It began modestly in 1924 as a retail promotion. More than ninety years later, it is firmly established as a part of the holiday season. It is as indispensable as turkey.
Every Thanksgiving Day morning an estimated 44 million viewers turn on their television sets to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The figure does not include the three million or so New Yorkers that line the parade route in downtown Manhattan. The extravaganza has grown over the years, until it now includes actors from Broadway plays and pop stars.
The First Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924
Macy’s is a famous department store whose “flagship” establishment is on 34th Street in New York City. According to official histories many Macy employees were first-generation immigrants who wanted to celebrate their American heritage. That may be so, but it is also clear that Macy’s wanted to publicize itself for the upcoming holiday season. In any event, the parade was first held on Thanksgiving Day, 1924. Ironically, this first outing was called “Macy’s Christmas Day Parade.” There were floats and bands, but the first parade featured live animals, some of them from Central Park Zoo.
Alas, the animals proved a mixed blessing and were replaced by balloons in 1927. In the 1924 parade, a beautiful white horse was set to be featured in the Ben Hur float, but disappeared at the last moment. The float was to advertise Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s epic Ben Hur, starring Ramon Navarro. MGM studio boss Louis B Mayer was probably not pleased!
In those early years many exotic beasts appeared, including camels and elephants. In 1925 and 1926, lions, and tigers and bears were added. But they scared the kids, and were withdrawn.
The Macy Thanksgiving Day Giant Balloons
It was in 1927 that the giant helium balloons were first introduced, now a parade mainstay. The first balloons were made by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. The first balloons included Felix the Cat—a popular cartoon at the time—and The Dragon.
In 1928 Macy’s allowed the helium-filled balloons to be released into the sky after the parade. The next year, Macy’s offered prizes for those who could “catch” and return an “escaped” balloon. In 1931, daring aviator Clarence Chamberlain snagged a pig balloon in mid-air while flying above New York. He landed with his prize and collected $25. (Remember, this was the Depression!) The practice of releasing balloons was discontinued in 1933.
The parade was cancelled in 1942, 1943, and 1944 because of World War II. Macy’s patriotically donated the balloons for scrap in 1942, since at the time they were made of rubber. Long after the war, in 1958, there was a brief helium shortage. To solve the problem Macy’s filled the balloons with common air and placed them on trucks by cranes.
Accidents have been thankfully rare in the Parade’s eighty-plus year history. High winds and occasionally rain have proved risky. In 2005, to cite one incident, a M & M Candies balloon caught on a streetlight in Times Square. Two sisters were stuck by debris and sustained minor injuries.
Macy’s Thanksgiving day Parade Innovations
The parade has tried to keep up with the times, introducing new balloons like SpongeBob SquarePants. It has also been innovative, with things like the Balloonicle, a combination cold air balloon and a self-propelled vehicle.
The Thanksgiving Day Parade in Movies and Television
The NBC network began telecasting the parade nationwide in 1948. In the last sixty years, many NBC personalities have hosted the show. Sometimes, , they were stars from popular TV shows, like actor Lorne Greene from the western Bonanza. But there have also been news personalities like Al Roker.
But mention has to be made of Miracle on 34th Street, the quintessential Thanksgiving Day Parade movie. Starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, a young Natalie Wood, it was produced by 20th Century-Fox and released in 1947. According to Maureen O ‘Hara’s autobiography Tis Herself, the production was somewhat rushed because they had a deadline—the production had to be on time to film the 1946 Thanksgiving Day Parade on location. Some of the interiors were shot at the New York Macy’s store, and Edmund Gwinn—the actor playing Kris Kringle/SantaClaus—actually rode in the parade.
Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck had doubts about the movie and ordered a quick release—in the summer of 1946! But the film was a hit, and has remained a beloved classic even in the 21st century. Gwinn received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade Routes
The parade begins at Central park West and ends outside the Macy’s flagship store on Herald Square. In 2009, the City of New York changed the route, eliminating the portion that goes through Times Square. This was done, so it was said, to provide more space for the parade and more viewing space for people.
- Maureen O’Hara, ‘Tis Herself: A Memoir (Simon and Schuster, 2004)