Turkey Day Throwback: The Exquisite Early Years Of The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade has become a staple of American culture. For over 80 years the parade has drawn in crowds from all over the world as giant floats, balloons, marching bands, famous singers and A-list celebrities march down the streets of New York City. The parade is rich in history and a major part of many Americans Thanksgiving Day traditions. What’s some turkey and football without a parade first? Are you ready for the holiday season yet? Take a trip down memory lane with us as we present some of the best throwback moments and the little-known history of what is arguably America’s most famous parade.
1. The Rocking Rockettes
The Radio City Rockettes are indisputably one of the most integral part of the Macy’s Day Parade. Known for their high kicks and glitzy outfits, the always-anticipated parade favorites traditionally perform near the end of the parade. The Rockettes are a precision dance company founded in 1925 in St Louis, Missouri and since the year 1932, they have performed at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall.
Up until the year 2015, The Rockettes had a touring dance troupe. In this picture, the troupe can be seen marching in the holiday parade all the way back in the year 1966. There’s nothing quite like their precision kicks in the air to get everyone in the holiday spirit.
2. The World’s Largest Department Store
Some might think that it’s a bit odd that a department store holds a parade, but not when it’s the biggest department store in the world! Macy’s New York flagship store began to tout itself as the world’s biggest department store in 1924, the same year its inaugural namesake parade was held.
Back in 1924, Macy’s flagship department store stood on one million square feet of retail space and the store is only slightly larger today. Macy’s was surpassed as the world’s largest department store in 2009 by the South Korean Shinsegae Cetumcity with a total floor area of three million square feet.
3. The One Parade Halt In History
This photo was taken at the Macy’s Day Parade during the early 1940s. The parade featured a float of the iconic national character Uncle Sam in an attempt to persuade America’s youth to enlist into the military. World War II was already raging in Europe and the parade itself was about to go on hiatus.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was suspended from 1942-1944 due to the catastrophic war. This was due, in part, to the need to conserve helium and rubber for the war effort. The parade resumed in November of 1945 after the war’s end. This period was the only time that the parade was suspended since its inception in 1924.
4. Size Matters For Macy’s Floats
The first float that participated in the Macy’s Day Parade was not as big and intricate as they are today. The floats only started getting bigger and more elaborate in 1969 when Manfred Bass started creating the decorative platforms. One of the biggest changes that he made was making sure that the floats could flatten down.
This helped make the floats bigger since they had to travel through the 12-foot-tall Holland Tunnel, the floats were reassembled in the early morning hours after making their trip through the passageway between New York City and New Jersey. Today, the floats used in the parade travel through the Lincoln Tunnel, which is 13 feet tall. All of the floats are capable of collapsing to no more than 12-and-a-half feet.
5. Strict Standards For High-Kickers
Inspired by Great Britain’s The Tiller Girls, The Rockettes have kicked their way into the pop culture canon as a glamorous and patriotic staple of Thanksgiving festivities. The founding choreographer, Russell Markert, wanted the group to achieve absolute precision and uniformity among all of the dancers. Apart from just dancing in unison, he also wanted the dancers to have similar height.
The original height requirements for the group were in between 5-foot-2-inches to 5-foot-6 ½-inches. That required height range was later raised to 5-foot-6-inches to 5-foot-10 ½-inches. The dancers also have very strict technique requirements and needed to be proficient in multiple forms of dance including tap, modern, jazz and ballet.
6. Macy’s Parade Mishaps
Parading giant balloons through downtown New York City doesn’t always go down exactly as planned. Take for example this throwback photo of a Bullwinkle the Moose float being taken away by strong winds while the team of balloon handlers holding onto it attempt to wrangle it back into position.
Throughout the history of the Macy’s Day Parade there have been a number of mishaps with the giant balloons, including several injuries. In 1993, a Sonic the Hedgehog balloon crashed into a lamppost, injuring a child and a police officer. After each incident, stricter safety protocols have been put in place by parade officiators.
7. Party Animals On The Streets Of New York
Prior to the use of balloon animals and characters, real animals were used in the Macy’s parade. Along with horses that pulled the floats, animals were loaned to the parade from the Central Park Zoo and included some very large species, such as elephants, lions, tigers, and bears. The trend however didn’t last very long, however, and the live animals were replaced with balloons in 1927.
The live animals were less than enthusiastic about participating in a six-mile long parade down the center of New York City. Some people were also frightened by some of the animals. Which is understandable considering some of the animals were frightened by the parade on-lookers. The last thing anyone wanted was an elephant stampede through the middle of the city.
8. Inflatable Fears
In 1927, just three years after the first Macy’s Day Parade balloon animals replaced the live animals that were borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. Parade-goers waved goodbye to the likes of real camels, elephants and monkeys. But some of the balloons used in their stead were slightly terrifying (at least as far as today’s standards go).
