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2000 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade - History

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Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

Parade History

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was originated and is completely directed and operated by Macy's employees.  As the lead banner proclaims, the event is presented as a "Holiday Treat For Children Everywhere."   The First Parade was held in 1924, entertaining an estimated audience of over 10,000.  At that time we started at 145th Street and Convert Avenue and the Parade included elephants, camels, and monkeys in the line-up.  Today, the Parade delights two million spectators along the line of march.  Of course, this figure varies according to weather conditions.  However, rain or shine, the show always goes on and it captivates an estimated 65 million viewers on NBC and CBS television networks.

 

Old Eddie Cantor

Macy's Huge Balloons, the unique trademark of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, made their first appearance in 1927.  The Image at the left is a vintage 1940 Eddie Cantor Balloon.   They were originally designed by master puppeteer, Tony Sarge, who also created the Christmas Fantasy windows at the store.  Today, the Balloons are designed by Macy's and maintained at our own Parade Studio.
Parade Preparations are year round, handled by Macy's Annual Events Department.  Operations are at their highest pitch on Thanksgiving Eve.   When the Balloons arrive by truck to 77th / 81st Streets and Central Park West, they are removed from their shipping crates and anchored by sandbags and giant nets which secure them during inflation.  Viewing the balloon inflation process along 77th and 81st Streets, across from the Museum of Natural History, is an event in itself and has become an annual tradition for thousands of New Yorkers.

Old Santa

 

In the early hours of the morning, the Parade floats built and assembled at Macy's Parade Studio in New Jersey, travel through the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan's Upper West Side in a convoy over two and 1/2 miles long!  The floats are "unfolded" to their individual shapes and the finishing touches are added.

Between 5:30 am and 7:30 am on Thanksgiving Day  over 4,000 Macy's empoyees arrive at Brooklyn and Herald Square for professional costuming and make-up.  When each group is ready, they are bused to the Parade Assembly Area.  While these in-store preparations take place, Macy's technicians check with the Weather Bureau for barometric preassure, a key element in determining the mix of helium and air that goes into each balloon.  Hundreds of employees who have been assigned to their favorite balloon are standing by.

Parade Marshalls test walkie-talkies so they can maintain the correct order of elements and keep in contact with the Herald Square staging area.

The Marching Bands selected from all over the country arrive at 7:45 am and are placed along Central Park West by Macy's Band Coordinators.  Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is also known as a Parade of Stars and the celebrities who appear in the Parade cause additional excitement as they are escorted to their respective floats.

The countdown begins ten seconds prior to 9:00 am, the grand Marshalls and lead banner cross the Parade Starting Line.  The show is on!   The Holiday has finally arrived!

 

Clifford balloon

Photo (c) 1998 Joseph De Sciose

Macy's Start

Photo (c) 1998 Joseph De Sciose

Macy's Parade Crowd

Photo (c) 1998 Joseph De Sciose

 

All Photos on this Page are Copyrighted by Macy's Department Stores and Joseph De Sciose.  Any use without prior written authorization is strictly prohibitted.

 

BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MACY*S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE

By Colin Perry
From Reader's Digest magazine, November 1996
Photos courtesy of NYCtourist.com

 

In the failing light of a frigid Thanksgiving Eve, 180 members of a Florida high-school band huddle in the wind outside their Newark, N.J., hotel. Numb fingers in thin black gloves push reluctant instruments keys. Lips stick to trombones like kids' tongues on cold metal fences.

 

I know this isn't what we're used to," bellow Jose Lopez, director of the Port Charlotte High School Band. "But when are we gonna get another chance to play in an event this big? Let's give it all we've got!" Across the Hudson River, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, other performers are being nudged awake after a year-long sleep. One rumpled 78-foot form spreads out onto a tarp. Helium hoses are inserted in its inflation sleeves and a form takes shape. "It's Spider-Man!" squeals a youngster. Nearby, The Cat in the Hat's 18-foot top hat sways in the breeze. Kids and parents cheer. In midtown Manhattan, a tall, gray-haired woman addresses the crowd in what looks like a military briefing room. "Everyone's got to be on their toes," jean McFaddin orders. "We can't afford foul-ups." If it all resembles a kind of D-Day-well, the comparison is apt. A vast army of Macy's volunteers has descended on New York to produce one of America's most beloved traditions: Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The televised spectacle is watch by more than 60 million people. But it's what goes on behind the scenes--the energy, dedication and clockwork precision--that makes it truly one of the country's enduring wonders. 

 

Ups and Downs. It all started in 1924, the year that Macy's managers and employees--many of them European immigrants who missed their homeland harvest festivals--decided to organize a Thanksgiving Day Parade.

 

The procession included a huge turkey float, bands, clowns, cowboys, giants, even lions and bears snarling at the crowds.

It was a rousing success, and the event was repeated. But to spare kids' nerves, organizers replaced the live animals in 1927 with air-filled balloons: Felix the Cat, a dragon, an elephant and a toy soldier.

The next year, the balloons were filled with helium and released for a grand finale. They rocketed above the towering skyscrapers--and exploded. No one took into account that helium expands in thinning atmosphere.

In 1929, the balloons got safety valves and were equipped with tickets offering Macy's merchandise to the finder. The glitter of prizes proved too much. In one instance, two tugboats on New York's East River steamed toward a downed dachshund balloon and, between them, tore the poor dog to pieces.

