A LOOK INTO THE HISTORY OF THE MACY’S THANKSGIVING PARADE
The most popular holiday parade in America, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade NY has been a Big Apple tradition since 1924. Attracting more than 3.5 million people to the streets of New York City each year, as well 50 million TV viewers nationwide, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving tradition in NYC that it’s often shortened to “The Macy’s Day Parade.” Like any great tradition in NYC, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Manhattan features a long and storied history.
The first-ever Macy’s Day Parade actually took place on Christmas of 1924. Macy’s employees dressed as clowns, cowboys, and other fun costumes, and traveled with Central Park zoo animals and creative floats a lengthy six miles from Herald Square to Harlem in Manhattan. The parade was meant to draw attention to the Macy’s store in NYC, and the gimmick worked – more than 250,000 people attended the inaugural Macy’s Day Parade. It was decided that this NYC parade would become an annual NY event in Manhattan. In the 1920s, many of Macy’s department store employees were first-generation immigrants. Proud of their new American heritage, they wanted to celebrate the American holiday of Thanksgiving with the type of festival their parents had loved in Europe.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an annual parade presented by the U.S.-based department store chain Macy*s, the tradition started in 1924, tying it for the second-oldest Thanksgiving parade in the United States with America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit (with both parades being four years younger than the Dunkin’ Donuts Thanksgiving Day Parade in Philadelphia). The three-hour Macy’s event is held in New York City starting at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Thanksgiving Day, and has been televised nationally on NBC since 1952.
In 1924, the annual Thanksgiving parade started by Lois Bamberger in Newark, New Jersey at the Bamberger’s store was transferred to New York City by Macy’s. In New York, the employees marched to Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street dressed in vibrant costumes. There were floats, professional bands and live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. At the end of that first parade, as has been the case with every parade since, Santa Claus was welcomed into Herald Square. At this first parade, however, the Jolly Old Elf was enthroned on the Macy’s balcony at the 34th Street store entrance, where he was then “crowned” “King of the Kiddies.” With an audience of over 250,000 people, the parade was such a success that Macy’s declared it would become an annual event.
At the finale of the 1928 parade, the balloons were released into the sky, where they unexpectedly burst. The following year, they
were redesigned with safety valves to allow them to float for a few days. Address labels were sewn into them, so that whoever found and mailed back the discarded balloon received a gift from Macy’s. Through the 1930s, the Parade continued to grow, with crowds of over one million people lining the parade route in 1933. The first Mickey Mouse balloon entered the parade in 1934. The annual festivities were broadcast on local radio stations in New York City from 1932 to 1941, and resumed in 1945, running through 1951. The parade was suspended from 1942 to 1944 as a result of World War II, owing to the need for rubber and helium in the war effort. The parade resumed in 1945 using the route that it followed until 2008. The parade became known nationwide after being prominently featured in the 1947 film, Miracle on 34th Street, which included footage of the 1946 festivities. The event was first broadcast on network television in 1948. By this point the event, and Macy’s sponsorship of it, were sufficiently well-known to give rise to the colloquialism “Macy’s Day Parade”.
The classic “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” logo was, with one exception, last used in 2005. For 2006, a special variant of the logo was used. Every year since then, a new logo has been used for each parade. The logos however are seen rarely, if at all, on television as NBC has used its own logo with the word “Macy’s” in a script typeface and “Thanksgiving Day Parade” in a bold font. The logos are assumed to be for use by Macy’s only, such as on the Grandstand tickets and the ID badges worn by parade staff. The Jackets worn by parade staff still bear the original classic parade logo, this being the only place where that logo can be found.
New safety measures were incorporated in 2006 to prevent accidents and balloon-related injuries. One measure taken was the installation of wind measurement devices to alert parade organizers to any unsafe conditions that could cause the balloons to behave erratically. In addition, parade officials implemented a measure to keep the balloons closer to the ground during windy conditions. If wind speeds are forecast to be higher than 34 miles per hour (55 km/h), all balloons are removed from the parade.
The balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade come in three varieties. The first and oldest is the novelty balloon class, consisting of smaller balloons, some of which fit on the heads of the performers; the largest of the novelty balloons typically require approximately 30 handlers. The second, and most famous, is the full-size balloon class, primarily consisting of licensed pop-culture characters; each of these is handled by exactly 90 people. The third and is the “Blue Sky Gallery,” a program that ran from 2005 to 2012 and transformed the works of contemporary artists into full-size balloons. There are also Falloons which is a combination of a balloon and a float and created exclusively by Macy’s.