This balloon dragon (at least we think it’s supposed to be a dragon) was voted one of the Macy’s Day Parade’s most terrifying balloons by E! Online. Apart from just seeing the balloons in the parade, these days you can actually watch the balloons as they are inflated at a staging area on 77th Street and Central Park West.
9. Macy’s Wasn’t The First
No, this isn’t an early picture of the Macy’s Day Parade, this is actually a picture of its predecessor parade. Gimbles was an American department store corporation in operation from 1887 to 1987. The company is credited for creating the very first Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Gimbles held its very first Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1920 at the location of one of their stores in Philadelphia, predating the first Macy’s Day Parade in 1924. Unfortunately, Gimbles went out of business in 1986, but the parade still goes on today under the name the 6abc Philadelphia Thanksgiving Day Parade. Today the parade is run by a local ABC station and is sponsored in part by Dunkin’ Donuts.
10. Parade Comic Book Culture
Among some of the most favorite parade balloons ever are the iconic characters from comic books, movies and television. The characters have become a staple of the Macy’s parade and one of the most beloved characters is the Superman balloon.
Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. His first appearance in a comic book was Action Comics #1, published on April 18, 1938. The magazine’s success was due in large to Superman, according to readers. It didn’t take long for the character to become a wildly popular cultural icon. Superman is by far the most lucrative superhero franchise to date and various versions of the character have been featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade over the years.
11. The Ragamuffin Connection
Before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the only parade on Thanksgiving marked an occasion rarely heard of today. It was established to celebrate something that used to be called Ragamuffin Day. On Ragamuffin Day (which took place on Thanksgiving Day) children would dress up Halloween-style as beggars and go door to door pleading for money, candy or gifts.
Children would dress up in oversized and tattered clothing, to mimic the homeless populations on the streets of New York City. The tradition began around 1870 and started going out of style by 1937. The last recorded Thanksgiving Day Ragamuffin Parade was held in 1956, however, it was greatly overshadowed by the Macy’s Day Parade which had already become very popular.
12. The Truth About The Balloons
Many people are likely unaware that since 2013 two different varieties of balloons have been used in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The first variety is known as novelty balloons, these are balloons that are smaller and handled by anywhere between one to 30 people. The smallest balloons of this category are balloons shaped like human heads and can even fit on a human head.
The second variety of balloons are the most recognizable balloons, the huge ones. These are known as the full-sized balloon class. Most of these larger balloons are licensed characters from pop-culture. Each of these larger full-sized balloons is handled by 90 people.
13. The Santa Claus Cameo
If you don’t watch all of the parade you might just miss out on seeing Santa Claus every year. Santa Claus always appears towards the very end of the parade, just like the Rockettes. Santa’s appearance actually marks the beginning of the Christmas season.
Apart from a real-life Santa Claus, there is also a Santa Claus balloon that was introduced to the parade in 1939. During the very first Macy’s Christmas Parade, Santa was crowned “King of the Kiddies” in front of an audience of around 250,000 people. The parade was so successful that Macy’s quickly announced that it would be making the parade an annual event.
14. Wasn’t Supposed To Be About Thanksgiving
Even though the Macy’s parade is held on Thanksgiving morning, it was never intended to be about Thanksgiving at all. The parade was actually supposed to be all about the next holiday in the season, Christmas. Macy’s wanted to throw the parade to kick off the beginning of the holiday shopping season.
As you can see from the signs, it states “Macy’s Christmas Parade,” not Thanksgiving. That’s one fact that might surprise a lot of people. It was only later that the parade evolved into the Thanksgiving Day Parade. At this point, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is tied alongside the America’s Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit as the second-oldest parade marking the holiday.
15. A Massive Security Undertaking
For one of New York City’s biggest events of the year, there is loads of security covering the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Thousands of police officers patrol the streets of the Big Apple every Thanksgiving Day as people pour out onto the street to watch the massive parade.
“We have people — observation teams — there will be sniper teams in and around. We will have undercover assets in a lot of different buildings so there’s going to be a lot you can see out there, and a lot you won’t see out there that day covering every aspect,” the NYPD Chief of Patrol stated.
16. Multiple Reroutes
Ever since the parade’s inception, it has taken place in Manhattan. Originally when the parade first started, it set out from 145th Street in Harlem and ended at Herald Square. Then in the 1930s, the balloons were inflated near 110 Street and Amsterdam Avenue and the parade ended at the Macy’s department store.
In 2009, the route was changed yet again in order to eliminate Broadway from the parade’s route. This was done to allow spectators to have more space viewing the parade. Yet again in 2012, another route was implemented, this time eliminating Times Square from the parade route.
17. An Audience Of Millions
For the very first Macy’s Christmas Day Parade in 1924 around 250,000 people came to watch the parade. Of course, that was prior to the invention of the television in 1927, but we’re sure that many more people would have been watching from home if they were able to.
