Watching the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is as much a holiday ritual as tuning into the post-turkey football game or digging into that perfect slice of pumpkin pie. Each year more than 50 million viewers tune into the parade from the cozy confines of their homes with another 3 million, hearty, cold, happy parade-goers lining the historic route, which this year begins at 77th St. and Central Park West and ends at 34th St. and 7th (pausing, of course, in the fabled Herald Square). The parade features marching bands from schools across the country, Broadway performers, singers, and dancers, celebrities, ornate floats, clowns, social organizations, and of course, those giant, helium-filled balloon characters. However, the 3-hour extravaganza was not always a parade of epic proportions nor was it always an event that people could enjoy from the comfort of their homes. Here is a little history along with several fun facts about one of America’s most classic, treasured holiday traditions.
Begun in November, 1924, the parade started out as a way for Macy employees to celebrate the holiday season. Parades and pageants were popular events in American culture, creating an opportunity to celebrate civic pride, local history, or pay tribute to special occasions. The first Macy’s parade featured employees dressed in colorful outfits, along with professional entertainers, and small floats following a route that started in Harlem at 145th St. and ended at Macy’s flagship store on 34th St. Live animals on loan from the Bronx Zoo featured prominently in the parade, much to the delight of the children who lined the streets along the way. The star of the parade and the holiday season, Santa Clause, made an appearance at the parade’s end. In the first year he stood on the balcony over the entrance of Macy’s and was introduced to the public as the King of the Kiddies. From this first event, the Macy’s Parade has continued to grow in scope, size, and sophistication, adding in features and elements that reflect popular tastes and making some strategic changes along the way.
Animals in the Air: The enormous helium balloons that became the parade’s signature feature made their debut in 1927. The popular cartoon character, Felix the Cat, earns the honor of becoming the first balloon. At the parade’s culmination, the balloons were released in the air where they unexpectedly burst over the Manhattan skyline. The following year, manufacturers installed safety valves in order to keep the balloons aloft for days; they also included the name and address of the Macy’s store and encouraged anyone who found a deflated balloon to return it for a reward! In 1934 Macy’s collaborated with the Walt Disney Corporation to bring the Mickey balloon to life, but the Peanuts’ Snoopy remains the most popular balloon animal with six versions featured in the parade over the years. 2010 will feature new-comer balloons Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Kung-fu Panda
A National Event: In the first decade of the parade’s inception, only people who attended the parade in New York got to experience the event. The first televised broadcast of the parade was a localized showing in 1946. The following year the parade went national, televised to homes around the country.
Macy’s Goes to War: World War II halted the parade briefly from 1942-1944. The interruption in the festivities was less due to national sentiments of anxiety over the war effort than to rationing. Rubber and helium were in short supply, prompting parade officials to not only temporarily suspend the parade but to deflate the balloons, which resulted in over 650 pounds of rubber going to the American military to aide the war effort.
Falloons and Floats: The first flotilla of the ornate, detailed floats carting singing and moving stars down the parade route were created in 1969. Designer Manfred Bass worked on the floats from their inception in 1969 to his retirement in 2000. The floats are still built in what used to be a Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken, New Jersey and then transported to the parade’s staging area. In the early 1970s, designers coined the term “falloon” to denote a large, inflated balloon anchored to a float.
Which new floats and falloons will debut this year? Which celebrities, pop stars, and musical performers will join the clowns and characters that make their way through Herald Square? Tune in this Thanksgiving Day and find out!
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