In 1927, Felix the Cat became the first giant balloon to ever take part in the Macy’s Day Parade. In 1928, Felix was inflated with helium, and without a plan to deflate this massive balloon, NYC parade organizers simply let Felix fly off into the sky. Unfortunately, he popped soon thereafter. The Parade continued to let the balloons fly off in subsequent years, only these balloons would have a return address written on them, and whoever found the balloon could return the balloon for a prize from Macy’s. However, the results of this experiment weren’t exactly successful.
Despite the Great Depression, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade continued to grow through the 1930’s. The first national radio broadcast of the Macy’s Parade Thanksgiving took place in 1932. Two years later, Disney got in on the giant balloon fun, introducing the Mickey Mouse balloon in 1934. By then, more than one million people were attending this popular parade in NYC, and those fortunate enough to own a TV could see the broadcast on NBC starting in 1939.
Today, more than 8,000 people participate in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade each year, and it takes another 4,000 dedicated volunteers to put together this NYC Thanksgiving celebration. Both NBC and CBS broadcast the New York City parade nationwide, and this NYC event still attracts high-profile musicians and the most talented Broadway performers.
In addition to the well-known balloons and floats, the Parade also features live music and other performances. College and high school marching bands from across the country participate in the parade, and the television broadcasts feature performances by established and up-and-coming singers and bands. The Radio City Rockettes are a classic performance as well (having performed annually since 1957 as the last of the pre-parade acts to perform), as are cheerleaders and dancers chosen by the National Cheerleaders Association from various high schools across the country. The parade concludes with the arrival of Santa Claus to ring in the Christmas and holiday season.
Only the NBC telecast is from in front of the flagship Macy’s store on Broadway/Herald Square and 34th Street, the marching bands perform live music. Most “live” performances by musicals and individual artists lip sync to the studio, soundtrack or cast recordings of their songs, due to the technical difficulties of attempting to sing into a wireless microphone while in a moving vehicle (performers typically perform on the floats themselves); the NBC-flagged microphones used by performers on floats are almost always non-functioning props. Live performances with no use of recorded vocals, are very rare in the parade.
More than 44 million people watch the parade on television on an annual basis. It was first televised locally in New York City in 1939 as an experimental broadcast. No television stations broadcast the parade in 1940 or 1941, but when the parade returned in 1945 after the wartime suspension, local broadcasts also resumed. The parade began its network television appearances on CBS in 1948, the year that regular television network programming began. NBC has been the official broadcaster of the event since 1952, though CBS (which has a studio in Times Square) also carries unauthorized coverage under the title The Thanksgiving Day Parade on CBS. Since the parade takes place in public, the parade committee can endorse an official broadcaster, but they cannot award exclusive rights as other events (such as sporting events, which take place inside restricted-access stadiums) have the authority to do. The rerouting of the parade that was implemented for the 2012 event moved the parade out of the view of CBS’s cameras and thus made it significantly more difficult for the network to cover the parade; CBS nevertheless continues to cover the parade to the same extent as in previous years.
At first, the telecasts were only an hour long. In 1961, the telecast expanded to two hours, and was then expanded to 90 minutes beginning in 1962, before reverting to a two-hour telecast in 1965; all three hours of the parade were televised by 1969. The event began to be broadcast in color in 1960. NBC airs the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade live in the Eastern Time Zone, but tape delays the telecast elsewhere in the continental U.S. and territories in the same 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. timeslot across its owned and operated and affiliated stations. The musical director for the television coverage is veteran composer/arranger Milton DeLugg.
In the 1930s, the balloons were inflated in the area of 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue near St. John the Divine Cathedra. The balloons have always been inflated the evening prior to the parade and routinely draws a large crowd to watch the balloons come to life. The parade proceeded South on Amsterdam Avenue to 106th Street and turned east. At Columbus Avenue, the balloons had to be lowered to go under the Ninth Avenue El. Past the El tracks, the parade proceeded through 106th Street to Central Park West and turned south to terminate at Macy’s Department Store.
A new route was established for the 2009 parade. From 77th Street and Central Park West, the route went south along Central Park to Columbus Circle, then east along Central Park South. The parade would then make a right turn at 7th Avenue and go south to Times Square. At 42nd Street, the parade turned left and went east, then at 6th Avenue turned right again at Bryant Park. Heading south on 6th Avenue, the parade turned right at 34th Street (at Herald Square) and proceeded west to the terminating point at 7th Avenue where the floats are taken down. The City of New York said that the new route would provide more space for the parade and more viewing space for spectators. Another reason for implementing the route change is the city’s plan to turn Broadway into a pedestrian-only zone at Times Square. I always remember when my family went into the City to watch the parade; we always found a good spot along the parade route. When I lived in Manhattan, I found an excellent vantage point at the corner of Herald Square and 34th Street to view the parade, which also turned out to be an excellent spot for taking pictures of the parade. Also along the parade route, there are many people who get to watch the parade from the comfort of their apartments or offices.