Estimates show that around 3.5 million people attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade every year nowadays, with the number only growing. That, however, doesn’t including the people tuning in from home. Around 50 million people tune in to watch the parade live on TV before stocking up on turkey and pumpkin pie.
18. Balloons: A Year In The Making
Today, the balloons used in the parade are created in a former Tootsie Roll factory in Hoboken, New Jersey. Each balloon starts off as just a sketch with calculations to make sure that it will fly properly. All of the balloons have multiple chambers and include an inflation device and a high-pressure valve.
After the balloon is created it goes through rigorous testing and cosmetic adjustments. The entire process can take up to a year. The officiators of the parade recommend not viewing the parade from Columbus Circle, as the balloon teams always race through the area due to its higher winds.
19. Calls To Cancel The Parade
Some people weren’t happy that the first parade was going to take place at all. They even tried to make sure that it got canceled and that Macy’s had its parade permit taken away. This was all due to the parade taking place right before Christmas and during church services.
Of course, the parade was not canceled in the end. But it did move from Christmas to Thanksgiving, in an attempt to inspire people to start their holiday shopping early. This also pleased the groups who were against the parade in the first place and eventually became much more profitable for Macy’s in the end.
20. Floating Feats Of Physics
In the early days of the parade, the balloons were made from rubber and filled with air. As time went by, the balloons were upgraded to be filled with helium and constructed out of polyurethane. These days it’s much easier to keep the balloons afloat.
It takes a massive number of volunteers, numbering around some 2,000 to 3,000 people, to wrangle all of the balloons during the parade. The volunteers must have a body weight of at least 120 pounds and be in good physical health. Only the team leaders for the balloons are required to go through training. In addition, each balloon is accompanied by at least one police escort.
21. One For the ‘Balloonatics’
The Macy’s balloons take many different shapes and sizes. They can also come in different angles, either vertically, horizontally or somewhere in between. This giant balloon of Bugs Bunny was created to float horizontally. It all depends on the character itself and what’s correct aerodynamically.
After artists finish sketching the balloon and engineers finish their calculations, a life-sized, exact-scale replica is made out of clay. They also make an exact-sized painted model. Both replicas are made before the fabric of the model is even cut out to make the pattern. But if you’re a “balloonatic” you probably already know all of this.
22. No Clowning Around
Back in the olden days, it seems that people weren’t particularly afraid of clowns. As you see here a group of clowns is hanging out under an anvil at the parade. Macy’s flagship store in New York City covers an entire city block, from Broadway all the way to Seventh Avenue on 34th Street.
The company, R. H. Macy & Co. went public in 1922 and began to gobble up competitors and open additional regional branches. The first parade, held just before Christmas, was used to showcase the stores new status as the “World’s Largest Store.” However, that is no longer the case.
23. A Cultural Celeb Fest
The Macy’s Day Parade has grown so large that it attracts many celebrities including vocal and dance performances. This is a picture from the 1979 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade showing singer Diana Ross atop the Big Apple float sponsored by the Daily News. Over the years, the parade has attracted some of the biggest and most popular stars and celebrity performers from around the globe.
Diana Ross, born in 1944, started her singing career at the young age of 15 called the Primettes, which would eventually become the Supremes of which Ross became the lead vocalist and stunned the world with her amazing vocals. In 1970, Ross broke off from the group to pursue her solo career. Other A-list names who have appeared at the famed parade over the years include the likes of Gene Simons, Mariah Carey, Whoopi Goldberg and Ariana Grande.
24. The First Balloon
In 1927, Felix the Cat became the first giant balloon to ever take part in the Macy’s Day Parade. In 1928, Felix was inflated with helium, and without a plan to deflate this massive balloon, NYC parade organizers simply let Felix fly off into the sky. Unfortunately, he popped soon thereafter.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade continued to let the balloons fly off in subsequent years, only these balloons would have a return address written on them, and whoever found the balloons could return them for a prize of $100 from Macy’s. However, the results of this experiment weren’t exactly successful.
25. The 2018 Lineup
So, did this article get you in the mood to watch the parade this year? We certainly hope so. Here is a list of the balloons that are due to appear in the spectacle this year: Pillsbury Doughboy, Pikachu, Red Mighty Morphin Power Ranger, Ronald McDonald, Charlie Brown, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Flying Fish, the Universal Nutcracker, Sinclair’s Dino, Paw Patrol’s Chase, The Grinch, Super Wings’ Jett, Olaf from Frozen, Spongebob Squarepants, Toothless of How to Train Your Dragon, and Trolls.
But what about the new balloons? We have those too. The new balloons slated to fly high in the streets this year are: Goku from the Dragon Ball anime series, elves Fleck, Bjorn and Jojo from Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, Macy’s Sunny the Snowpal and Macy’s Americana Spheres.
Happy Thanksgiving and go don’t miss that parade! If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to SHARE with your friends!
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