A Thanksgiving Tradition
Before the bird goes into the oven, some 50 million people will feast their eyes on the 94th annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this turkey day. But relatively few viewers of the three-hour shindig know the real story about the historic holiday parade. Here are some festive facts—and well-kept secrets—about one of the biggest entertainment events of the year that you won’t uncover by tuning in on TV or attending in person.
While viewers might characterize the parade as an event of holiday fun and frivolity, the real reason for its debut in 1924 was to celebrate the expansion of Macy’s flagship store into what the company then claimed was “The World’s Largest Store.” The Manhattan Herald Square-based store occupied one million square feet and spanned a full block along 34th Street from Broadway to Seventh Avenue.
Catching the parade may be a time-honored Thanksgiving Day ritual, but did you know that the parade first launched as the Macy’s Christmas Parade? The original mirth-filled march through Manhattan featured live animals and floats that coordinated with the nursery rhyme theme of Macy’s Christmas window display, such as Little Red Riding Hood, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, and Little Miss Muffet.
Maneuvering Down Mane Street
Extending six miles and 111 blocks, the original parade route was so long that the floats had to be hitched to horses and led down the streets on hoof. The route has since been condensed to a manageable two-and-a-half miles, and the floats are towed by motorists.
Two years following its launch, the parade drew ire from the Allied Patriotic Societies, who called for its cancellation on the grounds that it would prevent churchgoers from participating in Thanksgiving Day worship. Macy’s associate Percy Strauss reasoned that there would be ample time to attend church after the parade, and the parade was never forced to close.
Since 1969, the artistic floats and balloons that have appeared in the parade have been designed by a talented group of makers called “The Balloonatics” at the Macy’s Parade Studio in New Jersey.
Because it wouldn’t be feasible to fly the massive parade floats across the Hudson River to Manhattan from Macy’s Parade Studio, segments of each finished float are packed into a 12-by-8-foot box and shipped through the Lincoln Tunnel to the parade staging site, where they can be reassembled.
flickr.com via wyliepoon
Wingman In Waiting
Not since 1971 has wind downed a balloon during the parade. However, from time to time gusting winds have led balloons to strike lampposts and injure passersby. This is why every balloon has a crew of handlers walking beneath it and a pilot who walks ahead of it. The pilot monitors the wind and can issue orders to the handlers to control the balloon—or even deflate it—should it pose a risk to parade-goers.
Marching to the Rear
Fancy becoming a balloon pilot yourself? Macy’s offers pilot training three times a year, but only the agile need apply. You must be able to walk the length of the parade backwards without getting lost in order to snag one of these coveted positions.
First Came Felix
Inspired by a balloon-filled float dubbed “The Balloonatics,” which appeared in the parade during the early years, elaborate balloons replaced live animals in 1927. Felix the Cat is believed to be the first balloon based on a cartoon character to be flown above the city streets.
flickr.com via slgckgc
The Might of Mickey
How hard could it be to catch a mouse? More so than you might think. It took a team of 25 handlers to steer the 40-by-23-foot balloon of Mickey Mouse, who made his first appearance at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1934.
Gasping for Gas
Macy's balloons stay afloat thanks to 12,000 cubic feet of helium that are pumped into each one on the eve of the parade. But in 1958, a helium shortage forced the parade planners to think outside of the box. They opted to pump the balloons with regular air and then suspended them from construction cranes to keep them upright.
Making Money Out of Thin Air
Between 1928 and 1932, Macy’s strayed from its usual post-parade tradition of deflating the balloons and instead unleashed five of them into the sky, offering $25 to anyone who caught and returned them. The first to land in 1928 was a tiger, on a roof in Long Island, where its presence instigated a ferocious tug-of-war by rivals vying for the cash prize.
Curiosity Killed the Cat
Not all cats have nine lives. When student pilot Annette Gipson deliberately rammed her plane into a 60-foot tomcat balloon released after the 1932 parade (rumor has it to claim the cash prize), the plane’s left wing got caught in the balloon fabric and sent the plane plummeting in a dangerous descent. Although her instructor gained control of the aircraft and landed it safely, the 60-foot, yellow-striped balloon was reduced to tatters—convincing Macy’s to cancel its balloon contest for good.
Image via Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The show must go on, even if one balloon has a minor malfunction along the parade route. For this reason, the balloons are divided into several individual segments so the show can go on, even if one segment tears or deflates.
The balloons are typically deflated behind the Macy’s store on 7th Avenue through a process that involves unzipping them to let out the helium, lying on top of the balloon, and then rolling up the balloon to squeeze out any remaining air. A skilled hand can deflate a balloon in 15 minutes or less.
flickr.com via katie_cat
Braced for Battle
The Show Must Go On
This year the parade has been reimagined to ensure that the time-honored tradition can still take place amidst the pandemic. While the balloons, floats, and performances will still be incorporated, the 2.5-mile route has been eliminated to avoid crowds of spectators. The only way to enjoy the sights and sounds will be from watching on your TV. Instead of the 80 to 100 handlers and volunteers typically involved, specialty vehicles will carry the balloons, and certain performances have been pre-recorded. Macy's still promises a fun spectacle with 12 giant helium balloons and 19 floats.
Lights of Broadway
It's customary for casts from Broadway's most popular shows to sing a song or two in between the floats and balloons in front of Macy's flagship store in Herald Square. But this show-stopping tradition didn't start until the 1970s.
Soaked as a Sailor
More than any other balloon, it was Popeye the spinach-eating sailor who made the biggest splash in the 1957 parade. Heavy rains that accumulated in the brim of his hat eventually overflowed and drenched the spectators below. As Popeye himself would say, “Well blow me down!”
The parade first hit the silver screen when it made an appearance in “Miracle on 34th Street.” Cameras were placed both along the parade route and on the third floor of a nearby apartment to capture shots of the electric atmosphere and raucous revelers.
Do You Hear That?
The balloons at the Macy's Parade in 1933 had sound effects! The dachshund barked, the pig oinked, and the baby balloon even cried. Nowadays, you probably wouldn't be able to hear these special effects over the marching bands, Broadway performances, and millions of spectators.
The Rockettes are an iconic part of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but they didn't make their debut in the lineup until 1958.
flickr.com via Ralph Daily
The Night Before
Thanksgiving Day isn't the only chance to see the balloons in person. If you're near New York City but don't want to deal with the massive crowds the day of the parade, you can opt to see the balloons get inflated the night before at Inflation Celebration. You can shuffle through and see the massive props up close.
Gobs of Glitter
It’s hard not to take a shine to the parade floats, given that 300 pounds of glitter is used on them. In addition, 240 gallons of paint, 200 pounds of confetti, and more than a ½ mile of hand sewn skirt and fringe wrap adorns the floats.
You'll never watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade the same way again!
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