starting at 9 a.m. on Central Park West at 77th Street and proceeding downtown along a 2.5-mile route. This continues a tradition that started back in the 1920s, when America’s doors were wide open and millions of immigrants passed through Ellis Island. Many Macy’s employees were first generation immigrants, proud of being new Americans and wanting to celebrate an American holiday with the kind of festivals they’d known in Europe.
That first year—1924—the employees, dressed as clowns, cowboys, knights and sheiks– marched from 145th Street down to 34th Street. Accompanying them were floats, bands and 25 live animals—including camels and elephants–borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. A quarter of a million spectators turned out to see what was first called the Macy’s Christmas Day Parade.
Though the parade has become bigger and more elaborate each year, the clowns—mainly Macy’s employees–remain the heart and soul of the event. They take courses on makeup and costume, on how to use confetti and most important, how to stay lively and animated for the entire three-hour parade.
The famous giant balloons first appeared in 1927–Felix the Cat was the first—but they didn’t last long. As no one took into account the fact that helium expands at high altitudes, those first balloons exploded when released. The following year, the formula of helium and air was perfected and in a dramatic finale to the parade, all the balloons were successfully released. Later, they’d be equipped with a return address and an offer of a prize, but after a couple of near-disasters—like an aviator almost crashing as he tried to retrieve a balloon, that practice was discontinued.
Celebrities like Harpo Marx and Benny Goodman arrived in the 1930s to fill the gap. During the depression, Santa’s arrival was broadcast on the radio and more than a million people lined the city streets looking for a brief escape from the harsh realities of breadlines and unemployment.
When World War II broke out, the parade was suspended; rubber and helium could not be spared for entertainment. And when it resumed in 1945, the parade—with celebrities like Jackie Gleason, Shirley Temple and Jimmy Durante–was televised for all America to see. Later, stars like Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye and even Howdy Doody made appearances, along with Mickey Mouse and his Disney pals, as well as Superman and other comic book characters.
Rain or shine, the parade went on each year, except for 1971, when high winds made it impossible.
This year, as always, there will be new balloons, including Scrat, the squirrel from Ice Agee and Red from Angry Bird. Returning veterans including Snoopy and Tom Turkey, whose float leads the parade. Santa rides in the largest float, which is 3.5 stories tall, 60 feet long and 22 feet wide.
As always there will be marching bands and lots of performers, including Mariah Carey, Jordin Sparks, Daughtrey Neil Giraldo. Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie Al Roker will anchor the show.
While millions of spectators (including New Yorkers who watch from rooftops and apartment windows) view the parade “in person,” I’ll have the TV on at my daughter’s house from 9 a.m. till noon, remembering parades of years past, when my children went off to their Thanksgiving adventure with the grandfather who loved them.