With the possible exception of a perfectly browned roast turkey and all the traditional trimmings, nothing says Thanksgiving like the legendary Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. America’s department store has hosted the parade — which features marching bands, floats, clowns, celebrities, and multi-story tall helium balloons — since 1924. Running through Manhattan and ending at the retailer’s massive flagship location, it is as much a celebration of our national holiday of bounty and thanksgiving as it is a symbolic launch to the Christmas season.
The Early Days
Macy’s staged its first Thanksgiving Day parade in 1924 — the same year the department store expanded across an entire New York City block, from Seventh Avenue to Broadway. That parade was intended to celebrate the newly enlarged store, which made it the (self-proclaimed) largest in the world. And, it was called the Macy’s Christmas Parade — Macy’s brass hoped to hype everyone up for the holiday shopping season.
That first year’s route went from 145th Street in Harlem down to the store’s midtown location at 34th Street. It was run by store employees, and the event featured only a few floats along with four bands and live animals, including elephants and monkeys, from the Central Park Zoo. The theme, which matched the Macy’s holiday window displays, was nursery rhymes, so floats with Mother Goose-approved characters delighted the city’s children. And just as he does today, Santa Claus closed the show on a float featuring a reindeer-led sleigh.
An estimated 250,000 people attended the event and some 10,000 cheering spectators surrounded Macy’s new entrance at the end of the parade route, where they watched Santa disembark his sleigh, climb a ladder to sit on a golden throne above the doors, and sound a trumpet. At that point, the holiday windows were unveiled.
The New York Times reported that the event was a hit, and the very next day Macy’s announced its plan to stage another parade the following Thanksgiving. Since then, the parade has been held every year aside from a short span during World War II, when austerity measures prevented the use of rubber and helium for parade balloons.
That first parade route in 1924 was a long one. It lasted for hours as the caravan of floats and entertainers worked their way down 111 city blocks — nearly 6 miles worth. The route was shortened early on to about 2.5 miles in length, starting on the Upper West Side around 77th St, but for many years it consistently ran right down Broadway — a thoroughfare sometimes referred to as Manhattan’s spine. In 2009, the route shifted to Seventh Avenue to avoid stretches of newly constructed pedestrian plazas near Times Square, and in 2011 the route was changed once again, when the parade shifted to Sixth Avenue once it got below Central Park.
Those helium balloons, now one of the most famous aspects of the parade, debuted in 1927 as a replacement for the zoo animals. That first year, Macy’s featured cartoon character Felix the Cat along with a 60-foot dinosaur; Mickey Mouse joined up in 1934 and Snoopy followed in 1968. (The Peanuts character has appeared in more parades than any other — there have been seven different Snoopy balloons).
Initially, the balloons were not made with deflation valves and were released into the air at the end of the parade; in 1928, Macy’s began offering a reward to anyone in the tristate area retrieving and returning the (inevitably popped) balloons. (Each balloon was famously affixed with a return address.) In 1932, a pilot attempted to catch one of the errant balloons and nearly crashed the plane when the balloon wrapped around the wing. Macy’s wisely stopped releasing the balloons after that year.
A helium shortage in 1958 almost grounded the balloon spectacle, but Macy’s worked with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company as well as a rigging company called Traynor & Hansen Corporation to design a system of construction derricks from which air-filled balloons dangled. And, in 1971, heavy winds cancelled the parade’s roster of balloons — the only time since the debut of the balloons that Macy’s hosted a parade without any.
Recent parades have featured up to two dozen of these famous balloons. Though they were once constructed by Goodyear, since 1968 each balloon has been created by over 30 artisans in the dedicated Macy’s Parade Studio in Moonachie, New Jersey. Getting the balloons into Manhattan requires a trip through the Holland Tunnel (one of two underwater vehicular tunnels that connect New York City to New Jersey), meaning balloons that may be 40 feet tall when inflated must collapse into a 12-foot by 8-foot box for the trek. Even the inflation of these iconic characters has become a widely attended annual event. Spectators congregate on the day before the holiday on 77th St. near Central Park and the American Museum of Natural History. There, a crew that includes many volunteers start the long inflation process at 3 p.m.
