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GRATEFUL | A Hometown History of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

GRATEFUL | A Hometown History of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

Photo credit: Macy's.

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is such a reliable presence at each Thanksgiving that it sometimes seems as though giant balloons have been a part of the tradition since the pilgrims first arrived in Plymouth. But the holiday’s connection with giant inflatables of beloved children’s characters didn’t begin until the 20th Century.

In the Roaring Twenties, business was booming for NYC-born Macy’s Department Store, which at the time occupied an entire city block between 34th and 35th Streets and Broadway/Herald Square to Seventh Avenue. To accommodate its increasing popularity, Macy’s steadily grew its number of employees, who were mostly recently-arrived immigrants. In 1924, a group of these employees, wanting to celebrate the holidays with a festival similar to the celebrations in their previous European homelands, asked the company to put on a parade.

Macy’s President Herbert Strauss agreed to the idea as publicity for the store, announcing that New York City would soon be witness to a great event. The first parade, though, rather than a celebration of Thanksgiving, was held as “Macy’s Christmas Parade” on Christmas Day with costumed-employees, decorated floats and even animals from the Central Park Zoo.     

The first parade’s path was much longer than its current length of just over 2.5 miles, reaching all the way from 145th Street and Convent Avenue in Harlem to Herald Square. The parade was a vibrant procession of floats, bands, people and animals. Many of Macy’s employees were part of the parade, dressed as clowns, cowboys and sword-wielding knights, among others. An unruly number of animals on loan from the Central Park Zoo ― including bears, elephants, camels and monkeys ― came along too. And at the rear of the parade was a float bearing Santa Claus in his reindeer-driven sleigh on top of a mountain of ice.

It was an instant success and immediately Macy’s began planning another parade for the next year, although the connection to Christmas quickly waned. In 1926, they brought on visionary theater and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes to design more intricate and bombastic floats. In 1927, the live animals, the roars of which were frightening children, were replaced with balloons. The balloons were deemed more obedient. To design these giant animal balloons, Macy’s brought in Tony Sarg, the puppeteer and illustrator. Joining with Goodyear Tire and Rubber Plant Company, Sarg created complex upside-down marionettes, filled with air and propped up by sticks. The very first balloon animal was Felix the Cat.

Trixie and Felix. 2016 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo credit: Macy's.

In 1928, balloons were released into the sky as part of the parade’s finale but unfortunately, they all immediately burst. The next year’s balloons were redesigned with a safety valve that allowed them to float for days. Each one included an address, so whomever found the deflated balloons could send them back and receive a gift in exchange.

The parade continued to be put on each year, even during the Great Depression. Mickey Mouse made his first appearance at the parade in 1941. But in 1942, with the onset of the Second World War, Macy’s President Jack Straus dramatically deflated a green dragon at City Hall and announced there would be no parade that year, the helium and rubber being needed for the war effort. Macy’s instead donated approximately 650 lbs of balloon rubber to the U.S forces.

The parade did not resume until November 22, 1945. To celebrate the end of the war, they added nine new balloons, and over two million spectators turned out to watch. From this point, the parade went viral. In 1947, it made its film debut in Miracle on 34th Street. And the following year, the parade was nationally broadcast on television by NBC for the first time. During the 50s, the parade attracted many renowned celebrities. In 1953, Ginger Rogers joined the parade, and, in 1958, The Rockettes appeared for the first time.

The following decade, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated just four days before the 1963 parade. Macy’s was initially unsure whether to go ahead with the parade, until the Kennedy family called to ask that the parade still go on in order to bring mirth to children during a time of mourning.

The following year, children’s book illustrator and sculptor Manfred Bass began his long collaboration with the parade team, innovating more and more complex float ideas, most notably, hydraulics to make tails wag and wings flap. Every decade saw the inclusion of a larger and larger cast of children’s characters: in the 60s, balloons of Bullwinkle and Donald Duck appeared; in 1980, a 100-feet-long Superman was showcased; in more recent decades Bart Simpson and Spongebob Squarepants have been featured.

Photo credit: Macy's.

As popularity increased, Macy’s welcomed a wider range of entertainment. In the 70s, major Broadway acts like “Annie” began to be included and celebrated musicians, including Diana Ross, performed. Even Evel Knievel, the stuntman, has appeared at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The parade’s great spectacle was eventually rewarded with a daytime Emmy in 1980, and then another in 1982, when a record 80 million viewers tuned in to watch.

In 1984, Macy’s brought their balloon production in-house. This level of control meant that Bass was able to develop “falloons”: a cold-air inflatable balloon and float combo. But never resting on its laurels, in 2005 Macy’s introduced the Blue Sky Gallery to its parade which showcases balloons as contemporary art. Notable past examples have included Jeff Koons’ “Rabbit,” Tim Burton’s “B.” and Keith Haring’s iconic “Figure with Heart.”

In 2001, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers, Macy’s produced a parade where first responders from every New York City agency led the procession, waving giant flags shaped like the Twin Towers.

Today, the show as we know it features over a dozen helium-filled balloons, more than 30 parade floats, 1,500 dancers and cheerleaders, more than 750 clowns, marching bands from around the country, and over 8,000 participants for an event that takes 18 months to plan.

2016 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Photo credit: Macy's.

Just in case you don’t have the coordinates for this year’s parade handy, click here!

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