On Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 24, 2016, in New York City, the 90th anniversary Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be held, with millions of people nationwide watching LIVE streaming or LIVE broadcast in their homes—and perhaps tens of millions more others worldwide. This big and beloved parade will have more than 10 thousand participants.
Back in the days 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 an 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–millions on the streets of the city–and the weather was often very cold. That was all part of the in-person experience. So was getting up early to claim a decent front viewing spot. Years ago, 7:30 a.m. was good enough; today eager spectators line up as early as 6 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 some 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 90th parade, which will start at 9 a.m. at the corner of Central Park West and 77th Street and proceed 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 a brand new Felix, who will, like the original, make his way along the parade route on sticks. Joining Felix will be Trixie, a bouncing dog modeled on parade executive producer Amy Kule’s cairn terrier. Also new, a refreshed Charlie Brown, as well as a refreshed Greg Heffley, star of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid book series. Santa rides in the largest float, which is 3.5 stories tall, 60 feet long and 22 feet wide. As always there will be stellar entertainers; this year you’ll see Tony Bennett, Sarah McLachlan, Regina Spektor and De La Soul and many others performing on some of the 26 floats. And don’t forget the 16 marching bands, 1,1oo dancers and 1,000 clowns.
Sadly, this year there have been terrorist threats aimed at the parade, so heavy security means there will be a number of street closures and other measures.
The parade begins at the corner of 77th Street and Central Park West, proceeds south for 18 blocks to Columbus Circle and turns left onto Central Park South, proceeds for two blocks, then turns right onto 6th Avenue. The parade continues for another 25 blocks to Macy’s at Herald Square.
THE DAY BEFORE
Inflation of the balloons, which has become a popular spectator event on its own, happens the day before, starting at 3 p.m., between West 77th and 81st Streets between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue—only on the north side of 77th Street and the south side of 81st Street.
FUN PARADE FACTS
The first parade in 1924 was called the “Macy’s Christmas Day Parade,” although it took place on Thanksgiving Day.
Macy’s is the world’s second largest consumer of helium; the United States government is the first.
If you laid every parade balloon since 1927 end to end, they would stretch from Battery Park City to the Cloisters.