Floats have been prominently featured since the parade’s earliest days when they were drawn by horses. By the 1960s, however, the floats started to truly become a spectacle. By then, Macy’s was creating them in their New Jersey studio as well and, like the balloons, they were designed to be collapsible to get through the Holland Tunnel.
Built from a variety of materials ranging from wood to fiberglass, each float begins with an exact-scale sketch. In terms of construction, a base or “floatbed” is assembled first, with the collapsible structures of the float added on top. Floats can range in size, but one measuring 40-foot long and 30-foot high is not unheard of, and it is not uncommon for the parade to feature over 30 of these various floats and float-balloon combos.
Some floats are also balloons — or vice versa. These creations, called “balloonicles,” have the base and the wheels of a float, are often motorized and self-powered, but include an affixed, inflated balloon portion. These Frankenstein floats have featured Kool-Aid Man, the Aflac Duck, Mother Goose characters, and Blue’s Clues, to name a few.
Broadcasting the Parade
The first radio broadcast of the parade started in 1932. In 1946, the parade was broadcast locally in New York City, and the next year NBC aired it nationally. NBC continues to be the official broadcaster of the parade — which enjoys 50 million viewers each year (not including some 3.5 million in-person spectators lining the parade route in Manhattan).
Commentators and hosts on those broadcasts have included bold-faced names from NBC’s news division and the Today show team, plus celebrities like Betty White, Ed McMahon, Phylicia Rashād, and even MTV’s Kurt Loder and Beavis and Butt-Head in 1997.
Each year, top performers appear on floats in the parade. Over the years, viewers have been treated to singers, dancers, and entertainers across genres, from Sesame Street characters and the cast of Howdy Doody to Mary J. Blige, Renee Fleming, the Backstreet Boys, Kool & The Gang, Milton Berle, Wayne Newton, Shirley Temple, and Panic! At The Disco. While the featured artists often couldn’t be more different, most have one thing in common: they lip-sync. The floats — mobile, outdoors, and constructed from any number of various materials — just can’t deliver good enough sound quality for live singing (not to mention the unpredictability of the cold November weather).
New York’s iconic Broadway musicals have also consistently played a role in the parade starting in the 1970s with performances by the casts of Shenandoah and Peter Pan. Over the years, featured shows have included Carousel, Annie, Billy Elliot, Hairspray, Fiddler on the Roof, Kiss Me Kate, and Beauty and the Beast.
The world-famous Radio City Rockettes have been making parade appearances since 1957 as well. Promoting their holiday shows at Radio City Music Hall, the dance troupe high-kicks through one of the parade’s closing performances.
Of course, the event always includes selected high school and college marching bands from all over the country. Each band submits an application and a performance video up to two years in advance; and selected marching bands are notified 18 months before they’re set to appear on the Manhattan streets. The Macy's Great American Marching Band is also featured each year, which features 250 players representing each of the 50 states.
And, what parade would be complete without a roster of clowns? Macy’s actually trains citizen volunteers to participate in the parade each year with the help of Big Apple Circus, so if you’ve always wanted to march in the biggest parade around but your prospects for joining the Rockettes, a Broadway show, or a high school marching band aren’t great, dressing like Bozo might be your next best option.
This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect everyday life and group gatherings of three million of your closest parade-going friends are discouraged, Macy’s has planned a scaled-down but still very festive Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Rather than the usual 2.5-mile trek, the route will be shortened to a single block directly by huge department store. The beloved balloons will be tethered to specialized vehicles rather than the usual 100 or so volunteer handlers per balloon. Most performers will contribute virtually so fewer people have to travel; and booked marching bands have been deferred to 2021. Mask-wearing and social distancing will be required for those who are working the event, but thankfully the rest of us can enjoy the festivities from the comfort of our sofas.