The event has had its share of ups and downs. During World War II, rubber from the balloons was donated to the war effort, and the parade was canceled from 1942 to 1944--the only interruption in 72 years. (Balloons today are made of urethane-coated nylon, which is lighter than rubber and just as strong.) In 1957, Popeye collected so much rain in the cap atop his 14-foot head that he periodically careened off-balance, dumping gallons of water on spectators. In 1958, there was a helium shortage, so the behemoths were filled with air and carted down the parade route dangling from construction cranes.

The wildly inventive balloons and floats come to life on the drawing board of Manfred Bass, 61, who for the past 36 years has been the parade's lead designer. He works with a team of Macy's artists, machinists, carpenters, animators, electricians and mold makers.

In Manny's office are racks of drawings and dozens of clay models of balloons past and present. "Air stability is important," he explains. "We have to consider whether a balloon is a horizontal flier or a vertical flier." The angle of flight will determine which balloon chamber gets filled with helium, for lift, and which gets plain, old air, for stability.

Big Bird, from "Sesame Street," has a helium-filled head that keeps him upright over his heavier, air-filled feet. Spider-Man--at 78 feet the parade's longest balloon--flies horizontally at six stories above the crowds. His 8300 cubic feet of helium is distributed in ten separate airtight compartments along his back, which his underside is filled with air. 

"Traveling Stages." Manny dashes across the river to another crucial parade site, a studio in Hoboken, N.J. There, enormous door rumble open and a huge sleigh pulled by eight 12-foot reindeer emerges.

"All right, that's beautiful!" he yells, directing the procession. "Just keep it moving."

One by one, trucks bring out the "traveling stages"--the big floats. These self-contained, mobile platforms rise, lower and rotate, holding as many as 50 dancing, rolling, tumbling performers. On one float, two 30-foot dragons will battle with lashing tails and streaming breath. Another float will be a five-story turreted castle.

To make it through the Lincoln Tunnel to New York City, the floats are ingeniously designed to collapse into eight-by-12 1/2 foot boxes that range from 20 to 40 feet in length. The procession of trucks, spread over a mile, slowly wends its way uptown to join the balloons at the starting line near 77th Street and Central Park West. There, crews work all night to reassemble the mammoth floats. 

 

"Perfect!" Back at command headquarters, Jean McFaddin, the parade's produced/director, is poised in front of a huge pushpin map of manhattan. Her background as a Broadway producer has brought show-biz pizzazz to 20 parades: she coordinates balloons, floats, hundreds of clowns, thousands of high-schoolers and dozens of celebrities.

Now she is watching the weather. Reports have called for just a dusting of snow. McFaddin, however, is wary. She remembers the snowy parade of 1989.

It started out calm, the temperature just above freezing, with a gentle fall of wet snow. Street lamps illuminated snowcapped balloons. McFaddin stood beside a rope securing her favorite participant, Bugs Bunny, and watched as workers tied down the last lines with sandbags.

Then the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. The wet snow began to freeze into sheets of ice. The balloons, now many times their flying weight of 600 to 800 pounds, heaved and groaned in their ropes.

Pfffshhhhhh. Superman was the first to go. As he swayed in the wind, his icy coating broke into huge shards, puncturing his left thigh. With a mighty wheeze, his leg collapsed into a heap of rope and nylon. Then other balloons, pierced and leaking, started inching along the ice-covered street. Ropes began to stretch, and sandbags began to slide.

Next to McFaddin, Bugs Bunny slid loose and rose off the ground. Instinctively, McFaddin lunged for a rope of the balloon--which usually requires up to 50 handlers. In seconds, she found herself dangling from the huge rabbit's 36-foot side.

Looking about frantically, McFaddin spotted a lone man with a video camera. "Help! Help!" she screamed.

"That's it, hold it right there!" he called, pointing the camera. "Perfect!"

"No, no! HELP me!"

Fortunately, a tree limb punctured Bugs Bunny and he slowly collapsed, gently lowering his passenger to the ground. Meanwhile, 1,000 cheerleaders had arrived cavalry-style to help shore up the remaining balloons. The parade went forward.

Jockeying for Position. At 3 a.m., Jose Lopez's Port Charlotte band is standing outside Macy's on 34th Street, waiting to rehearse. Each of the 12 bands has a ten-minute turn. With tubas and trumpets blaring, neighborhood residents give up on sleep and cheer the proceedings.

Back at the starting line, Manny sips coffee. "How we doin'?" he asks the pilot handling a balloon. The pilot taps his balloon's massive side as the two men hold their ears close.

"Music to my ears," Manny exclaims, hearing the soft pong, pong, pong that indicates the proper amount of helium. "This is gonna be some parade!"

At dawn, the Port Charlotte band, fatigued and frigid, takes its place with some 7,000 other performers. Nearby, clowns warm up by practicing their antics. Balloons are untethered. They gently sway as hundreds of handlers wedge into place. TV trucks are busy unloading and setting up equipment. Some 2,000 policemen take up positions along the 2.5-mile route. Thousands of the 1.5 million expected spectators are already jockeying for position.

Finally, at precisely 9 a.m., a countdown: "...three, two one!" The bands strike up and the crowd erupts into a deafening roar. Standing before his Port Charlotte students, Jose Lopez feels a surge of energy.

The drum major raises his baton. With a flourish, he sweeps it down, igniting a blast of brass and pounding drums. The youths march forward. Their moment in Macy's parade history has come at last.


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